(This is the third in a three-part series on the meaning of suffering. For Part I: Life and the Promise of Suffering, go here. For Part II: Wisdom and the Necessity of Suffering, go here.)
In the Catholic Christian understanding, there is a mysterious and profound connection between suffering and love. Even before exploring this connection in its murkier theological depths, we can recognize a fairly straightforward link between the two, as Pope Benedict XVI explains, in an interview prior to his papacy:
Anyone who really wanted to get rid of suffering would have to get rid of love before anything else, because there can be no love without suffering, because it always demands an element of self-sacrifice, because, given temperamental differences and the drama of situations, it will always bring with it renunciation and pain. When we know that the way of love—this exodus, this going out of oneself—is the true way by which man becomes human, then we also understand that suffering is the process through which we mature. Anyone who has inwardly accepted suffering becomes more mature and more understanding of others, becomes more human. Anyone who has consistently avoided suffering does not understand other people; he becomes hard and selfish.
Love is not, as it turns out, about our own self-actualization and fulfillment. Genuine love comes at a cost to ourselves, a cost that reveals itself in both life and death. Consider the rocky terrain of marriage and parenthood. In life, navigating this terrain requires that we, on a daily basis, sacrifice our desires and comforts on behalf of one another. The magnitude of our love is revealed in proportion to our willingness to accept these sacrifices. Similarly, in death, the depth of our suffering is felt in proportion to the love we have for the one who has died. Disasters such as mass shootings would not be so disastrous if it weren’t for the intensity of our love for those lost. Indeed, our anguish at death signals the infinite value of the human person. Grief itself is a tribute, professing the profound dignity of the lover and the irreplaceability of the beloved.
In Benatar’s world, human relationships are fraught with conflict and tension, with each person angling against his neighbor for a better slice of the pleasure pie. There is little room, in this world, for a kind of love that has in mind the good of the other. Moreover, it would make sense, from his perspective, to eradicate love altogether, because of its connection with suffering. One is never safe from the latter unless entirely purged of the former.
Predictably, Benatar’s pleasure principle is relentlessly individualistic. There is no sense that one can suffer meaningfully for something good, or someone’s good. I think, for example, of the postpartum suffering I’ve recently experienced – the pelvic trauma, the chaotic hormonal swings, the unremitting sleep deprivation, thrush infections, nipple blisters, bouts of crippling anxiety. Yet all that suffering is charged with deep meaning, as it involves the preservation of a vulnerable, invaluable new life.
And many kinds of pain, like postpartum pain, go through an arc toward recovery. My body heals, I get some sleep. Slowly, life ebbs back to normal. Benatar’s vision of suffering is unremitting, static, never healing. He does not admit that, for many people, periods of joy and sorrow ebb and flow throughout one’s lifetime. However much we might want to universalize our emotional state during times of turmoil, believing it will last forever, most of that time that’s simply not true.
Postpartum trauma is hardly an extreme example of suffering, but it is still bound to fail Benatar’s tidy cost-benefit analysis of pleasure and pain. Measured in time, the minutes I’ve spent in physical pain, discomfort, or boredom are far more numerous than the minutes I feel blissed out in the presence of my newborn. But there is more than length to a moment; there is also depth, and the moments I spend gazing into my son’s face, the face of this incredible, improbable person I am only just beginning to know yet already love beyond words – those moments expand until time disappears, and you can’t adequately measure them at all.
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Yet, there are plenty of examples of suffering where the link to love is much less clear, when the suffering seems random and meaningless. In the strange light of the Gospel, however, suffering of any kind can always become purposeful suffering, ‘suffering for’ – either for the good of one’s own soul, or for the good of others.
Whether we like it or not, conversion is almost always accompanied by suffering. As St. John Paul II writes in his encyclical on suffering, Salvifici Doloris, “it is suffering, more than anything else, which clears the way for the grace which transforms human souls.” This is what brings about a conversion, what he describes as the “rebuilding of goodness” within the person. Only those who have entered the abyss, who have tasted its suffocating darkness, can fully understand the meaning of these words: I am the light of the world. He who walks with me shall not dwell in darkness but will have the light of life. In the Gospels, it is the sick and the suffering, the desperate and deranged, who see Christ most clearly and encounter him most radically. They willingly hand over their wounded, broken selves for healing. The religious illuminati, on the other hand, with their earthly power and unbent wills, always hover a comfortable distance away.
Often, prior to conversion, we have to spend some time, perhaps years of our lives, listlessly riding the “escalator of desire,” as Benatar describes it:
Many desires are never satisfied. And even when they are satisfied, it is often after a long period of dissatisfaction. Nor does satisfaction last, for the satisfaction of a desire leads to a new desire – which itself needs to be satisfied some time in the future. When one can fulfil one’s more basic desires, such as hunger, on a regular basis, higher-level desires arise. There is a treadmill and an escalator of desire.
This is the one moment in Benatar’s essay when his insights almost converge with those of Christianity. If our desires are channeled only toward the many finite goods within this world, rather than the infinite source of the Good that underlies the world, our cravings will persist. We will be perennially discontent. Of course, for Benatar there is no ultimate Good. The escalator leads nowhere. Ironically, his underlying assumption – that pleasure is the only thing worth pursuing – is the very motor of the escalator he describes. Only when one stops believing that lie does it become possible to step off.
In the Christian view, the suffering experienced by the endless, fruitless pursuit of fleeting pleasures can be a means to conversion, which is always painful, a wrenching process of our desires being reshaped, redirected toward what alone can fulfill them. In the language of addiction, you have to hit rock bottom; you have to experience the crushing nothing of nihilism, before the desire to be free from enslavement to pleasure becomes stronger than the desire for pleasure itself. Suffering, then, both prepares the soul for conversion and is endemic to the conversion process.
There’s another kind of conversion to consider. Not a dramatic about-face from a life of mortal sin, but a quiet, continual reorientation, a steady pilgrimage more deeply into the heart of God. Here, too, suffering is a plough in God’s steady hands, churning up the hardened soil to make it capable of receiving and nurturing the seed of divine life. St. John Paul II describes the spiritual receptivity that is possible only through our fragility: “the weaknesses of all human sufferings are capable of being infused with the same power of God manifested in Christ’s Cross. In such a concept, to suffer means to become particularly susceptible, particularly open to the working of the salvific powers of God.”
There’s a certain intimacy with Christ that is only possible in the crucible of suffering, when the soul is pried open to experience the magnitude of Christ’s passion. As I noted previously, it is those who are suffering that draw near to Christ in the Gospels, and the reverse is also true: He draws near to them. Those who suffer have a unique place close to the heart of Christ. Think of the parable of Lazarus, a man who did nothing but sit and suffer outside the rich man’s gates. After death, he is in the bosom of Abraham, awaiting his redemption in Christ, while the callous rich man is tormented in Hades. Think of the eight beatitudes, a litany of blessings reserved for those who have been brought low. According to St. John Paul II, “in suffering there is concealed a particular power that draws a person interiorly close to Christ, a special grace.” One can see this special grace alive in the saints whose own lives were marked by intense suffering. When strength and health fall away, a deteriorating body can become a window into the interior life and vitality of the soul. This is when the resilience of the human spirit shows itself, when true spiritual greatness can be perceived – not in the avoidance of suffering, but in its grueling midst.
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Foraging even deeper into the heart of Christianity, one can discover a response to human suffering that is at once darker in its mystery, but brighter in its power than everything else I’ve tried to articulate thus far. That is the mystery of redemptive suffering.
St. Paul writes about this mystery in his letter to the Colossians, where he makes this enigmatic statement: “I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church.” In my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions… What could this possibly mean? What could be lacking in Christ’s afflictions, and how could we somehow “complete” it through our own suffering?
The Christian story is one of redemption accomplished through love, love that displays its magnitude by traversing into the depths of human suffering. And this way of redemption has been left open for us – the way of love-in-suffering. To follow Christ is to retrace his path, in which the glory of the Resurrection is won by way of the Cross.
Through the mystical reality of his Body the Church, Christ includes his people in his redemptive work in the world. Our meager, human acts become charged with divine charity. Our love becomes his love. In a similar way, our suffering can be united with his suffering and become imbued with its salvific power. This does not mean that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross wasn’t adequate – Christ’s sacrifice was infinite in its merit, and it happened once and for all, but the transformative power of that sacrifice is still washing over the world, an boundless outpouring that will continue until all has been made new. Our sufferings, then, can become supernaturally fruitful through the Body of Christ on earth, which is still on pilgrimage, still dispensing the infinite riches of Christ’s sacrifice to all humankind.
Suffering, in the Catholic Christian view, is ever more intimately linked to love. The Way of Christ is one in which suffering is transfigured by love, in which love takes hold of evil and uses it as a means of supernatural grace. In the light of faith, suffering itself is reframed. Our pain is not meaningless, but can become an efficacious gesture of love. When Christ invites us to take up our cross and follow him, this is an invitation to conscious assent and action. I will experience suffering regardless, but in accepting this charge, what once seemed meaningless becomes a source of new life. Through the synergy of prayer, I can unite my suffering with Christ’s redemptive suffering; I can offer my anguish as a sacrifice on behalf of another, perhaps for a loved one’s conversion, or the healing of a stranger.
I’ve had three children, and at some point during the merry-go-round of pregnancy, labor, and lactation, I typically hear an incredulous remark about how bad we women have it, because of our pesky, excessive, fecund bodies. What the hell was God thinking when he designed women? So goes the joke, with its own stale laugh track. These comments usually come from men, for whatever that’s worth, and I just smile indulgently in response, refraining from theological commentary. In truth, that pain – the most overwhelming physical pain I’ve ever known, pain that takes me to the brink of what I can endure, until the “I” itself is emptied – that pain has become a key for me, one that unlocks the redemptive potential of suffering. Our bodies are icons, signposts of divine realities, and the maternal body carries its own revelation, providing a microcosm of Mater Ecclesia, who is laboring to redeem the world. We mothers are the heralds of this mysterious reality, because we have been marked, in our flesh and our souls, by an agony that brings forth new life.
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To find meaning in suffering does not remove its crippling blow. Cicero, a Roman Stoic philosopher, famously asserted that it was possible to be happy on the rack – that through sheer will, torture could cease to be torture. Christianity is not Stoicism. Christ was not happy on the cross; he was in agony. During the time I’ve been writing these meditations on the mystery of suffering, my family has been going through an intense time of trial, and I just heard word that one of my former students died unexpectedly, the day before the birth of his first child. Knowing what I know about suffering does not take away the sense of loss – the sharp, brutal edge of grief. Within the Christian cosmos, suffering is still suffering. But it is never meaningless.
The polish Catholic poet, Czeslaw Milosz, has this poem “Either/Or,” which describes the dazzling truth claims of Christianity and their profound implications:
If God incarnated himself in man, died and rose from the dead,
All human endeavors deserve attention
Only to the degree that they depend on this,
I.e., acquire meaning thanks to this event.
We should think of this by day and by night.
Every day, for years ever stronger and deeper.
And most of all about how human history is holy
And how every deed of ours becomes a part of it,
Is written down forever, and nothing is ever lost.
Even when, especially when, it seems impossible to believe, shrouded as we are in the dim light of this present age, we must hold to the promise of the Resurrection. Our crosses, when we take them up, must always point toward this. Suffering and death are a means, which have converted by Christ toward the ends of love. The tapestry of our salvation is still unfolding, and in the end we shall be able to see how each person, each event, is a thread that has been gathered up into its design. Nothing is ever lost.