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Fr Billy Swan

For the past few Sundays, the Gospel readings at Mass have come from the early chapters of Mark. Having been baptised and returned from his desert experience, what has struck me about the early events of Jesus’ ministry is how he heads directly to encounter people who suffer. These include the sick, the infirm and those lacking peace because of demons. In these episodes, Mark portrays Jesus as a courageous soldier who purposely goes to those in pain as if they were the ones he had come to save and heal. They were his priority and he wastes no time in coming to meet them and heal them.

Three readings at Mass this weekend contain the theme of suffering. The first reading from the Book of Job records his struggle as he experiences life as “pressed service” and “hired drudgery”. He struggles with the shortness of his life and the apparent meaninglessness of it all. The Psalm contains those wonderful words and powerful insight that our God “heals the broken-hearted”. Then, in the Gospel, we have another example of Jesus’ battle with illness as he goes to St Peter’s mother-in-law who has a fever. He then heals the diseases of more people and exorcises those possessed by devils. Next Sunday is ‘World Day of the Sick’ when we think of and pray for all those who suffer because of illness. So, what then do we make of suffering and how can it be reconciled with our faith in a loving God?

Let’s return to our friend Job. Throughout the book of Job, he never questions God’s goodness. Nor does he doubt that God is the cause of the evil that has befallen him. There is a sense that Job sees suffering for what it is – as a deep mystery to which we are invited to surrender and accept rather than deny and fight. This does not entail an embrace of lazy thinking or a prohibition of asking the question of ‘Why’ do bad things happen to good people. At the end of the Book of Job, God responds to Job’s questions that he allows him to ask. Nevertheless, the way God responds clarifies that the permission of evil happening is always for the sake of a greater good that remains hidden from us. What is decisive and exemplary from Job’s perspective is his willingness to accept that such a bigger picture exists without him seeking to grasp the details of it.

After Job questions God, God questions Job: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? Tell me since you are so well informed! Who decided its dimensions, do you know?” (Job 38:4-5).

God’s reply to Job is not meant to humiliate him but to expand the horizons of his soul, to remind him that he is surrounded by mysteries beyond what his limited mind can grasp. God invites Job to appreciate that his suffering must be situated in a complex process of cause, effect, change and becoming that only God can fully know. At the end of God’s speech, Job surrenders and recognizes his own limitations as he says: “Before, I knew you only by hearsay but now, having seen you with my own eyes, I retract what I have said and repent in dust and ashes” (Job. 42:5-6).

This perspective on suffering that acknowledges a bigger reality, was taken up by great teachers like St Gregory the Great (540-604) who prayed for the grace “to see life whole”. Earlier, St Paul also expanded the Christian perspective on suffering beyond the individual to the community when he wrote: “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Cor. 12:26).

For St Augustine (354-430), this seeing the bigger picture didn’t just apply to suffering but to the whole of creation itself. He wrote: “Consider the whole of creation, regarding God as its author, by reading so to speak in the great book of nature” (Contra Faustum, 32, 20).

For the literary genius Dante (1265-1321), at the end of his Divine Comedy, having made his way through hell, purgatory and heaven, Dante beholds the beauty of God. There in the abyss of light he sees “how it contains within its depths all things bound in a single book by love of which creation is the scattered leaves” (Paradiso 33:85-90). The leaves he means here are leaves of the book that tell the whole story, whose author is God and whose meaning is at least partially hidden in the mystery of divine love. Only at the end of time will we finally see how it all makes sense including the meaning of those moments when we suffer. In the present, we turn a page and try to figure it out as if one page told the whole story which it clearly doesn’t.

For St Catherine of Siena (1347-1380), the suffering we endure draws us towards the sufferings of others and changes us to be people of greater compassion: “For those who suffer themselves are far more compassionate to suffering than are those who have not suffered” (Dialogue 145, 305).

So, what does this all mean for someone who is suffering right now? Or perhaps for you reading this who might be in some kind of pain? From what we read of Job, he puts words on what we experience which is important because we realise that people have struggled with suffering in the past as we do in the present. For many of us, life indeed is experienced at times as “pressed service” and “hired drudgery”. When it comes to belief in God, we do not believe in a distant uncaring God who is indifferent to suffering but a God who “heals the broken hearted”. This is the God revealed by Jesus of Nazareth who sought out and helped the sick and suffering. For them he had come and for us he comes too.

From Job, St Paul, St Augustine, Gregory the Great and Dante, the wisdom of the Gospel urges us to acknowledge the mystery that suffering is and to see it in a broader context. Seldom is our suffering proportionate to ourselves alone. It is always connected organically to the distress of the whole of humanity. There is always a bigger picture that remains hidden from us for now but will be revealed in the future. In the meantime, we see our sufferings as a participation of the sufferings of Christ who always goes before us in our suffering and who never leaves us alone. It is his cross that teaches us that the mystery of love and the mystery of suffering can never be separated. For although Christ does not explain our suffering, he shares it and fills it with his presence.  And because he does, he unites us closer to the mystery of his own love that suffered for love of us. And so St Therese of Lisieux could write: “I thank you, O my God for all the graces you have granted me , especially the grace of making me pass through the crucible of suffering…I hope in heaven to resemble you and to see shining in my glorified body the sacred stigmata of your passion” (Story of a soul).

Similarly, Pope Benedict teaches that: “It is not by sidestepping or fleeing from suffering that we are healed, but rather by our capacity for accepting it, maturing through it and finding meaning through union with Christ, who suffered with infinite love” (Spe Salvi, 37).

I would like to conclude this meditation with a litany of prayer whose response is: ‘Deliver me O Jesus’. May we always be sensitive and merciful towards all who suffer and may the Lord deliver us from the fear of what might happen when suffering comes our way:

‘From the temptation to doubt your goodness, deliver me Jesus; from the temptation to doubt your presence, deliver me Jesus; from the fear of being abandoned, deliver me Jesus; from the fear of being forgotten, deliver me Jesus; from the fear of being unvalued, deliver me Jesus; from the fear of being misunderstood, deliver me Jesus; from the fear of the future, deliver me Jesus; from the anxiety of feeling overwhelmed, deliver me Jesus; from the anxiety feeling helpless, deliver me Jesus; from the anxiety of not knowing how long will that suffering will last, deliver me Jesus.

Hannah Marie Fowerbaugh


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