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.


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