Made Perfect Through Suffering

“The Lord has been pleased to crush his servant with suffering.”
What do these words from the prophet Isaiah mean? Do they have anything to teach us today? And if so, how do these words relate to the good God we know and love and try to honor with our lives? Can we continue to believe in a “good” God if these words are true in some literal sense? Do we even believe in a good God to begin with?
Despite our statements of faith, for many of us this question is far from resolved. We watch the news and see the violence in Syria and central Africa. We see the effects of devastating storms and tsunamis. We get laid off, we get a debilitating disease, we lose our 401K. “How can God allow this to happen?” we ask. “Why doesn’t God do something about this?”
Maybe I suffer from low self-esteem or something, but I have never asked those questions about my own life events. I didn’t ask them growing up in a climate of violence and insecurity as a child, I didn’t ask them when my house burned, and I didn’t ask them even when my son was killed in an accident. For whatever reason—and I can’t take any credit for it–I have never felt that God was purposely “doing something” to shatter my world. I have, however, asked those questions many times after listening to other people’s stories—stories of being raped as a teenager, stories of a series of life-changing illnesses, stories of tragedy, violence, pain and incomprehensible suffering. But even then, I have tried to share what I think of as my own graceful interpretation of reality, trying to bring others to trust even when there is little reason to do so.
I have always known that God is good even when circumstances are not. God is good when I’m eating peanut butter on crackers for supper, and when I’m having a steak at Cork ‘n Cleaver. God is good when I am working a job I love and when I am unemployed, when I am healthy or ill. I can’t take any credit for believing this way, it is simply the way I was made. Do I still have anxiety and do I still sometimes lose sleep from worrying? Of course! But in my soul I know and trust that God is good no matter what.
The second thing that strikes me about Isaiah’s words is that they make us reflect on our subordinate role in God’s saving dream for humanity. We might say publicly that we know God is in charge, but we don’t always live that way. That’s one of the reasons we get annoyed with God when we see tragedy and suffering—because He isn’t quick enough to make things right according to the way we see things. Sometimes one of the best ways to make God smile is to insist that He do things our way. This is because we carry our own prejudices and thinly disguised judgments and even hatreds within us and we want to justify them with our theology rather than submit to God’s dream.
“God is going to send a lot of people to hell for all eternity,” we say. Nevermind that there is nothing in Scripture or Tradition to support the idea of anyone actually being to hell. From a doctrinal perspective, the existence of hell seems certain—and if we look even casually at our own lives, we can think of times when we have chosen to make our lives a living hell. So we know hell exists. What we do not know or trust is the overwhelming power of grace and love God has for every one of us—even the people who are not like us, even the radical Muslims, even the sexist Church hierarchy, even the Republicans and Democrats.
“God only approves of one certain kind of relationship because anything else is wrong, as it says in the Bible and in the Tradition of the Church..” As we are coming to realize, there are a lot of cultural biases in our Scriptures and Tradition. Think about the anti-Jewish sentiments that run throughout the Gospel of John, as one example of “traditional teaching” that has led to atrocities and violence for millions and millions of Jews. (See http://www.romancatholicism.org for an exhaustive list of papal statements against the Jews, as well as a listing of how many Jews were expelled from various places over the centuries. )
And the “tradition” of the Church has also been wrong on several major issues, including the issue of charging interest on a loan. This was defined as usury and was condemned by 3 general councils and at least a dozen popes all of whom insisted that Divine Law made it clear that the making of profit on a loan was a mortal sin and contrary to natural law. If you’re interested, the most vehement condemnations come from Pope St. Pius V in 1569 and 1571.
And what about the teaching that forgiveness of sins was impossible after Baptism? This was solid, Catholic teaching for the first 5 centuries of Christianity, and yet that very “traditional” teaching is now condemned by everyone, including the papacy from whom the earlier teaching derived its authority.
Clearly, those who claim that the Church “has always taught the same core beliefs, held the same values, and maintained a definable “deposit of faith” are mistaken. The truth is, we have too often used our religion, our Scriptures and our Tradition as a cover for our own biases and cultural prejudices. We’ve been quick to judge, quick to make our history into “God’s Will”, quick to condemn a whole lot of other people to hell. On the flip side, we’ve been slow to absorb the truth that we are servants of the One God, brothers and sisters of Jesus. It is not okay for us to knowingly filter or try to limit God’s dream for humanity through the narrow lens of our human perceptions.
Last, these words of Isaiah encourage us to look at our attitude toward suffering. None of us would claim that suffering is a good thing, and in fact, our ancestors in the Faith decided that the reason we suffer in the first place is because we tried to set our own limits and not follow God’s plan. As a result, suffering dogs our every move, accompanies our every decision, and sometimes even chases us right up to the moment of our transition from this life to the Life to come.
Now that I’ve completely cheered you up, let’s not forget something else. Suffering can be an instrument of healing and wholeness; it can bring enlightenment and resolution to deep personal issues. And, in a Christian context, it can bring us to resemble Jesus himself who, “learned to obey through suffering” as the writer of Hebrews reminds us.
All of you know that I am an amateur vintner: I make wine as a hobby. I am well aware that in order to make good wine, perfectly fine grapes have to be crushed, their physical beauty destroyed by the process of rendering them accessible to the yeast in the process of fermentation. As someone who has worked as a baker, I also recognize that the best flour comes from the best wheat—and that the flour is the result of grinding and crushing—the seeming destruction of the kernels of wheat. Just so, you and I can be transformed if we find a way to move through our sufferings and be open to union with God in the process. Suffering comes our way willy-nilly. People who suffer more are not necessarily the ones who had more issues to work through, neither were they bigger sinners than the rest of us. This is the harsh truth about pain and suffering—they can’t be predicted, they’re not the punishment of a vengeful God, and they are mostly random occurrences in a universe whose logic escapes us.
But like the bread the wine that Christ chose as the vehicles of his mysterious, life-giving presence, we are called to take our sufferings and all of what life brings our way, and simply allow ourselves to become true communion for others. Eucharist isn’t primarily about worshiping the Presence of Christ in the Bread and Wine. It’s not primarily about prayerfully gazing at it in the monstrance during benediction. It’s certainly not about coming to a definitive and comprehensive doctrinal statement about when and how this mystery occurs. It’s about realizing that we are called to submit to the grinding process of life in order to become Eucharist for others. That’s it. And when the priest says the words of consecration, “This is my Body, this is my Blood”, we, as members of the Royal Priesthood of Jesus Christ, offer ourselves at that very same moment, surrendering ourselves to be ground to the finest flour, allowing ourselves to become the best wine, served after everyone has been drinking a lesser vintage.

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About frmichelrcc

I have a degree in religious studies from the University of Wisconsin, did graduate work in theology at St. Norbert College, De Pere, Wisconsin, and also at St. Paul's University in Ottawa. I have been a Benedictine since I first professed as an oblate in 1982, making final profession in 2009. I have worked as vocations director in a large diocese in the mid-west and am a spiritual director in the Benedictine tradition. I have 3 sons, one of whom is now in God's loving embrace in eternity, and 2 grandsons, Bradley and Jacob.
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