The last few weeks have, for me personally, been rather unremarkable. Nothing has happened to me of any interest or note. For certain friends, colleagues, parishioners and acquaintances, however, it has been a very different story. It has been a number of weeks surrounded by difficulty, disappointment, profound loss, in a way that it is almost impossible to experience as anything other than unfair. Profoundly, wastefully, painfully unfair.
Whenever I sit with people in these kinds of situations, beyond the face-value, visceral loss and solitude, I am often aware that there is also something so profound about suffering. It would surely be difficult to think of someone who is well-respected and admired, and has not suffered. It is, perhaps, the most notable experience shared by any human being who has earned wide respect from their fellow humanity.
Yet, when suffering comes to us, when it comes to me, I cry: that’s not fair. Perhaps that’s why I’m so keen to celebrate saints and heroes – they have done something that I don’t think I could do, or have any intention of doing. Much like Flash Kitchen cleanser, they’ve done the hard work so I don’t have to.
It’s not so stupid a position. Suffering and pain are not pleasant, and it is not so foolish to seek to avoid such things. I do not want to be in pain, and I do not want to see those I love in pain.
And yet, there’s the snag: love. Show me someone who has loved, who has not suffered for that love. The love experienced by humanity is not the love that is presented at the end of a Rom Com. Love is not only that which is shared by two people ‘in love’. It can be there, but it is also the love that takes people to make enormous sacrifices for whole communities, sacrifices for the lives of others.
Love is a gift; the giving of a part of oneself to another. To be free of pain, a person must not love, and choose instead to be cut off from the world. This, though, seems to lead to a far greater terror than pain, which is the numbness of non-existence, non-being, exclusion from life, hell.
Love drives a person to give up some element of their own freedom or security for another, or group of others. To love is to lose something of oneself; in return for this risk, there is the joy of giving, and the gaining of a shared humanity – being in community, which is the only kind of existence I can imagine.
But where two or more lives are shared, there is an inevitability of pain: not only is there a cost in giving, but one day those lives will end, those loves will fail, be distracted. Whether this pain is brought about under the circumstances of death, or unfaithfulness, or failure, they are not, in themselves, the causes of this suffering. Rather, this pain is felt out of the depth of the love that was shared, and now seems lost. That grief is for who we were with, and the hope that emerged from, that person or people now lost, mourning also the person that love had made us. The grief is for those lost, and also for our own sense of identity.
Yet, through that pain, there comes a point when we realise that we still exist. At this point, in the mess of configuring a new world, we have an option to become embittered, to stop trusting, to remove ourselves from the world, to diminish ourselves so that hurt can no longer touch us. (The irony being, of course, that in doing so, we are giving past hurts far more power over us than they should have.)
In seeing that we still exist, though, we are also invited to see that the love that we thought had gone, continues. It continues because this love made us who we are, we are not ourselves without it, and it continues to shape our speaking and ways of being. That which we gave in love, has not been a loss, but has become a part of who we are. And the suffering and the pain are all evidence that love has been shared, deeply, and it has been worth it.
Jesus took this even further, painting the most extraordinary picture of suffering, not merely showing that suffering is not fatal to our identity, but that suffering actually leads to the heart of God’s life.
“Blessed are you who are poor…
Blessed are you who hunger now…
Blessed are you who weep now…
Blessed are you when people hate you,
when they exclude you and insult you,
and reject you as evil because of the Son of Man.”
To suffer pain at the loss of love, is to enter the divine; to suffer through the disappointment of love gone awry, is to enter the divine; to suffer pain through giving so much in answering the call of love, is to enter the divine. In order to suffer these losses, a person must have given in love.
There cannot be love without suffering. Suffering is at the heart of what it means to be human, to be alive, to exist. Any fool can think. Any fool can become rich. Any fool can be powerful. But to be human, there must be love; and to love, there must be suffering.
If anyone would come after me, they must deny themselves, pick up their cross and follow me.
Those looking for a short-cut to God cannot seek out suffering for its own sake. Any form of self-flagellation is a terrible misunderstanding of suffering for the call of love.
God is made known to humanity through the suffering of the Son, whose pain is so great (so human) that he is abandoned even by his own self. Through the Son, humanity is given the presence of the Spirit, to sustain them in the risks that are so a part of what it means to be alive. Through the Son, the Father is shown as the creator whose nature is so abundantly creative, that all life comes from that one source.
The risk of giving, of loving, of creating something from ourselves in another is woven into the fabric of the cosmos. It leads to life and joy, but it also leads to suffering. This pain is terrible as it reveals the depths of our love, and how much we rely on such love to live and define who we are. This suffering, though, takes us into the depths of God, as we share with the giving and losing experienced by him.
As we finally die, again through suffering, we enter into God for all eternity, at which point we are fully welcomed into the embrace of the Trinity, which is God, and the whole communion of those who have gone before us. Here, suffering is no more, and it is shown to have been worth it, so that all the love that we have given and received is then known without risk, without loss or pain. The giving was worth it. The suffering that moulded and shaped us has ended. All that was sacrificed for a life we barely glimpsed, so unfairly less than our sense and hope of life says it should be, now surrounds and fills us in unfathomable glory; love is eternally worthwhile.