A few days ago, the Vatican released the Holy Father’s message for the upcoming World Day of the Sick, which will be on February 11, 2014 next. The theme is “Faith and charity: ‘We too must give our lives for our brethren’ (1 Jn 3:16)”.
Catholics have a particular view of the meaning of suffering, articulated by Pope Francis in his message:
“The Son of God made man has not taken away from human disease and suffering, but, taking them upon himself, has transformed and reduced them so they no longer have the last word, which now belongs to the new life in fullness; transformed, because in union with Christ positive can come from negative…. Belief in our good God becomes goodness, faith in the Crucified Christ becomes strength to love till the end and even our enemies. Evidence of authentic faith in Christ is the gift of self to spread the love for one’s neighbor, especially for those who do not deserve it, for those who suffer, for those who are marginalized.”
You will note that Pope Francis acknowledges the reality of pain and suffering, and does not try to diminish it. As humans, we suffer, we experience pain, and we frequently point to the existence of these things in our life as signs of God’s favor (or disfavor). We conclude (erroneously) that our suffering is intended by a callous or disinterested maker. We withdraw our love and adoration for God based upon the “gifts” or “trials” He bestows upon us.
The problem with this, noted by C.S. Lewis in his book, The Problem of Pain, is that we are not well disposed to perceive “goodness” or “badness” on our own. We associate sensations and feelings with these things, so that goodness is mistaken as pleasure or badness is labeled as suffering. Lewis writes:
“By the goodness of God we mean nowadays almost exclusively His lovingness; and in this we may be right. And by Love, in this context, most of us mean kindness — the desire to see others than the self happy; not happy in this way or that, but just happy. What would really satisfy us would be a God who said of anything we happened to like doing, ‘What does it matter so long as they are contented?’
“We want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven — a senile benevolence who, as they say, ‘liked to see young people enjoying themselves’, and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, ‘a good time was had by all’. Not many people, I admit, would formulate a theology in precisely those terms: but a conception not very different lurks in the back of many minds. I do not claim to be an exception: I should very much like to live in a universe which is governed on such lines.
“But since it is abundantly clear that I don’t, and since I have reason to believe, nevertheless, that God is Love, I conclude that my conception of love needs correction…
“It is for people whom we care nothing about that we demand happiness on any terms: with our friends, our lovers, our children, we are exacting and would rather see them suffer much than be happy in contemptible and estranging modes.
“If God is Love, He is, by definition, something more than mere kindness. And it appears, from all the records, that though He has often rebuked us and condemned us, He has never regarded us with contempt. He had paid us the intolerable compliment of loving us, in the deepest, most tragic, most inexorable sense.”
And then, even our happiness will not be due to a state in which God has removed our suffering, but will as St. Paul says, give us a peace which surpasses human understanding (Phil. 4:7). Why does this peace surpass human understanding? Because by external appearances, we still suffer! Only our internal joy permits us to accept the sufferings of this world and realize that we must be of the world, but not in it.
For Lewis, asking to avoid suffering is to complain against the “intolerable compliment”: in the case of the greatly-loved masterwork of an artist, the artist will take “endless trouble” and would “doubtless, thereby give endless trouble” were the masterwork sentient:
“One can imagine a sentient picture, after being rubbed and scraped and recommenced for the tenth time, wishing that it were only a thumbnail sketch whose making was over in a minute. On the same way, it is natural for us to wish that God had designed for us a less glorious and less arduous destiny; but then we are wishing not for more love but for less.”
As you ponder your own suffering, consider yourself one of God’s masterworks (because you are!) and consider the trouble He takes with you, and the suffering you experience for it, as a sign not of less love but more — so much love that God cannot leave you alone!