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.