Monday, 30 May 2011

Suffering part 1

From the book ‘The GreatRedeemer’ by The Very Rev. Thamer Toth Professor, University of Budapest Translated by V.G. Agotai Edited by Rev. Newton Thomas S.T.D. 
THE name of St. John Chrysostom, the most eminent orator in the history of the Catholic Church, is surely well known to you. This saintly bishop was great when he preached, great when he wrote, great when he ruled over his followers as bishop. But do you know when he was greatest of all? When he suffered.
By the unsearchable will of divine Providence, he received an exceedingly great measure of suffering. Empress Eudoxia, whose vanity he had offended, sent him into exile; and the world-famous aged bishop had to walk on foot in the most terrible heat through Bithynia, Persia, Cappadocia, and Cilicia, the whole long way to Cucusus. On the entire journey he was irregularly nourished and was tormented by headache, by a disorder of the stomach, and by fever. We can scarcely imagine how he must have suffered during the seventy days of that journey on foot, until he arrived at his place of exile.
Yet here a further trial awaited him. He found himself in a wretched mountain citadel, where he suffered untold misery from the winter cold. Later on robbers attacked the fort, and the inhabitants, in making their escape, dragged him with them to Arabissus. Thence a new imperial command ordered him still farther away, to a remote and desolate place, Pithyus lying at the foot of the Caucasus, on the northeast end of the Black Sea. Again a bitterly hard journey on foot was made with an escort of merciless soldiers. The burning sun caused the aged bishop torturing headache; in vain he asked to be allowed to rest a little in the shade. His body, weakened by fever, was drenched to the skin in pouring rain. But the soldiers drove him on without halting.
Then he knew the object they had in view. With unsurpassed heroism he dragged himself forward day by day, week by week. At last he could go no farther. He collapsed on the highway, his pulse became intermittent, his breath came in gasps. He was carried into a house. After a few weak breaths, he opened his eyes once more, lifted them to heaven, and spoke again, for the last time. These were his last words and for their sake I have recounted the whole occurrence "God be praised for everything." With these words, he died.
Let us picture the scene. Christianity's greatest orator, its illustrious bishop, its ecclesiastical writer, is exiled to a great distance in a foreign land because of his courageous defense of Christian morals. When, after months and years of cruel suffering, there among his enemies on a remote highway, forsaken by everyone, he collapses, these are his last words: "God be praised for everything." How far we are from that truly Christian frame of mind! We have not that holy conviction which sees, behind all the trouble and suffering which falls so heavily upon us, the face of the heavenly Father who loves us and enables us to say the words worthy of a Christian: "God be praised for everything."
Let us now turn our attention to the following questions: In what frame of mind should we accept suffering, and how can we acquire this frame of mind?
A) Undoubtedly suffering is one of the most difficult problems of our earthly existence. Since the gates of Paradise closed behind sinful man, we have walked the thorny highway of suffering and have carried the heavy yoke which is upon the children of Adam.
a) No age, no sex, no position or power, no social class, is able to close its doors to suffering. It has access to poverty- stricken huts, and it steals its way into marble palaces. It is at home with primitive peoples, and it cannot be driven out by the most highly developed technology or culture. From the lips of millions of groaning, weeping, struggling people comes the cry: Suffering, what do you want? Why do you not leave us in peace, us poor struggling human beings? There will always be suffering on this earth. However knowledge and technology progress, however we strive to make life more bearable by social measures, we shall always have with us trouble, illness, disaster, and death. And we, who bear the cross of earthly life, will always need the divine example of the great Cross-bearer.
b) A German proverb admonishes sufferers thus: "If you cannot avoid suffering, at least do not trouble about it." Yes, indeed. But try; and see whether this advice will succeed. Even if it does succeed, is this a reply worthy of man to our thousand and one tormenting griefs? In this way the question of suffering would remain forever unsolved, as it is an insoluble problem for all those who possess no Christ. But for those who possess Him, the life of Christ is a life in which suffering became of central significance and is a reply and guide in the great labyrinths of suffering.
B) We have now arrived at the great question: What is the correct Christian behavior in face of suffering? We find the answer in the case of Simon of Cyrene.
a) Simon of Cyrene, a simple workingman, comes unsuspectingly along the road on his way home from the fields. Christ, condemned to death, comes toward him, bearing the cross. But He is able to carry it no farther. The soldiers call to Simon: "Help Him." Simon tries to escape from the cross. He protests. It is of no avail: they force him. Then what else can he do: he accepts the cross. When the cross is already do his shoulders, he protests no more, but carries it willingly, without complaining. He did not seek the cross: but when, during his daily work, he found himself confronted with it, he did not throw aside the burden forced upon him. Do we need to seek suffering? No. Are we allowed to escape from suffering? May we avoid it, draw back from it? We may. But if the Lord God still sees fit to let affliction overtake us, then we must not rebel against it. Consolation and instruction lie hidden for us in Simon's history. In God's sight it is meritorious for us to bear the affliction which we ourselves have not sought or welcomed, but which even against our will is brought upon us by illness and the various disturbing influences in human life. With resignation to God's will, let us accept what we cannot avoid. We may note, in passing, that bodily recovery from disease is helped by this calm attitude. Today we see more and more plainly that the soul has a much greater influence over the body than was surmised in former times. The more docile the soul is toward God, the more docile is the body toward the soul. It is no small consolation for us, that God recognizes as meritorious not only the heroic degree of sacrifice, suffering voluntarily undertaken, but also the sacrifices forced upon us by everyday life. Perhaps no one among us could imitate the Apostle St. Andrew, who did not try to escape the cross, but at his execution opened wide his arms and cried out: "O blessed cross, thou wast adorned with the body of Christ. O cross, for which I have yearned so long, which I love so eagerly, which I have sought ceaselessly, and for which my yearning soul is at last prepared." Who could imitate this? Or who would dare to say with St. Teresa: "Either to suffer, or to die"? Such superhuman heroism really exists. But I am weak. I am frail. I draw back from suffering, as Simon of Cyrene did. Yet I can also be courageous, suffering can also bring merit to me, if I follow Christ's example. How well our Lord knew us, when He willed to suffer in this way! At first He, too, was afraid, and trembled: "He began to fear and to be heavy"
(Mark 14: 33); in His fear He sweated blood and cried out: "My Father, if it be possible, let this chalice pass from Me"
(Matt. 26:39). "Let this chalice pass from Me." Then the Lord surely thought of us, of all of us, who are accustomed to say: "No, no, Lord, not this calamity. Spare me this." We are permitted to ask God: "Let this chalice pass from me." If, however, the blow falls upon us, let us be able to bow our heads, kiss God's hand, and say: "Nevertheless, not as I will but as Thou wilt (Matt. 26: 39); Thy will be done."
b) The scene of Simon carrying the cross is usually immortalized in works of art by representing Christ and Simon carrying the cross together. However, in the Passion Play at Oberammergau, Simon carries it alone. Both ways of bearing the cross enter into our lives. Sometimes we feel that we are carrying life's cross together with Christ, and then we bear it happily and easily, because we know, we feel, that Christ is helping us, that half of the cross presses upon His shoulder. Sometimes, however, dark night falls upon us, when it seems that Christ has left the cross entirely upon our shoulders; it almost crushes us on the starless pathway of grief. This is the most tormenting hour: when we bear the cross and do not feel its meritorious power.
c) "Yes, yes," you say, "Simon carried the cross gladly because, by doing so, he helped Christ in His suffering. I would also bear my troubles more happily if I knew that I was in this way soothing Christ's pain. But Christ is no longer here in this earthly life. He can suffer no longer. He shed tears at one time, but today in His heavenly glory He can no longer weep. How can it be for His consolation, what is it worth to Him, if today I accept suffering?" What is it worth? It is worth just as much as if you had stood beside Simon and helped him carry the cross. Christ's sufferings were caused not only by the sins that men committed before His time; but He saw beforehand all the sins of coming generations. All these sins were there upon His shoulders; our sins were also there. In the same way Christ saw all our future self-discipline, our renunciations, and our sufferings borne in His name, and all this served as consolation and strength for Him. St. Paul describes Christ, in the realm of heaven, as showing in God's presence the wounds He took upon Himself to obtain the pardon of our sins. Certainly He kept not only the wounds but also the consolations, in which because of His all-knowing foresight He participated and which He received from us.
Therefore whoever bears his cross silently, without complaint, with generosity, truly lightens the burden of Christ's cross. And this is the very finest Christian way of thinking, this is true Christian behavior, this is a profound Christian frame of mind in face of the torturing problem of suffering: We bear our own cross, that by so doing Christ's cross may be lighter.
We now come to the great question: How can we succeed in struggling up to such life-giving heights? Whence can we gain this frame of mind?
A) From nowhere except from the sacred cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. A few years ago a touching sketch was exhibited in Paris. In it the Basque artist, Maxime Real del Sarte, shows our Lord Jesus with the cross on His shoulder. The Savior is not faint, weary, harassed, as He is so often depicted, but carries His cross with head erect, with triumph; the arms of the cross seem to reach to the horizon. Behind the powerful figure of Christ carrying His cross so victoriously, in the shadow of the cross embracing the earth, an incalculable multitude advances, and each one offers his shoulder that he may help to ease the great Sufferer. Women and men, old people and young, children, priests and laymen, workers, soldiers, little girls, nuns: all offer their strong or feeble shoulders to Christ. And all Christ and people, with one and the same courage, with one and the same confidence, with one and the same spirit go toward Golgotha, toward the sacrifice.
What a magnificent, artistic representation of the thought we are now considering! That the heaviest trouble is not suffering, but the soul crushed by suffering; the blackest grief is not affliction, but the soul blinded in the darkness of affliction. To suffer has always been man's lot, and it remains so: not to perish or collapse under it, but on the contrary to use suffering as a ladder by which to attain spiritual heights, can be taught us only by Christ's cross.
Christ did not flee from suffering; He overcame it. He loved His cross with the flaming love of one who knows that from His whole gospel the cross will speak most eloquently to mankind. He was poor, but His poverty He overcame with a joyful soul. He fasted, but His fast was a sacrifice He voluntarily took upon Himself. He received wounds, but His wounds were the symbols of love. He carried a cross, but His Calvary was a via triumphalis. He died, but His death was a victory over death.
The words of a French poet come from the heart of universal experience:
Come to the God who also weeps, all you that weep in life. All you that suffer, come to Him; for He knows suffering too. All you that suffer, come to Him; and see Him smile on you. You that are mortals, come to Him, who is eternal life.
B) Thus we understand why those are so strong who can cling to Christ in days of affliction. Of them St. Paul might say what he wrote of the heroes of the faith: "Others had trial of mockeries and stripes, moreover also of bands and prisons. They were stoned, they were cut asunder, they were tempted, . . . of whom the world was not worthy" (Heb. I I : 36-38).
a) They are strong, for to them Christ is an anchor, Christ is a rock, Christ is a chain, Christ is a pillar. Perhaps they tremble, strain, groan, and wail, but it is all the same: the anchor holds fast, the rock does not crack, the chain does not break, the pillar does not fall. They are strong, for through Christ man has received a matchless privilege; that of being able to say in the face of suffering: I take it upon myself. Other living beings only endure, only gnash their teeth, only groan under it; the Christlike man can accept it. Since Christ's time we have been able to say what the famous General Radetzky wrote so beautifully in one of his letters: "What God wills, is my law."
The thought which Goethe expressed is valid not only for the race but also for the life of the individual: "The special, single, and most profound subject of universal and human history, to which all else is subordinate, is the clash between unbelief and belief. Every era in which faith dominates . . . is brilliant, uplifting, and productive for its contemporaries and for future generations" (Goethe, Israel in der Wuste, IV, 313). Truly, faith is capital which a man deposits in a savings bank; if rainy days come, he lives upon the interest.
b) "I believe in one God." How often we make this beautiful profession of faith! But to know and to acknowledge God wherever and however He manifests Himself in the starless night as well as in the rays of the sun, in affliction as well as in happiness, in sickness as well as in health this is a genuinely Christian conception of life. Perhaps you say: "Well, I would be glad to bear suffering, if really God sent it to me; when I have to suffer so much because of man, because of wicked people, that is different. A woman lives next door who says everything bad about me; my husband's stubbornness; my wife's many whims; I have been cruelly deprived of my little fortune"; and so on. Truly bitter complaints. But our blessed Lord taught that even in all these afflictions we must perceive God's plan, God's holy intention; we must perceive this, just as Christ perceived it. Who took Him captive on that Holy Thursday night? Wicked men. What did our Lord say when Peter impulsively drew his sword? "Put up thy sword into the scabbard. The chalice which My Father hath given Me, shall I not drink it?" (John 18: 11.)
Where shall we gain this strong spirit, which is able to face suffering, mankind's most torturing problem? In the school of Christ, of Christ who bore His cross triumphantly for our sakes. If I believe in God, then I also trust in God. A blind person trusts himself to a little child's guiding hand, a sick person trusts himself to the doctor's knowledge; so I trust myself to the love of almighty God. For I know that He who directs the course of the clouds and the winds will also show me the path; and I know that heaven and earth will sooner be destroyed, than that anyone will be disappointed who trusts himself to God.
"As in the immeasurably many waters of the seas there is no drop which is not bitter, so there is no one among men in whom fear and pain are not to be found" (Pazmany). One struggles despairingly for his daily bread, another watches beside a sickbed or he himself struggles with illness, a third lives an unhappy family life, a fourth comes from the cemetery, from beside a newly sodded grave. All carry life's cross. At such times it is good to look up to the great Cross- bearer. It is good to know that our Lord trod the path of suffering before us. In the Jesuit church at Landsberg an instructive picture is to be seen. St. Francis Xavier stands in the picture, while crosses fall from heaven upon him, but so many that he is almost buried beneath them. A picture of human life. It is not possible to hide from the cross. Whoever is a man, also suffers. The only difference is that one suffers with closed fists, with a face distorted by rage, not gaining any merit, thereby suffering senselessly; another suffers with eyes raised to Christ, with triumphant soul, not crushed and broken. Suffering cannot crush, when the cross stands before us, upon it the great Sufferer, our Lord Christ.
"God be praised for everything," were the last words of the dying St. John Chrysostom. If only we could repeat those words in hours of suffering. Or if each of us would learn to say from his heart this little prayer: "Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit (Luke 23: 46). Guide me in Thy ways even if they are rugged. Guide me according to Thy plans, even if they are hidden from me. Guide me from darkness, through Thy cross, into the realm of eternal light." Amen.