Mortality, Exile & Reconciliation:

The Role of Suffering in the Relationship between God & Man (Part 4)

III. Reconciliation

The Christian understanding makes it clear that were it not for the efforts of God, to draw us to Him, nobody would turn from this world. So we must admit, that first and foremost, our reconciliation is wholly dependent upon God’s action and power. However, the Orthodox Christian understanding further recognizes that man is expected to do his/her part, however small, to work in concert with God towards our salvation. As we’ve already explored, suffering and death are events in the life of every human being which have the power and potential to draw man into closer relationship with God. And if man chooses, he/she can respond positively to this opportunity.

This isn’t to say that the choice is always easy, and by definition struggling through suffering and death can be very painful. Although, suffering often forces us into situations where we begin to make movements within ourselves—in the place of our soul, in our deep heart of hearts—which are salutary and healing. Through suffering and in the face of death we are often brought to our knees, our pride of life is humbled and our hearts are softened. Through suffering we are made more receptive to the Holy Spirit. Throughout scripture mankind is admonished by God and his messengers to give up our hearts of stone and allow them to be turned into hearts of flesh; and to stop acting like ‘stiff-necked’ people, resisting the Holy Spirit. In this world, we learn that a hard heart and a stiff neck can be beneficial in achieving what we desire and for our worldly pursuits; but in God’s kingdom to come, our pride and our passions will no longer be tolerated and will even preclude our entrance. As the apostle Paul says to the Galatians:

“Now the works of the flesh are evident which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries and the like: of which I tell you beforehand, just as I told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (Galatians 5:19-21)

And he continues, by telling the Galatians (and us) what the beneficial results are for those who have turned from the passions and the desires of this world and have chosen instead to live according to the Spirit of God. For those who have turned back to God and allowed his Spirit to make home within our heart:  “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such there is no law.” (Galatians 5: 22-23)

St. Sophrony describes the blessing that is granted mankind in working together with God in the work of this reconciliation, bringing each of us back into relationship and communion with God. Our unique individual personhood is brought to bear in this effort, as God created us in his image with the ability to use our free will in service of love. St. Sophrony says:

“But the Son of God, in His infinite lovingkindness, came ‘to dwell with those that had departed from his grace’, in order to renew the dialogue he had had with man in Paradise, but which had been severed by reason of Adam’s transgression. For Christ is a true Hypostasis, a perfect Divine Person, while man also bears within himself the hypostatic principle, since he is created in Christ’s image. Man’s extraordinary privilege, therefore, is that of working with God, towards his perfection, as a person restored.” (Zacharias, 70)

The work of reconciliation—healing and restoration of the person—always involves giving something up, voluntarily or involuntarily. As we’ve already discussed, suffering and death involuntarily provide us opportunity to give up our attachments to this temporal world in favor of God’s kingdom, through the complex processes of metanoia and the softening of our inner spiritual heart. Additionally, we can be humbled through suffering and death, as we realize our powerlessness in the face of them, and our complete dependence on God for healing and victory over death. The spiritual changes that can take place within us now, which were originally stimulated by our suffering, can cause us to turn our soul’s faculties back to God, so that He can begin to heal us. Dr. Larchet describes in detail how this can take place within an individual. He explains in great detail, systematically, how each of our soul’s faculties, which were originally created to draw us into deeper communion with God, were corrupted after the fall, so that our powers of desire, and our will, and our intellect all served our selfish passions. But when we abandon our selfish use of these faculties and allow them to be used as they were originally intended by God: to desire Him, and to fight to return to Him, and to contemplate Him, then we are exercising our freedom in a way that supports His healing of us. As Archimandrite Zacharias writes, “…humility and self-denial become the firm foundations within us, upon which God Himself builds the temple of His Spirit.” (Zacharias, 32) So, for the person who learns to use his suffering to positive effect—not struggling against it, as rather accepting that it brings spiritual value with it—they can find that their heart becomes increasingly receptive to God’s grace. As Zacharias continues: “This sense of our own nothingness produces the right conditions for us to remain in the presence of God. And the more we become empty of ourselves, that is, the more we humble ourselves before God, the more He fills our heart with His divine grace.” (Zacharias, 31)

Like Christ—who emptied himself first by his incarnation, becoming a man though he is God, and then also through dying a humiliating death on the cross and finally descending into hell before his ultimate triumph—we can follow His example, by also emptying ourselves of our pride and passions. For the person who is inspired by Christ, “…he is led along a chain of thoughts, each deeper than the last: from faith he is led to more perfect faith, from hope to firmer hope, from grace to greater grace and from love of God to an ever greater measure of love.” (Zacharias, 6) Christ’s saving actions, and His example, clear the way for our reconciliation and for our ultimate theosis, or union with God. It is because of Christ that we have this opportunity.

“Christ, the only–begotten Son of God, by His passion, cross, death and resurrection, willingly and sinlessly entered into the totality of human pain, transforming it into an expression of His perfect love.” (Zacharias, 68) We can bring Christ to mind when we also are faced with suffering and with sacrificing the life we’ve known. As Vigen Guroian writes:

“Only [Christ’s] sacrifice is pure and completely efficacious for restoring complete communion with God. Christ reclaims and fulfills in his person the vocation that God gave to humankind at creation. The incarnation is the revelation that perfect human love is sacrificial, is sacrifice.” (Guroian, 116)

But sacrifice alone is obviously not the goal; love is the goal of our self-sacrifice. Self-emptying is nothing, if it doesn’t lead us to greater love of God and of others. The exile and alienation that we live in this world due to the fall can be healed through sacrifice, and this leads us back into deeper communion with God. When we think that our losses have no meaning, and are merely tragedy, it can be helpful to remind ourselves and each other that with Christ, even loss through suffering and death can be gain; in a very present and real way our losses can become the fertile field for greater communion in a wider sense. Our field of vision is widened so that our empathy and compassion can extend beyond our previously narrow confines; our love can then extend to all mankind, who we recognize share the same sufferings and the same losses as we do. Vigen Guroian writes something quite beautiful about this love: “Christ reveals to us that the love that is sacrifice and the love that seeks communion are not two loves but the same love…through the incarnation, God and humanity are reconciled and communion is restored…by the power of divine love.” (Guroian, 116)

Not only do suffering and death cause us to sacrifice, but they also bring us to our knees. They confront us with the fact of our true helplessness in this world. Because of this, they can also be among the most efficacious and powerful remedies for mankind’s greatest weakness: pride. Our desire to be our own God and to answer only to ourselves first caused our fall and led to our exile in this world of pain; so it is only fitting that humility would be a primary medicine for healing our spiritual diseases and for preparing us to return to God’s kingdom. When we suffer, most of us want to find the solution as quickly as possible; we try to take matters into our own hands in order to fix the problem and get back to our lives. If the suffering is beyond us—such as suffering the death of a loved one or facing our own death—then we are confronted with the fact that we can’t fix the problem or get back to life as it was before. This realization is very humbling. But in general, we don’t like being humbled, so most of us don’t stop to think of the benefit and value that humbling may have for us. Or if we do consider it, our thoughts rarely go beyond thinking about humility in a theoretical and hypothetical sense, and certainly not as it applies specifically to our current circumstances. We tend to think that humility is good insofar as it applies to somebody else’s life—or in retrospect—but not something we want to truly embrace in the midst of our own pain and suffering. Again and again, most of us just want to fix the problem of our suffering, keeping our focus on this world only; and we ignore the opportunity for developing genuine humility, which has its greatest value as a preparation for our life in the next world.

If we can accept the lesson of humility which comes through our suffering, we can learn additional lessons in patience, endurance and perseverance, all qualities which scripture tells us are valued and desired by God, and which also have benefits to us in this world as well. In our suffering often all we can do is wait; we wait for delayed healing, or for the passage of time to soften the pain. We wait upon God to rescue us, provide a miracle, or simply offer His loving presence to help us endure and overcome. Archimandrite Zacharias offers encouraging words about this:

“We may be suffering from some illness and praying to God for healing. But if our request is not granted, let us know that God can give such grace and power as will enable us to rise above our illness and, through it, to sense the joy of the presence and power of God in our hearts, which is our victory over death.” (Zacharias, 35)

As we wait upon God, we learn to call upon Him as well. People who have never prayed before, or who have prayed very little, often resort to prayer in the midst of their trials. They begin to ask God for help, or if they are already accustomed to talking with God, they do so more frequently and more fervently. And for those of us who may be called upon to offer support to others in their trials, we might consider praying with them, or helping them to pray more themselves. We might inquire lovingly how they view prayer, and possible encourage them to deepen their experience of prayer beyond whatever level they currently practice it. Perhaps more than any other aspect of personal spiritual practice and preparation, prayer is regarded most highly throughout scripture, in the writings of the church fathers, and in church tradition and practice. “Prayer, as Fr. Sophrony says, is an endless creation; it is a school that teaches us to remain in the presence of the Lord. This effort to remain with the Lord is an exercise that finally overcomes death…” (Zacharias, 30)

To remain in the presence of the Lord in this life is a great challenge and blessing; and to remain in His presence in the midst of suffering and death is an even greater challenge. While we wait upon God sometimes it seems He will never come to us; our prayers can sometimes feel futile and a waste of time. But it is important to encourage one another to persevere in prayer, and to keep God in our heart and to refrain from the urge to turn away in frustration. A lifetime of living in exile—to some degree or another, as applies to each of us—isn’t often reversed in a moment. We must train our senses to attune ourselves to the voice of God, and this is done beautifully through the discipline of prayer; but it is not accomplished immediately, and will take effort over time, and will exercise our faith and our hope, and our love. “Prayer is a matter of love. Man expresses love through prayer….St Silouan identifies love for God with prayer, and the Holy Fathers say that forgetfulness of God is the greatest of all passions [vices]…” (Zacharias, 68) We need to exercise our love and exercise our hearts, to prepare them for God—who is Love—to feel at home within us. Throughout scripture God asks us to sanctify ourselves, to make our inner person holy in preparation for Him to make his home in us. We are made holy and are reconciled with God especially through our deepening prayer life. As John Climacus writes: “Prayer is by nature a dialog and a union of man with God. Its effect is to hold the world together. It achieves a reconciliation with God.” (Climacus, 274)

Maintaining a state of prayerfulness in life, and particularly within our suffering, is often thwarted by the activity of our mind. As we’ve already discussed, our thoughts can lead us astray; and when we follow our thoughts we can become even more disoriented in relation to suffering and death, feeling perplexed and in a daze. There is a long tradition within the Orthodox Church of pairing the practice of ‘watchfulness’ along with our practice of prayer. This tradition of ‘nepsis’, or watchfulness, teaches one to constantly monitor the movement of one’s thoughts, developing an awareness of how they operate within us, yet not allowing them to influence us. Watchfulness allows one to develop a certain detachment from their thoughts, so as to allow one to maintain a stable interior state in relation to God. Often, the ascetic fathers of the church—who wrote and taught extensively on this topic—have said that we are to watch our thoughts come and go within us, but not attach ourselves to any of them, so that we can maintain spiritual sobriety and focus towards our Lord. As Archimandrite Zacharias says: “When prayer is humble, and accompanied by the practice of watchfulness, the mind is concentrated in the heart, that is the dwelling-place of our beloved God, and He grants us a marvelous sense of His closeness that is beyond words.” (Zacharias, 8)

Along with constant prayer, we are also told to be thankful in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). Gratitude and thankfulness are also very difficult to maintain in the midst of suffering and death; and yet they can be truly transformative if we learn to be thankful during these trials. It is important to clarify that we are not asked to be thankful ‘for’ every circumstance, but rather to be thankful ‘in’ all things. Maintaining a state of thankfulness is not something most of us automatically know how to do. However, it is an attitude that can be learned over time as we struggle with our suffering. Thankfulness helps maintain our relationship with God, since as we maintain a spirit of gratitude our heart remains open. We may struggle, like Job did, with the terrible torment of our suffering, but by keeping God in our heart we help ourselves, by not adding the spiritual pain of estrangement from God, to the suffering we are already experiencing. Thankfulness is also an aspect of and result of humility; it is the manifestation of humility in action. Thankfulness is the acceptance of things as they are, and even more, it is an expression of joy and love in response to God’s plan and will for our lives.

Ultimately, suffering and death present us with situations in life where we have an opportunity to shift the focus of our faith. Throughout much of our life we have learnt to trust in ourselves and in the things of this world. But through suffering we can be brought involuntarily through circumstances which present us with a new option. Suffering grants us the opportunity to turn away from this temporal world; and to put our faith in eternal God instead. Reconciliation is a tremendous thing; it is difficult in some respects, but made easier by God’s grace.  


It is Good To Know The Bunny-Rabbit

I want to understand the bunny-rabbit. Oh, how I want to understand it, and everything else in creation. What is a bunny…to God? No, not to understand a bunny as the world sees it: not as a little meal, or as a pet, or a mammal, and not as a biological organism, or an element within an ecosystem. But what is a bunny…to me? When the cosmos came into being, what was God’s intent, when He made the bunny? Or the turtle, or the pine tree, and the ocean waves? In the depths of my heart—where I rarely go—could I find there, and remember, traces of the original meanings? Man helped name the creatures, after all. Can we remember; if God graced us with the memories? Living obscures life, as sense obscures essence, and mind occludes the truth. If I could understand the bunny-rabbit, I imagine that I could also understand myself. Not myself as I think I am: not as a citizen of some-such country, or a doer of this, or achiever of that, and not as one who works at such-n-such, or as a biological organism, or a part of a larger civilization or ecosystem. But what I am to God? When the cosmos came into being, what was God’s intent, when he made you and me? When I breathe in the earthly air, and look up into the trees, and as I watch the ravens fly overhead and the hawk carrying its meal, I am struck with a certainty—that I know nothing. Nothing, in the way that things can be known. I believe there is another knowledge; one which can so reveal, and connect us to the squirrel and the moth—that we are brought into fulfillment. This knowledge doesn’t edify the mind alone, but brings peace to the heart as well; it settles the soul and comforts us within the bosom of God.


Mortality, Exile & Reconciliation:

The Role of Suffering in the Relationship between God & Man (Part 3)

II. Exile

For most of our lifespan, each of us is in an ongoing process of gathering and accruing. As children we grow in every way imaginable: our bodies, our minds, our emotions and our spirit all gather strength and ability. As young adults and adults, we continue this process by adding friendships, careers, life-partners, children; and we buy cars, homes, and seek to satisfy countless ambitions. We are immersed in a society in which we find meaning, and we have networks of interpersonal connections that are generally engaging and satisfying, or at least preoccupy our time and attention. And we come to expect these things to always be there for us, and we come to rely upon our own abilities and talents which we’ve worked hard over the years to enhance and perfect. But then suddenly, at some stage in our life, something unexpected happens to shatter the world that we’ve created for ourselves. A loved one dies, or we suffer a debilitating illness, or we lose a limb; or we lose our job, get a divorce—or any other number of things like these—and we must now face the difficulties brought on by this loss, and also the psychological and emotional suffering associated with it. 

Renos Papadopoulous in his book, Therapeutic Care For Refugees, describes the depth and breadth that the loss of ‘home’ has on a person who has had to flee their homeland. But in many ways, I think the same kind of suffering applies to anyone who loses the life that they have known and to which they have grown familiar and accustomed. The loss they face, suddenly places them in a state in which they may feel very alone, emotionally isolated, and mentally disoriented, and anxious in a very deep and profound way. Papadopoulous describes it in this way:

“…loss of home is not just about the conscious loss of the family home with all its material, sentimental and psychological values, but it is of a much more fundamental and primary kind, and it creates a disturbance…which is closer to what has been referred to as ‘ontological insecurity’, ‘existential anxiety’, ‘existential angst or dread’ (Kierkegaard). The shared themes of these conditions are a deep sense of a gap, a fissure, a hole, an absence, a lack of confidence in one’s own existence…” (Papadopoulous, 18)

When our lives are going along as normal, most of us don’t consider our lives in these deep ways, nor do we address the meaning of our life or our death. But when faced with losses which break into our daily, normal existence, we are then confronted by uncomfortable questions, and we may feel very helpless and disoriented. The philosopher Martin Hiedegger describes this experience, in this way:

“Hiedegger has the notion of ‘taken-for-granted-at-homeness’ which is destroyed by the ‘dread’ as a condition when we lose the familiarity the world has for us….without the primary ‘taken-for-granted-at-homeness’ state, a serious disorientation takes place which is of a fundamental existential and ontological nature.” (Papadopoulous, 24)

Once our familiar world is shaken, we may begin to question everything. The things that were effectively hidden from us, by our well-constructed world, now crash in upon us. As Ernest Becker writes, “…repression takes care of the complex symbol of death for most people.” (Becker, 20) But death peels away this repression, forcing us to face these existential questions, perhaps for the first time. We’ve very likely embedded ourselves in this world, in part, for psychological safety, to avoid the existential dilemma of death.

Becker claims that there is no fear greater than our fear of death, no matter how we try to gloss over it. For this reason, we seek to gain protection from death through the constructs of our life—giving power and trust to our parents, or other experts, such as doctors or even political leaders; we follow sports teams, or live vicariously in other ways through others, in an attempt to hide from our own existential loneliness and our dread of death. So now, at the moment when death confronts us and tears us from this world, we recognize the truth that we are in exile here, without an unshakable sense of home that can always be relied upon, and we are alone. Others in this world may not be able to save us. Who can help us? At this point, we may begin to realize that human agency is helpless; at some point even the doctors can do nothing more for us. This is the moment when the experts might suggest prayer, as our last resort.

Death has now brought us to the place and moment where most of us, believers as well as non-believers, consider ourselves in relation to God. This suffering, whatever the cause and in whatever particular form it takes for us, is showing us experientially the truth of our life in this world; and death is no longer a theoretical concept, and God is no longer an irrelevant consideration for a future time. We are at the crossroads again, will suffering draw us into a closer relationship with God, or will we shake our fists at him and fall further into our exile? Saint Sophrony describes the temptation to fall further away:

“The proud soul…sees God as the cause of her sufferings and considers Him immeasurably cruel. Deprived of true life in God, she sees everything through the spectrum of her own crippled state…in her despair she begins to consider even the existence of God Himself as hopeless absurdity. And so her estrangement from God…grows and grows.” (Sophrony, St. Silouan 201-202)

One of the best descriptions of our estrangement from God, is the parable of the prodigal son from Luke’s gospel. It describes the self-created exile, of a wealthy man’s youngest son, who takes his inheritance and journeys to a far-off country to live his life as he desires. Finally, when his money runs out and he suffers hunger, he arrives at the crossroads that we are discussing. He has a choice; does he fall further into exile or rather choose to return home? The parable describes this moment of decision beautifully, with these words: “when he came to himself”. (Luke 15: 17) The young man ‘comes to himself’; it is a small, little moment in the parable, but the essential turning-point of the entire story, and the pivotal moment. And to say that he came to himself is not simply a poetic device; it says something very important about mankind, and who he truly is in his relationship to the world, and to God.

Dr Jean-Claude Larchet, in his important three volume survey of the ascetic tradition of the Orthodox Church entitled, Therapy of Spiritual Illnesses, describes in detail the original anthropology of man in relation to God, and what transpired subsequent to the fall. In the beginning, man is made in the image and likeness of God, and this fact informs everything about man’s person; all of man’s faculties, his mind and his soul are oriented towards God. But after the fall, man turns his being and all of his faculties away from God, and out into the world, and subsequently he became lost in the world. Mankind became exiled from God, by his own choice, and as a result of his own will and action. As Larchet writes, “He [became] ignorant of his true destiny, no longer knowing what his real life is, and has lost almost every idea of what his original health was.” (Larchet, vol.1: 21) So the moment when a person ‘returns to him or herself’ is the moment when they essentially turn back to God, and is also the moment they begin to know themselves in a true way—as the person whom they were created to be. And this is the beginning of the journey back home and out of exile, spiritually speaking.

Ernest Becker quotes the Spanish philosopher, Jose Ortega Y Gasset, as he describes this pivotal moment in similar, though slightly different terms:

“The man with a clear head is the man who…looks life in the face, realizes that everything in it is problematic, and feels himself lost….he who accepts [this] has already begun to find himself, to be on firm ground….he who does not really feel himself lost, is without remission…” (Becker, 89)

Without suffering, would the prodigal son still have come to this crossroads and to this moment of self-discovery? Had he not spent all his money and fallen into hunger and discomfort, would he have been willing to stop of his own accord, and turn from his self-created exile in the world? It is possible. And there are many ways God can reach out to his creation, to touch each of us; however, suffering is one of the most common and powerful ways mankind ‘returns to himself’. For a person who is living in and for this world alone, suffering has no intrinsic value. It becomes an enemy to the aspirations of this world, and the nemesis of all we build our lives around and towards. However, in the context of a life lived for and towards God, in the hope of his eternal kingdom, suffering can be integral and facilitate this relationship, and can even be a blessing and a gift for us, as many of the saints came to understand, and have explained to us.

Interestingly, Ernest Becker, who was not a man of faith and who maintained skepticism of religion in general, came to a surprising conclusion in his book, The Denial of Death. After making his lifelong comprehensive survey of modern psychologists and philosophers’ thoughts on the topic of man in relation to death, he comes to the following conclusion:

“Once the person begins to…refashion his links from those around him to that Ultimate Power, he opens to himself the horizon of unlimited possibility, of real freedom….One goes through it all to arrive at faith, the faith that one’s very creatureliness has some meaning to a Creator; that despite one’s true insignificance, weakness, death, one’s existence has meaning in some ultimate sense…Kierkegaard repeats the basic formula of faith: one is a creature who can do nothing, but one exists over against a living God for whom ‘everything is possible.'” (Becker, 90)

In the Christian tradition, this refashioning of our links away from the world and back towards God, has an important role, and is spoken about often in scripture. Christ himself teaches his apostles that love of God should take precedence over love of self and family. We are told that he who loves his life will lose it, but he who loses his life for God’s sake, will find it. Consciously and intentionally putting our own lives in relation to God, and turning from the typical human life based upon solipsism and narcissism, and abandoning our worldly focus on hedonistic pleasure-seeking, is the goal of Christian living. When St. Paul speaks about renewing our mind, or John the Baptist and Christ call us to repentance as a prelude to the coming of God’s kingdom on earth, they are all speaking about this important change of the inner state of man; metanoia is the turning of the heart or mind, which describes this spiritual change of state in a person.

Death and suffering offer us a great opportunity for metanoia. Not that any of us should necessarily, intentionally seek suffering; but when it comes, we can be prepared to make use of it to the utmost, if we are framing it in a positive light. To understand that death and suffering can be an opportunity to turn our lives more fully back towards God, and not to see them only in a negative way, can make a great difference for us. Archimandrite Nikolaos in his book, When God is Not There, describes the lessons he learned while working in a Children’s Hospital for several years, where he saw parents and children grapple daily with issues of loss and death. God’s imminent presence, Nikolaos said, could be experienced only as we silenced our mind and abandoned our expectations of what God should do, or our ideas about how he should reveal himself within the midst of our suffering. For most of us, God speaks very quietly, through a stillness and presence that can often be unrecognizable to us. Often, only in retrospect do we become aware of just how God was with us in our suffering; and yet, he is always present and fills all things, as scripture tells us.

Because we want answers when we suffer—or when death takes someone we love—our minds can run wild. Why is this happening to us? Why would God allow this? How can a loving God let this happen? Countless questions, and accusations such as these may flow through our mind. But it is best to let these thoughts continue on their way, and flow right back out again, as the ascetic fathers of the Church teach us regarding our thoughts. Nikolaos comments to this point: “reasoning when working in isolation can disorient us and lead us astray.” (cf. Nikolaos, 94) Silencing our thoughts about the injustice of our trial, can allow us to seek the truth found in our heart, spoken by the Holy Spirit, which can resolve our pain and bring us greater peace, hope and faith, so we can become aware of God’s presence. Nikolaos goes on to say that this can transform death, “…from an experience of human loneliness into an awareness of the divine presence.” (Nikolaos, 119)

Death and suffering cause us to shed the life we have known, and yet, when this occurs, we aren’t suddenly transported into a new world; but rather, it can be as if we are stuck between worlds. We no longer can orient ourselves to the world of our past, because that world is gone now, in a very tangible sense. However, we are also unable to navigate our new reality either. Perhaps this is why so many people who have lost a loved one talk about feeling in a daze or a fog. A real awareness of the divine presence may not be accessible for us, so we are confronted with a feeling of loneliness and emptiness as we turn away from the old world, and we may even feel as if God has forsaken us. We might ask, why would God leave us now, especially in our moments of greatest need? It is as if we are now in exile from the world we have known, as well as from the kingdom of God. In this state of Godforsakenness we can feel utterly bereft of any true home, or any sense of belonging anywhere.

This is such an important moment for us to consider, for anyone who is close to others who are suffering or confronting death. What support can we offer them in the depth of their pain? Knowing that they may be facing a loneliness and an isolation previously unknown to them can be valuable insight to bring forward to the relationship; and hopefully this can help us offer the love, the tenderness and acceptance, that are needed to help them find stable ground, so to speak, and to heal. Often, it is simply our presence that is most needed; a silent presence without words, without advice, can be the greatest expression of God’s love that we can offer to one another, while in the depths of our pain.

St Sophrony, in his writings pays particular attention to Godforsakenness. He emphasizes Christ’s own experience of feeling alone and abandoned as he prayed in Gethsemane, and then culminating on the cross as he cried out, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” St Sophrony, in his analysis of this, and from his own similar experiences of feeling forsaken by God, comes to the conclusion, that as we struggle to keep God in our heart, even through the experience of feeling abandoned, we develop our own personal, human strength of love. It can forge in us a determination to love God at all cost, and actually can draw us closer to Him in the long-run. St Sophrony considers it a test which can strengthen our own human capacity of love and faithfulness, and one that allows us the fullest realization of our human freedom. In this process, our faithfulness “grows through a succession of experiences of Godforsakenness, into unshakable stability, which is associated with salvation….Thus man abides in the ‘unshakable kingdom’.” (Sakharov, 180) So, while the experience of suffering is never joyful in the moment as it is occurring, it still has the power to bring us to greater heights of love. And it helps us to claim Christ’s victory over death as our own, as our own faith is strengthened through our struggle.

The Christian worldview is that this world is estranged and at enmity with God. As inhabitants here we live much of our lives in exile from God’s kingdom but we rarely recognize this fact. Oftentimes, only through suffering and death do we confront this reality. Out of this experience we may have an inner change of heart and mind, and a desire to return to our true spiritual home, to deepen our relationship with God. It is possible that through our struggles with suffering and death that we may join that great cloud of witnesses, who St Paul wrote about in Hebrews:

“These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For those who say such things declare plainly that they seek a homeland. And truly if they had called to mind that country from which they had come out, they would have had opportunity to return. But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them.” (Hebrews 11:13-16)

In the following section I would like to explore how we approach that heavenly country, and how we prepare ourselves for dwelling in the city that God has prepared for us.



We are watchmen of an epoch,

keepers of the moment. 

This time is entrusted unto us. 

While yesterday sleeps,

tomorrow is yet to awaken. 

For now, the sun shines on you. 

Out of an endless deep…

we emerge, briefly:

and then are engulfed again. 

But sleeping eyes will watch and see,

for you are not about today, alone—

We are about, forever. 


Mortality, Exile & Reconciliation:

The Role of Suffering in the Relationship between God & Man (Part 2)

I. Mortality

The problem of death, and what our response should be towards it, often raises confusion and discomfort for many of us in the world today. We don’t have a coherent understanding of death or what it really means. And when others whom we know die, we are often equally bewildered and lost. Death appears to be a problem that we are helpless in the face of; and even for believers in an afterlife, and specifically for Christians who profess faith in Christ and His saving work on the cross and his resurrection, death is still a problem that causes great difficulty and anguish. As Vigen Guroian writes in his book, Life’s Living Toward Dying:

“…in the modern era…death is furtively pushed out of the world of familiar things. Even self-consciously religious people tend to respond to death with an other-worldliness that suggests a weakened belief in Providence and no real sense of grace. Second, vast numbers of contemporary people have difficulty making anything good out of the process of dying and death itself. And all that remains for many mourners today is a vague hope that they are sending the deceased to some far off better place….like its weak religious counterpart, the secular outlook is typically characterized by dread of death and propensity to expel it from the world of the living….Death becomes unnamable.” (Guroian, 13)

For many of us, believers in Christ as well as non-believers, the problem of death, though unavoidable, is still too great a problem to really grapple with, and one that seemingly has no real answer. It is therefore best ignored, and then only dealt with as quickly as possible when necessary, and then forgotten again as best as we can, after we’ve taken care of the dead. And for those who can’t move on from it, they become a burden and a source of discomfort for the rest of us, who just want to avoid the issue and get on with living. But avoidance and denial are rarely successful guiding principles for life, and an ethics based upon these is unlikely to be healthy for us individually or as a society. And for the Church it is even more unhealthy to avoid the problem of death, especially when the core of the Church’s identity and hope is Christ, who came as the answer and solution to the problem of human mortality. Guroian makes the following point in his book:

“Unless it makes death its central problem, Christian ethics runs the risk of mimicking other systems of ethics by focusing solely on the here and now and holding out the prospect of attaining complete happiness in this life….But Christian faith is nourished by the dogmas of the crucifixion, resurrection, last judgment, and eternal life…a Christian ethic must begin with the fact that death claims every human being and would nullify every human effort to achieve happiness and meaningful existence were it not for the fact that Jesus Christ triumphed over death for our sakes through his own freely offered death on the cross.” (Guroian, xxv)

But if we are supposed to make death our central problem—which, I think, is simply to acknowledge the truth, that it truly is our central problem—what is the purpose of doing so, and what good can come of it? In fact, isn’t there potentially a danger in doing so? And isn’t it a bit morbid to be preoccupied with death? Scripture says that wisdom is found in the house of mourning, and it is better to dwell in the house of mourning than in the house of mirth. Many thinkers within the Church have taken up this topic—patristic and ascetic father over the centuries have discussed mindfulness of death, and have explained the importance and benefits of this practice, which we’ll discuss in more detail later. Additionally, many philosophers and psychologists outside of the Church, have also explored the value of facing and contemplating the meaning of death in our lives.

Ernest Becker in his book, The Denial of Death, made an extensive and thorough survey of modern psychologists and existential philosophers on the topic and came to a number of interesting conclusions. Among them being that one of the principle motivations in mankind’s life, is the terror of death, and the means of avoiding that terror. However, he also states that facing this terror can lead man to new freedoms and new insights. He writes: “Cultivating awareness of our death leads to disillusionment, loss of character armor, and a conscious choice to abide in the face of terror.” (Becker, xv) While this sounds treacherous—it doesn’t have to be, for those who can abide this terror—he explains that it can also be a great liberation and source of growth. He continues: “The flood of anxiety is not the end for man. It is, rather a ‘school’ that provides man with the ultimate education, the final maturity….the ‘school’ of anxiety is the unlearning of repression…education for man means facing up to his natural impotence and death.” (Becker, 87-88)

One of the psychologists surveyed in Becker’s book, explains this repression and fear in greater detail:

“Frederick Perls conceived the neurotic structure as a thick edifice built up of four layers. The first two layers are the everyday layers…these are the glib, empty talk, cliché, and role-playing layers. Many people live out their lives never getting underneath them. The third layer is…the impasse that covers our feeling of being empty and lost, the very feeling we try to banish in building up our character defenses. Underneath this layer is the fourth and most baffling one: the “death” or fear-of-death layer: this is the layer of our true and basic animal anxieties, the terror that we carry around in our secret heart. Only when we explode this fourth layer, says Perls, do we get to the layer of what we might call our “authentic self”: what we really are without sham, without disguise, without defenses against fear.” (Becker, 57)

I think this quote sheds some light on the verse from Ecclesiastes which claims wisdom is found in the house of mourning, while fools dwell in the house of mirth. Mourning is the process of confronting the sorrows associated with death and loss. From this process we can realize things more honest and true about ourselves, and understand ourselves and others in deeper and more authentic ways. Becker further explains this process: “When we give up the four-layered lie, we ‘…come face to face with something even more awful: genuine despair. Full humanness means full fear and trembling, at least some of the waking day.'” (Becker, 59) Again, this sounds treacherous, and possibly an activity not suitable for everyone to engage in, but I think this is where Christianity can offer a further solution.

In the Orthodox Christian tradition, Saint Sophrony has a well-known saying which I think helps us to understand how to address this seeming paradox of facing the terror of death and its attendant despair, while doing so in a way that leads one to greater mental and spiritual health. He tells us to “keep thy mind in hell, and despair not.” Contained in this concept is a constant awareness of death and human suffering—without avoiding this or hiding from it—and yet at the same time, it includes trust and faithfulness in God’s supreme love for us. Both of these actions simultaneously—the former provides many spiritual benefits in our spiritual formation, while the latter draws us ever closer in relationship with God through faith and hope. How does this work? Archimandrite Sophrony explains it in this way: “Spiritual pain is the source of the energy needed to resist the pull of earthly attractions, for the sake of that other divine and eternal world.” (Sophrony, Wisdom 7)  This practice can help us shift our vision from what is earthly and temporal to what is heavenly and eternal. Additionally, it can reveal the true state of our helplessness and dependence, which is often concealed from us by our pride and self-love, when we are living successfully in the world and as we satisfy our temporal desires and needs. Keeping our mind in hell—in the sense of facing our suffering and the pains of death and loss—while resisting the urge towards despair—as we open to the truth of the blessings that God bestows upon us in this life—can lead us to a place of true humility—which enables us to live with greater wisdom and virtue in this world.

Ultimately, it is Christ who we emulate when we keep our minds in hell but despair not. Much in the same way that He emptied himself, crying tears of blood when he prayed in Gethsemane, and when he suffered on the cross and descended into hell before rising again. All of the spiritual benefits which derive from this practice, but in particular the acquiring of humility, engender in us a peacefulness, and a love for others that can be healing. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to face death without sometimes feeling tempted towards despair, and perhaps even succumbing to this temptation now and then. However, it is not inevitable that we feel despair, because God is love and He loves us, and He desires that we know Him and know His profound love for us. We learn of His love by faith and hope, through the action of grace in the Holy Spirit and by our actions of obedience to God. In particular, by the action of “keeping our mind in hell, and despairing not” we can maintain an openness of mind and spirit which allows us to approach and know God and His love for us, further protecting us from falling into despair in the face of the world’s suffering. “By descending into hell, we do nothing other than follow the trail of the Lord Himself. However, the way of the Lord leads to life, and for this reason we should not despair.” (Archim. Zacharias, Christ Our Way & Our Life, 268) We can find hope in this method because it is the way of Christ—strength in weakness, victory over death by His death, and descent into hell, and his resurrection, finally leading to eternal life.

Saint Sophrony’s method presupposes one has a belief in God, and a faith in God’s love and goodness. However, death and suffering are the very things which cause many people to question the existence of God, or question whether he is good, or whether he does in fact love us. Perhaps more than anything else in life, death makes the question of God and God’s goodness relevant. Upon the death of a loved one (or our own, or other significant causes of pain and suffering) we are thrust to a crossroads—even for those who have a strong faith in God—and this crossroads is a decision to draw closer to God or to reject Him. For those who don’t believe in God, this can be one more example in support of their position. Even for those who do believe, it can be a moment of truth and grave mental anguish, as they seriously grapple, perhaps for the first time, with whether or not the God they believe in actually is loving and has their best interests in mind.

However, at this crossroads, a great deal depends upon how we see the situation. The way we frame our understanding of death (or suffering) plays a significant role in how we feel about God. It is easy to understand why someone might choose to reject God on the basis of this suffering—if God is allowing this loss and this pain in my life, he is either not good, or not omnipotent and therefore not God. Yet, what if there are greater and more important issues at stake than simply maintaining our life’s status quo? As much as we love the gift of life in this world, and the countless gifts of family, friends etc. perhaps in God’s economy, and in the view of eternal life, there are other things that are more important. Repeatedly, throughout scripture, we are told that God is primarily concerned with our character and our inner spiritual state. We are told to be holy, to sanctify ourselves, to prepare our hearts for his spirit to dwell within us; we are told to repent of our worldly ways and to seek his kingdom, that we may have eternal life. And we are told that we are vastly important to him. If all of these things are true, it is very possible that God allows death and suffering as a means towards helping us cultivate all of these things within us. Quite possibly the things of this brief, temporal life—as wonderful as they are—are less important than the more wonderful eternal life, which depends, in part, on what we make of ourselves in this life.

I think most of us can look back on painful experiences—after time has passed—and understand the many ways those experiences have actually helped us and have activated positive inner qualities for which we are now grateful. Imagine the inner qualities that are admired, desired and encouraged in this life—traits like pride, ambition, control, or things like wealth, power and prestige—and how are these things going to assist us in the next life? In fact, if we believe what scripture tells us, all of these actually hinder us, and are problems in our way. And what often happens to us as we endure suffering, or face death? We often find that none of these things really matter to us after all, and we are changed; we relinquish these in favor of humility, patience, tenderness and gentleness. We begin to shed the fruits of this world and make room in our hearts for the fruit of the Spirit, which is very dear to God. Framed in this way, we can see value in the role of death and suffering in our lives; for what they can do to help transform us—making of us people that we wouldn’t become in any other way.

Nevertheless, the pain of this process can be grievous. And simply knowing that something is good for us, doesn’t always make us feel better. Being transformed can be very painful. John Climacus in his book, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, describes this perfectly:

“Violence and unending pain are the lot of those who aim to ascend to heaven with the body, and this especially at the early stages of the enterprise, when our pleasure-loving disposition and our unfeeling hearts must travel through overwhelming grief toward the love of God and holiness.” (Climacus, 75)

He was speaking of and to monks who had chosen this path voluntarily, which is quite different to those of us who have this process thrust upon us involuntarily through suffering and death. As we’ve discussed already, often our response to this involuntary pain is anger and blame. We feel unfairly maligned in the face of such suffering. Because of these natural feelings, people can add to their own suffering through alienating themselves from others and from God in their anger. This is where the body of Christ becomes very important; or, for those outside the body, where simply good friends can play a fundamental role in helping the grieving person. Death carries in its wake depths of loneliness that can be comforted by the love and support from others. How best can we offer that support, and bear the burdens of others?

The book of Job, from the Old Testament, perhaps is a good description of what not to do as a friend when offering consolation for the bereaved. After Job loses all of his wealth, and all of his children die, and he is struck with disease, his friends come to console him in his suffering. At first they sit with him in silence, simply offering their presence as comfort to Job. And this initial effort by his friends seemed to be a good intuition and it worked well, but then they began to reason with Job and to accuse him or insinuate that his suffering was his own fault. Reason, argument, theorizing, even if based in truth, often is unhelpful for the bereaved. As Metropolitan Nikolaos writes in his wonderful book, When God Is Not There:

“Even the most tender movement increases the pain of the suffering person. Even the most subtle comparison to a similar trial is unbearable for them. A word expressed as a rational argument cannot be tolerated. Only tears, sharing the question, silence, and inner prayer are able to relieve the suffering, illuminate the darkness or give rise to a glimmer of hope.” (Nikolaos, 79)

As Job reasons and argues with his friends, it appears that rather than bringing comfort, they add insult to injury by further testing Job’s endurance. Even his wife tests Job, telling him to curse God and die. But throughout all of this, Job never accuses God. Even in the midst of his complaints, Job maintains faith and blesses God. Not everyone can maintain this frame of mind, yet it is healthy to do so. As friends of the bereaved, we can offer love and comfort in silence, sharing their tears, and perhaps guiding them gently—while praying silently—and encouraging them not to put God out of their hearts, even as they wrestle with God through their pain. In the end, Job declares that before, he only knew about God—as one might know something through hearsay, or second-hand—but now, after having suffered, and having wrestled with God in the midst of his pain, now he knows God first-hand.

We live most of our lives not really knowing God, not in an ontological, or real and experiential sense. We may know something about him, we may know ideas or concepts about him, but we don’t often seek to know him personally or relationally. Death and suffering are among the most effective means for offering mankind an opportunity for this intimacy with the divine—for bringing us into a personal and experiential relationship with God. In the next section I would like to explore in more depth how death and suffering can bring us closer to God.



Death is an open wound—

but one where wildflowers bloom.

Friendship wills its memories—

our summer’s laughter on the breeze.

And our footfalls falling—

upon the earth.

Faint echoes fading—

of our mirth?

No, there are wildflowers in her hair—

and they’re pretty and so lovely.

Yes, there’s beauty everywhere—

she walked and where she bloomed.


Just Ride It Out

I’ve been told, more than once, that things just keep getting better. This is the basis of our entire economy after all. Each day will bring improvements upon the day before; and with a little more technology, a little more tweaking, a better workout, a better diet, and the conquering of our world’s problems, our future is sure to be a bright utopia. Young people love this stuff. I used to love this stuff too, but I guess we all get to a point in life, some earlier than others, when we aren’t interested in any more improvements. Things are fine the way they are now, I think I’ll just ride it out…

Think I’m just a grumpy old man? Well, I think if someone complains about me ‘just riding it out’ they probably are trying to sell me something; they’re probably instead ‘just taking me for a ride’.

I used to own cars that I could repair myself, (Volkswagen Bus, Toyota SR5 Truck) but now with every improvement, cars are far too complicated and expensive to repair myself, with lots more things that can break (computers, electronics etc). Eventually, I used to buy these complicated kinds of cars, but finally they went too far…now I drive a 2003 Camry with barely more than 100k miles on it. I think I can just ride it out…if I’m lucky I’ll never need another car again. I still can’t repair it, but it’s simpler than the newer models and works just fine.

For work I have to use an iPhone. I suppose it is one of the more current models. I always dread when it tells me to update something, because inevitably the update will screw everything up. I’ve lost countless photos and important documents and the phone settings are scrambled like eggs, whenever I update that thing. The same is true with my computer. I tried to keep Windows 2000 as long as possible but eventually I had to upgrade when I got a new computer. That worked out okay until the new computer told me to do an update. I knew it was a trick, I resisted it for months until the voices of my computer ‘expert’ friends wore me down, and so I allowed the update. It took me weeks to try to fix the problems which that update caused me. It will never work as well as my operating system from about ten years ago. I have now posted notes near my devices warning myself never to succumb again to the temptation of updating. It isn’t worth it. Just ride it out, my friends, just ride those devices out…

Which brings me to the topic of teeth. I’ve worked hard to keep mine in good shape but eventually I always need a new filling or a crown. I always thought this was prudent, taking care of those cavities, since we only get one set in this life. Now I’m on the second or third repair on many of the fillings I first received as a child, and I’m beginning to reconsider my strategy. Is all this dental work really leading to a brighter tomorrow? I visited the dentist today, one of the nicest and kindest persons you could meet. She worked hard to ally my anxieties as she leaned me way back in the chair to do her work on one of my upper molars. Without going into too much detail it ranks high on my list of terrifying activities now. So, why go to the trouble anymore? Next tooth that goes south, I think I’ll have it yanked instead. I’ve got quite a few to spare and even when those go, I could get a great set of fake ones if needed. I had my old filling replaced today because a little bit of new decay was discovered under the filling; it was to prevent future pain. But as with most things designed to make our lives better, there are unexpected consequences, and in this case a nerve is now somehow more exposed than it was before. So the future pain I avoided by getting this new filling, is now a present pain with a nerve issue I never had before. There is a lesson here folks—just ride it out…

Here’s the thing: today is just fine the way it is, and yesterday may have been good as well, but tomorrow is very likely not going to be any better. So just ride it out, friends, just ride it out…and don’t let anyone take you for a ride. Unless it’s in an older model car, that you can fix yourselves.


Mortality, Exile & Reconciliation: The Role of Suffering in the Relationship between God & Man


Who among us doesn’t yearn for a life without suffering? Suffering, at the very least, is unpleasant and uncomfortable. We try hard to avoid it, or mitigate it and then move on with our lives as quickly as possible—to free ourselves from its impact. We’ve created whole industries to help us with the project of ridding ourselves of pain, either by numbing it through a wide variety of medications, or by running from it through endless diversions and distractions. And yet, if we are honest with ourselves, we know that this life includes suffering. There is no life that is completely free of pain. Even as we run from it, we feel it stalking us; and even when our medications are working, we know that their soothing effects are only temporary, and offer us no permanent solution.

What’s worse, we also know that life itself isn’t permanent—that everyone we know and love will eventually die, including ourselves. And this understanding can cause us a profound and existential suffering. The knowledge of our inevitable mortality, and finitude in this world, can often leave us feeling very afraid and alone. And the loss of our loved ones to death can leave us feeling utterly empty; and our lives as though drained of all meaning. Our pain can become so great in these circumstances, that, as St. Basel the Great once said, we become so sensitive that we are like the eye, which cannot bear even the touch of a feather.

This kind of vulnerability is also uncomfortable for most of us. It portends a loss of control over our own lives, and a sense of helplessness in the face of our suffering, as we confront the ontological reality of death and the torments that may flow in its wake. Many of us, instead of admitting this kind of pain, will instead put on a façade—we maintain a stiff upper lip, we wipe away the tears and get on with things, we fight against our natural feelings of sorrow and mourning in order not to succumb to them. While others of us do succumb to these feelings, and might possibly fall into despair, or into anger or other passions which gain the upper hand over us—and take further control of us—against which we may give up fighting altogether, as these feelings suck the energy out of our life. There is a common fear, among those confronting losses brought on by death, that if they mourn, if they really face the feelings they are experiencing, then they may fall into those feelings—as if into a black hole or a well—and they may never be able to get out again. It is as though the power within these emotions is potentially too much for us, and if given license they may turn and devour us, and we may lose ourselves forever.

And against this natural fear of death, there is a natural love of life. Under normal circumstances we all want to live and to go on living; and we want everyone we love to continue living as well. It has been said that the more we love the more we abhor death; the greater the depth of love, the greater the suffering. So what do we do with such a terrible and inevitable source of suffering? Aside from employing the methods of denial and diversion that we have already briefly discussed, we also attempt to rationalize death in order to accept it and become at peace with it. We seem to conclude that if we can’t beat death—which we know we can’t—then we might as well at least come to an understanding and acceptance of it, so we can get on with making the most of the time we have left. Death will eventually come, but hopefully not too soon, and if we’re lucky we can postpone it as long as possible. And when it does finally, inevitably invade our lives, and we can no longer avoid it, we attempt to comfort ourselves and others with notions such as: that death is natural, and it is just a part of the cycle of life. Sometimes we even go so far as to say that it is meant to be, and it is simply part of God’s plan.

These are among the ways which the world attempts to deal with the suffering of death. Even Christians often resort to these tactics, though in reality they have a much different and more hopeful way to face death. Yet, the immediacy of this world’s suffering and the present tangibility of our own experience, can make the promises found in Christ’s death and resurrection seem partially irrelevant to the here and now. The promises of a future life, though wonderful as they may be, can seem too distant to be meaningful—like promising a child an ice cream that they can’t eat until next year. Certainly it will be great, when it finally arrives, but we’d really like to have it now. In fact, waiting, for many of us, is its own kind of suffering. That good thing we’ve been promised, well, why can’t we have it now?! If you are going to give it to me eventually anyways, why wait? What is there possibly to be gained in the process of waiting?

Likewise, what is there possibly to be gained through the process of suffering? Can there be important and positive meaning discovered through our suffering? And what about death, can something positive be found in that, which is beneficial to us in our lives here and now? The Christian view is—and has always been—that death is our enemy; it is not natural, nor is it something with which to accept or to make peace. Therefore, how are we to understand this terrible enemy; and what response can we cultivate towards death that accords with God’s will for us, and is true to our reality in this world and in anticipation of the life to come?

In the book of Genesis, chapter three, the Bible describes the advent of suffering and of death connected with the fall of mankind, and with their banishment from paradise. From that time forward, suffering and death have been interwoven with the experience of exile. Adam and Eve were exiled from their original home in the garden, and through their sinful actions they became alienated from each other—originally the two are made one flesh but subsequent to the fall Adam rules over Eve—and they both became alienated from God—as they hid from Him in shame and in fear. And as a result of their disobedience their sorrows were multiplied, pain became intermingled with life, and toil accompanied their efforts as they worked a land that became cursed. And this is still the experience of mankind even today; though most of us, if not all, fight against this painful reality with all our might.

When the trials of life press upon us we may find ourselves protesting against the unfairness of it; often shaking our fist at God, though this is usually done in private, and rarely out in the open. We can also be like the Israelite’s wandering in the desert and grumbling against God’s provision; or like Job’s wife, we may be tempted to “curse God, and die”. Or, we may even react to these trials of suffering in the manner that the Apostle Peter warns against: “Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you…” (1 Peter 4:12) In all of these ways, it is our tendency to further alienate and isolate ourselves from God and from each other as we fight against our suffering, often blaming others for it, and also blaming God.

We are born into this world and we make our home here. Yet, the Christian view is that this world is not our true home, and we are merely sojourners here for the brief span of our earthly life. Our eternal home, ultimately, will be dwelling with God, or, God forbid, in eternal exile separated from God’s presence. So, in a very real sense, spiritually speaking, our lives here are a life in exile, even in the best of times and circumstances. Often we may get an inkling that this is not our true home, and that we are merely aliens in this world, but it is typically an indistinct sense and not one that is easy to pin down. Yet, through suffering, and especially in the experience of death, this ineffable feeling is given flesh, so to speak, and we are thrust headlong into a very real and palpable experience of isolation, loneliness and disorientation. It is common for those who’ve lost loved ones to feel in a daze, or a fog which obscures the most familiar things of our lives, and leaves us completely lost.

In these situations most of us struggle to try to regain what we’ve lost; even if we know this is impossible. We want with all our heart for that person who has died to come back to us, we want to touch them again, to do all the things we used to enjoy together, to see them, to hold them, and on and on. This pain of separation can be bewildering. And this same experience of exile, alienation, loneliness and disorientation can happen with other types of losses, not just loss to death. We may lose our own health due to an accident, an illness, or a medical emergency such as a stroke, and the experience is very similar. We want things to go back to normal, back to how they were before this thing befell us. Again, we may find ourselves like the Israelites who had been living in Egypt, in exile from the Promised Land. Once freed from their bondage, though still wandering through the wilderness, they missed the comforts of their previous life. Though Egypt wasn’t their true home, it was familiar and they longed to return.

One of the most interesting things about exile in this world—in a spiritual sense—is how most of us can live comfortably unaware that we even are living in exile. We make our homes in Egypt—again in a spiritual sense—and forget all about the Promised Land from whence we first came, and from where we were banished. We preoccupy our hearts and minds with the immediate things of this world, and create life’s meaning and purpose within the constraints of this realm only. Time and space beyond the here and now is mostly irrelevant to us, and since it cannot be known for certain, it is mainly discounted, or put off to a later time, or considered false comfort and an illusion. The people and things of our immediate world blind us to any glimmers of another potential world, so that God is considered principally, only in terms of how He might help us now, and how He might make our lives more comfortable here.

Because of this, when suffering pierces us, as it inevitably does, and when death tears the fabric of our life so mercilessly, we are taken aback, and we can become angry at God. How could he allow something bad to happen to us? Shouldn’t a good God let us live in peace; shouldn’t He bless our lives only with good things? Perhaps, if this were the only life we were meant to live, this might be true. And if we were only meant to live in this world, in exile, estranged from the true home God intends for us, then this might also be true. Perhaps, if this were the case, God would leave us alone, as many people seem to desire; or He would act the part of the benevolent grandfather, which so many of us wish that He were. And yet, the truth is, God doesn’t want to leave us in exile, even if we think we prefer it; and He doesn’t want to leave us alienated, estranged, lonely and disoriented—as we so often are in this life. Instead, He wants to dwell in us, to make His home within us, and to put a final end to our exile.

But mankind does not make the indwelling of God an easy task. And God will not force himself upon us against our will. Our pride, and our passions can act as a bulwark against God’s advance in our lives; and our desires and our own willfulness become the walls of the house we prefer—and the wall of separation between ourselves and God. Repeatedly, in scripture, we are told to sanctify ourselves, to make our hearts holy, in preparation for God to come and abide in us. Yes, to end our worldly exile requires our acquiescence; there is no coming home without our agreement to return. God will not make us captives in paradise. But how can a person choose the path of sanctification that leads out of this exile, when all their lives they have worked to build up a carnal home instead—built upon their self-will, self-love, and the fulfillment of their pride, vanity and passions? Or put another way, how can one depart this life that they love, the people that they love, and the things that they love in order to discover themselves as a new person, in a new life?

Fortunately, Jesus Christ and his Church can show us the way. It is a life of self-emptying, a path of dying to oneself; it is the way of the cross, which Christ demonstrated to us in his love and devotion to doing his Father’s will. For us, it is a life of reconciliation, or of repentance, in which we turn from our old life and embrace a new one. And while the goal is glorious, the path can be difficult—though Christ assures us that He will make it easy as well. But again, how does one choose this? As we’ve said earlier, most of us are happy living in exile in this world—we most likely don’t even see it as an exile—and many of us are happy keeping God at arm’s length. So, for the reasons we’ve already discussed, most of us don’t choose a life of self-emptying, and for the most part we won’t choose it. Even if we understand, theoretically, the merits of following the way of Christ—even if we believe that the way of the cross is the way to a deep and complete relationship with God—still, we’re comfortable with the life we’ve made for ourselves, and the life we know.

I do not presume to know the mysteries of death and the life to come, or the causes for our suffering and pain in this life. And I don’t want to speculate here, like the disciples who questioned Jesus did, whether our suffering is due to our sin, or the sins of our ancestors, or for some other reason. But I do want to delve into the positive role that suffering can have in our life, and in our relationships with others, and with God, since it is an inevitability and we cannot avoid it; and I’d like to explore the role that death in particular plays, in the relationship-building between ourselves and God. Suffering and death can cause us to view our life in a new way. They have the power to disorient us in profound and irreversible ways—removing us from the old familiar roads we once traveled—and presenting us with new ones which have the power to transform us, if we recognize and allow them to do so.

Fortunately, none of us have to be alone in our suffering; nor are we alone as we struggle with the deaths of loved ones, or when we face the fact of our own mortality. Although all of these things can make us feel very alone and isolated, we are in this life together with others who have gone through, or are going through, the very same difficulties. Therefore, we can lean upon one another, learn from one another, and encourage and guide one another through the paths of suffering which are laid before us in this life’s journey. Each of us will likely be called upon to offer care and love to others in the midst of their pain; so each of us has an opportunity to suffer together, and to bear one another’s burdens. It is my hope that this discourse may, in some way, help us to be better prepared when this opportunity arises.

In the following sections I would like to look more deeply into these topics of suffering and death, exile, and reconciliation. In the light of God’s love for us, how might we better understand the role that suffering can have in our relationship with God; and how might we better understand our own role as we share in the suffering of others? If God is love then how does that love accord with suffering and death? And in what manner can we best approach this question; is there a specific answer that is satisfying to us? Or might the very question itself be the stimulus that can lead us into deeper, fuller relationship with God? And is it simply answers that we need in response to suffering; or is it a truer relationship with love itself, that is the goal? I’d like to begin this exploration, in the next section, by delving deeper into the problem of mortality.