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When There Are No Human Answers to Our Measures of Pain

June 28, 2018


A friend of mine, one of the most searingly honest writers I know, is a woman who has suffered much throughout her life. She was abandoned as a child, raped as a child, used and abused in her relationships. Faith came later, and the practice of Catholicism has been a simultaneous bane and a balm to her life, as it often can be. 

A little over a year ago, she was plunged into the atomic grief that follows when one’s own child has died by suicide. She has been existing, since then, within the sort of daily emotional disarray that can only be experienced when one is living out the psalter one psalm—sometimes one line—at a time. 

My friend has been processing her grief through prayer, writing, working with a therapist, and spending too much time on social media. 

She has recently written a post on her blog that one hopes will be a kind of cathartic blast for her. In it she has taken all of her love, all of her hate, all of her pain, her whole sense of isolation (politically, racially, socially, and even within the life of faith), and said to hell with it all. In her piece, which contains a few profanities, she declares: 

“I am not going to Mass anymore and I really don’t know if I ever will go again. I understand that believing in God does not relieve suffering in this life, I know this rationally and I understand the theology of it all but it still makes no sense on the ground. I don’t understand why someone eating something from a tree means that it is ok that my son hangs himself in my garage. What kind of God thinks that is a good plan? Or the plan that all of this heartbreak I am in is somehow going to bring some good in the world? F*** that, I want my son back. He didn’t deserve to die alone in the garage thinking that his life didn’t matter. And the saddest and most depressing part is that he was kind of right. All kinds of people who wailed and sobbed at his funeral are now happily moving on with their lives. It is easy for them to ignore or forget that he even existed. Because people suck. And it makes me mad. It’s a horrible cycle and I do not have a clue on how to break it.

These are hard words to read from a woman going through a particularly hard time. What does one say to this, what answer does one give when none of us can fully understand the mysteries of suffering, justice, and mercy?

We want to say, “Go to Mary, the mother who suffered the unjust, inexplicable, and torturous death of her beloved son; she will understand and bring some consolation to you.” 

But Mary, whose heart was pierced by a sword, saw her son’s life remembered, and his death re-presented, by people who knew him. This mother is watching the world move on from her son, from his pain, and her own pierced heart.

We want to say, “Look at Jesus on the crucifix, and realize that he experienced everything you are feeling or have ever felt: isolation, abandonment, grief, betrayal, physical torture, injustice.” 

This woman might reply, “But even Jesus had the good things I did not, like stability in childhood, a present father-figure, parents who did not leave him vulnerable to predators. I can identify with Jesus, and Mary to a point. But how can they identify with me?”

Nothing is equal in life, and even the savior who incarnated and dwelt among us—laughed with us, ate with us, cried with us and suffered with and for us—can feel remote when you are tired of standing completely outside of everyone else’s world experience, because it is a place of such utter loneliness and you have reached the limit of what you believe you can endure.   

Faith says, “There can be no limits,” but our human understanding cannot always agree. 

In Rumer Godden’s novel In This House of Brede, one nun tells another that she wants no leadership expectations placed upon her. A late vocation, she declares that she has already worn the mantle of responsibility, has tasted the burdens and aching seclusion that come with it, and she’s had enough of that. “I’ve done my stint,” she tells the older nun. 

“Stint,” asked Dame Perpetua. “That sounds like a measure.”

“It is a measure,” said Philippa, “a fair share. Enough.”

“I don’t think you’ll find,” said Dame Perpetua, “that God has measures.”

God has no measures, and that means we may plunge our pain headlong into his infinite mercies and at some point (unfortunately not at a time of our own choosing), we will emerge from our crucible and come through to the other side, more able to accept all that mystifies, discourages, and leaves us broken-hearted today. 

I want to tell my friend that, because I know it’s true. 

I want to reassure her that she can rely on Christ Jesus and on Mary, because I know she really can. 

I want to tell her that in the economy of salvation, all things, even the most painful and unimaginably cruel things, eventually are worked toward God’s good purposes, because I believe it with my whole heart. 

I want to say these things as a friend who also suffered sexual abuse in childhood, as a friend who has also known familial violence, tumult, and instability, and so has—in perhaps the tiniest of measures—at least a gleaning of what it is she is feeling. 

But I cannot say any of these things to her right now. 

To everything there is a season, we read in Ecclesiastes, and a time to every purpose under heaven.

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;

A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;

A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing

Right now, for my friend, it is time to mourn, and to break down, and to cast some stones. And none of us can say for how long this period must last.

And for me, it is time to mourn with her, to gather stones with her, some meant for casting, others for building. And perhaps it is a time to refrain from embracing her too closely—either with advice, or even with human arms, if they cannot be comfortable for her—until she is good and ready to receive an embrace without feeling additionally burdened with my need to try to fix what cannot be fixed, only accepted in faithful surrender or forever battled against. 

Perhaps it is simply time for my friend to be where she is, in a place of utter desolation, and for me to just as simply keep her company, there—quietly, prayerfully in the dim shadows, until she invites me nearer—a willing witness to her agonies.

Thus do we live out our times and measures together, cast helplessly upon the tender mercies of a God both knowable and intimate, yet forever a mystery.