Giving meaning to Suffering by Guido Davanzo
All booklets are published thanks to the generous support of the members of the Catholic Truth Society
CATHOLIC TRUTH SOCIETY PUBLISHERS TO THE HOLY SEE
Contents 1. Some observations and attempted solutions . . . .3 2. Suffering in the Scriptures . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .9 3. The Suffering Christian . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .15 4. The Meaning of suffering in ‘Salvifici Doloris’ . . .26 5. Spiritual Perspectives. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .32 6. Towards the Father’s house . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .38
1. Some observations and attempted solutions “Man is a student and suffering is his teacher” (Gandhi) It is possible to distinguish the term pain, meaning physical suffering from the term suffering which refers to a disturbance felt by the whole person. In this booklet however we will use the term suffering to encompass both the negative effects felt by the person as a response to physical pain and the deeper psychological/moral suffering we can experience. In one way or another suffering and death are inevitable realities that we encounter in the course of our existence. Any philosophy of life which does not take account of this cannot be taken seriously. Suffering affects the integrity of the person, it hinders the person’s actions and puts their faith and character to the test. It complicates social and family relationships. Long and debilitating illnesses, and the suffering caused by unjust and meaningless violence, pose some of the most difficult questions to the person of faith, and if these questions are not answered they can lead to hate and despair. Ever since life began on Earth, even before human beings appeared, the struggle against the difficulties of life had already begun. This battle was sustained by the instinct of self-preservation and helped along by advances in technology, the greatest of which we 3
see today. Advances in healthcare have been particularly significant; great epidemics have been avoided through vaccinations, and diagnoses and cures that were once unthinkable have become everyday events. Life expectancy has increased and for most of us, quality of life has improved significantly. And yet this everlasting struggle against suffering seems doomed to failure. New illnesses appear to replace the old, some stemming from the cures themselves. All forms of anxiety, uncertainty, and mental illness are on the rise. Drug abuse, Aids and suicide become ever more common. Even today, vast areas of the world remain prey to drought, flooding, earthquakes and tsunamis. Peaceful cohabitation in many societies of the world seems to be under threat as the rights of minorities are trampled on, and as acts of terrifying violence such as 9/11 and the attacks in Madrid show the rise of dangerous strains of fundamentalism. And as if that wasn’t enough the risk of nuclear war remains a possibility. While the inalienable rights of individuals are given more and more importance, a culture has developed which inexplicably support the most terrible crimes against life itself as legitimate expressions of personal freedoms which must be defended at all costs. And to top it all off, death is inevitable. How should we react when confronted with the reality of suffering, of injustice or death? Especially 4
since in every situation we are keenly aware of the fact that we often suffer through no fault of our own. We are victims of what has gone before us (e.g. in hereditary illnesses) and we are made to suffer by situations we did not choose to be in (e.g. our own family or environment), and at the same time we are actors, protagonists of our own existence. The age-old quest has been to find a way of being in command of or at least managing these situations which so often seem beyond our control. Some solutions which have been tried Buddhism and Eastern Spirituality The realisation that desire tends to increase the tension within a human being and leads inevitably to frustration led to a possible solution: i.e. eliminating suffering through non-resistance and total resignation to it. The ultimate state of Nirvana in Eastern spirituality is reached through a complete emptying of oneself, and is presented as the definitive goal of every human being. While it is true that our inability to accept the difficulties of our own life can lead to further suffering, this perspective can lead to a reduction in the fullness of our experience of life. The religious and philosophical environment of India gave rise to Yoga, a process of spiritual development 5
gained through following a strict rule of life and stage by stage leads to the complete control of one’s bodily senses and the constant contemplation of the absolute. The preaching of Buddha on the other hand gave a value to feelings of solidarity with those who suffer and already in the fifth century BC gave rise to the opening of small hospitals for the care of the poor. However this initiative did not last for long. Only Christianity has been characterised from its earliest days by a commitment to solidarity with the poor and suffering. These initiatives have sprung up wherever the gospel has been preached, and given rise to numerous heroic examples of self-sacrifice. Stoicism The stoics developed a philosophy which was extremely influential in Greek and Roman society. The system they developed held up the ideal of the wise man, who was completely indifferent to both pleasure and pain, and who always acted with cool rationality no matter how tragic or serious the situation that confronted him. Suffering was dealt with by considering one’s body and environment with a cold detachment and by viewing sensual pleasure with a certain suspicion. While it is certainly true that our emotions can lead us to more suffering than is necessary, a balanced life cannot be found by simply denying that we have 6
emotions or feelings at all. Stoicism purported to defend the wise man from excessive emotiveness but also numbed his feelings towards his neighbour and did nothing to encourage solidarity with his fellow man. The Age of Technology Our technologically advanced society has entrusted itself to human action. The Buddhist view has been rejected as too passive, and stoicism’s rejection of pleasure has also been left behind. Now the intention is to dominate nature and control the causes of suffering through scientific progress. Suffering must be eradicated at its roots! Our culture has reassessed humanity’s relationship with nature and progressed towards ever more effective therapies, however this has led to the myth of permanent well-being and physical health, giving rise to yet more frustrations when that myth turns out to be unattainable. So how should we respond? Suffering should be combated in every way possible but without ever thinking that one can eliminate it completely. Medicine, no matter how effective, can never heal the whole person, which is so much more than a collection of organs, and will always have to face the age-old existential questions.
Psychology Among the various schools of psychological thought which have searched for a solution to the problem of suffering, Viktor Frankl’s has been particularly influential. His Logotherapy or ‘therapy through meaning’ proposed that frustration or depression came from placing too much emphasis on the gaining of pleasure and searching for success in the various spheres of human achievement. The harsh realities of life would soon show us that these dreams were often unachievable. Frankl, therefore, proposed that we should aim for deeper and more durable values, to search for a moral meaning in life and that these values needed to be constantly re-evaluated and if necessary changed as life went on. He held that it is not what you do but how you do it that is most important. Frankl put these ideas to the test in the three concentration camps where he spent the second world war and they brought him through. Thus there would seem to be something valid in his theory, but if it is not supported by faith it can become impossible to sustain. For believers ‘therapy through meaning’ is a useful method but only when viewed through the eyes of faith.
2. Suffering in the Scriptures Suffering in the Old Testament Genesis In the first two chapters, Genesis presents us with an idyllic earthly paradise, which it contrasts with the miserable description of life after original sin. In effect it argues a relationship between sin, suffering and death. But it is not easy to explain the connection between these three. We can ask ourselves: if original sin had never happened, would we now be living without sin and without death? Or should we believe – as many do now – that while the events of Genesis are told in a historical context, the story is merely describing that there would be the potential for harmony and peace if we lived in faithfulness to God? Original sin, i.e. the belief that we can decide what is good and what is evil without reference to God, certainly impinged on God’s original plan, and has since then affected all of creation. Suffering and death therefore, as we experience them today, show traces of all the sins that have been committed from the first to the present day, and of the weaknesses and malice and lack of faith that have accompanied them. 9
Without pretending to know what the human condition was before original sin, it doesn’t seem fair to attribute all the subsequent suffering and death to that single first sin, although it certainly is partly responsible for the difficulties of our earthly life. The book of Genesis does not speak of the scientific causes of suffering and death but tells us rather that a lack of faith in God and worse still rebellion against him have rendered our existence much more difficult. The Book of Job In this book the idea that suffering is proportionate to one’s personal transgressions is challenged, but no answers are given. We are invited to trust in God even when the situation we find ourselves in seems unfair and absurd. The mysteries of human life and of God must be accepted as they are. The Psalms of lamentation The Psalms also contain the remonstrations of the suffering with God, lamentations and complaints that always move towards a heartfelt cry for help. In moments of suffering it is good to pour out our hearts before God. He understands our outpourings in prayer like a mother who understands the cries of a child who is sick. Through the psalms, we are able 10