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.

~FS

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