In the song “Dear God 2.0” by The Roots, Monsters of Folk’s Jim James poses a sincere question of an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving God:
Dear God, I’m trying hard to reach you
Dear God, I see your face in all I do
Sometimes it’s so hard to believe you
But God, I know you have your reasons
Well I’ve been thinking about
And I’ve been breaking it down
Without an answer
I know I’m thinking out loud
But if your love’s still around
Why do we suffer? Why do we suffer?
As Paul Murray, OP notes in his new book Scars: Essays, Poems, and Meditations on Affliction, the temptation for many believers is to respond to this question in a very cold, rationalistic way. Like Job’s friends in the classic Old Testament text, we rush to suffering friends “with a great plethora of words and with a whole farrago of noisy and infallible suggestions, insights, admonitions, and explanations.” But Job’s riposte to his would-be comforters is just as relevant today as it was then:
“I too could talk like you were your soul in the plight of mine. I too could overwhelm you with sermons, I could shake my head over you, and speak words of encouragement until my lips grew tired. But, while I am speaking, my suffering remains.” (16:4-6)
While there may be satisfactory answers to what philosophers have called “the problem of evil” in the abstract, living in and sharing the reality of suffering is a different type of knowledge. We should heed, Murray suggests, the approach of Job’s “fourth friend,” Elihu, who seeks to “silence ‘the rationalistic and moralistic chatter’ of the three other so-called friends, Job’s would-be comforters.” While Elihu “emphasizes that ‘the ways of God are beyond wordy explanations,’” he also doesn’t shrug silently and helplessly; rather, like a poet, he strives to name the unnameable, fathom the unfathomable – not through facile, distant syllogisms, but through the immediacy of a shared vision.
Elihu sets off Murray’s wonderful collection of meditations on poetry, faith, and the “crucible of suffering.” He doesn’t set out to explain God’s reasons to believers, or to convince atheists that suffering doesn’t disprove God’s existence – this is far from a formal apologia. “What the poets offer us,” Murray writes, “may well be remarkable, but it is not a vademecum of fixed, rational explanations. It is not a book of answers.”
Rather, he zig-zags through the landscape of the afflicted faithful, trying to learn not so much why they suffer, but what suffering was like for them, and how their faith not only survived, but was strengthened by their experiences. Stories, letters, and poems of contemporary martyrs, death row inmates, a personal friend, and even Murray himself give a concrete name and face to affliction that no amount of speculative precision could give.
What does he discover? The first theme that seems to emerge is that affliction can be healed through the experience of music, poetry, and other forms of art. Murray recounts a recorded story about one of Beethoven’s friends who tragically outlived all of her small children, one by one. Beethoven invited her to come to his home, sat her at the piano, and said: “We will now converse in music.” After playing for an hour, the woman recalled: “He said everything to me, and also finally gave me consolation.”
Music, then, can speak about great pain where words fail. “A gifted psychologist, or even a journalist,” Murray proposes, “can in some measure name the experience. But a work of art, when it takes the form of music or of painting or of poetry, does something else as well, something different, something more…the word that points to the distinctive nature of art, and to the wondrous power it has over us, is of course the word ‘beauty.’”
The recent adaptation of Les Misérables – in particular, Anne Hathway’s heartrending, Oscar-winning version of “I Dreamed a Dream” – is a great example of what Murray is describing. Surely a candidate for the saddest song ever written, “I Dreamed a Dream” is also achingly beautiful – and Tom Hooper’s steady, single shot of Hathaway’s live performance brings an element of raw, honest, in-your-face pain to the song. It not only names, but sings and even heals the experience of affliction in a way no words ever could.
Murray’s second theme is that affliction is incarnational – in other words, it has as much to do with the body as it has to do with the soul. A “regrettable dualism between soul and body,” Murray explains, undermines the spiritual meaning of both bodily health and bodily affliction. To illustrate this point, Murray quotes Jesuit missionary Walter Ciszek who survived months of torture and imprisonment under the Communist regime in Russia. Ciszek reflects:
“It is customary to speak of the ‘indomitable human spirit’ as that which carries man through crises like this, but the body surely merits more attention than it usually gets…What came to me in the prison camps was a tremendous respect and love for the poor old body. It was the body that bore the brunt of all suffering, though the soul might well experience anguish…It is in the body that we exist and work out our salvation. It is in the body that we see and take delight in the beauties of God’s created universe, and it is in the body that we ourselves bear the marks of Christ’s passion.”
This brings us to Murray’s last great theme: that affliction acquires its fullest meaning in the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ, a reality that should be read not so much as a hermetically sealed episode in the past, but a universal reality unfolding through all of time, in every person’s life. To illustrate this, Murray meditates on the seven last statements of Christ from the cross. “The Cross,” Murray writes, “even when it is contemplated with Christian faith, never offers a bland or easy answer to the problem of suffering. Nevertheless, the last few utterances of Christ, as he hung on the Cross, can speak to people burdened with affliction like no words ever spoken on earth.” The scars of God illuminate our own scars.
In fact, a theme “taken up again and again in Irish prose and poetry” – as in twentieth-century poet Joseph Mary Plunkett’s “I See His Blood upon the Rose” – is that Christ’s death illuminates the “groaning” of all of the natural world around us:
All pathways by his feet are worn,
His strong heart stirs the ever-beating sea,
His crown of thorns is twined with every thorn,
His Cross is every tree.
Another recent film about affliction comes to mind here: The Tree of Life. The story – which, not coincidentally, opens with a quote from the Book of Job – mingles the everyday sufferings of a family in Texas with the startling beauty of the world – and even the entire universe. When a grieving mother whispers to God, “Where were you?” we are brought onto a mind-blowing, Kubrickian journey back in time, and the song that plays, “Lacrimosa,” reads both the sadness of death and the hope of resurrection into every nook and cranny of the cosmos:
Today, the “cult of health” jettisons the weak and quarantines the infirmed – it short, it tends to look the other way. Meanwhile, many religious believers confront affliction openly but presume to elucidate the reason for every pang and bruise – in short, they tend to explain it away. Both ways of approaching affliction lose something central: the unavoidable, mysterious, shared experience of affliction in both body and soul.
It’s here that Murray’s book dares to enter – and it’s here that he confesses, with Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “Only a suffering God can help us now.”