On suffering

I remember being told when I was young to “offer it up,” where “it” was anything burdensome, tiresome, annoying, or just plain something I didn’t want to deal with. I suspect more than a few Catholics of my age heard something similar from their relatives. A number of blog posts recently have dealt with suffering, and it’s a difficult notion. At one extreme, you get Girard. At the other, suffering becomes some sort of quasi-erotic fetish. Add into this the message of countless antidepressant ads that any lack of happiness is bad, one begins to wonder if there’s any value at all in suffering.

I don’t disagree with the bit from Von Balthasar about suffering over on Mark Mossa’s blog. Our failings do cause brokenness, and the effects of our sins cause suffering. But the notion that suffering is given out of the loving concern for a divine Parent is something that sticks in my throat. No parent likes disciplining their children (of the good parents I know), but I don’t know if it’s out of duty–it’s the parents’ jobs to protect their children, and that includes providing discipline–or out of love. But sometimes suffering doesn’t have a cause–people come down with horrible illnesses, people cause other people to suffer, and things happen through no fault of the person hit with whatever is causing them to suffer. This model makes me queasy because not everything that happens is a direct result of our actions, and it would be a horrible God that would punish us willy-nilly for things we didn’t deserve. This smacks of abuse.

So stuff happens, and we suffer. Thing is, I think we need it. I’m not talking wallowing in one’s misery, getting off on it, or a chemical imbalance. All of these are an addiction to suffering, and I think such an addiction leads to depression, which is getting stuck in one big feedback cycle. The key is that suffering can be cathartic–it leads to a healing of a relationship (as in the case of sin), or it leads to another’s relief.

I think the issue of suffering is easier to understand through the arts. Granted a “sad” piece of music may not necessarily be “sad,” and it probably doesn’t reflect the composer’s emotions, either. (Great discussion of the person and the piece in composition here.) But through its abstraction, whatever is expressed in the piece is presented so that others may experience and deal with it in a productive manner. Perhaps I’m skirting too closely to Girard again, but I think the end result is fundamentally different. Instead of sacrificial crisis, I think the key is in empathy and compassion (literally feeling with) other people.

Just saying “be happy!” and repressing unhappy thoughts and feelings isn’t true happiness–you see this in the Psalms, where the mood swings wildly from utter dejection to praise, sometimes within the same psalm. I think 142 is a good example of this. In the old Benedictine office, which is closest to the plan Benedict laid out in his Rule, it lands on Saturday at Lauds. Sunday, being the “little Easter” (bringing to mind the Easter sacrifice through the Eucharist) can’t happen without a little Lent (Friday), and then the nothingness of Holy Saturday. Psalm 142 calls out of this emptiness. You can’t have resurrection without death, and you can’t have Easter without Lent. Without true repentance, joy rings hollow.

3/14 Edited to fix the fact that psalm 142 doesn’t happen on Sunday in the old Benedictine Office…


~ by Jen on March 7, 2007.

2 Responses to “On suffering”

  1. Great post. I think the point some people miss when they look at certain elements or devotions of Christianity as “morbid” because the deal with suffering is that life does include suffering, and any worldview that does not take that into account is shallow and escapist. If we ignore our own suffering, we are repressing something we should be confronting, and if we ignore that of others, we are being cold and unloving.

  2. Agreed…I think that’s why I prefer the old Benedictine office to the ICEL Divine Office–it doesn’t censor the psalms. If it’s really the prayer of the whole Church, it should reflect that. Not everyone is safe, happy, or able to lead a life without violence.

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