After witnessing, through people’s testimonies and the ever-present TV and internet reports, the two recent natural disasters and accompanying human tragedies, I have been reflecting on human suffering. Hardly systematic, nor complete, this reflection has been sparked now by events in our community of Mocomoco, as well as conversations with friends who have suffered personal loss on a particularly painful level.
In Mocomoco, the people have suffered and continue to suffer the effects of a violent rape and murder of a young child. It is likely there will be no justice, and, truth be told, justice never was and is not an answer for suffering. We continue to walk with the family in their loss and grieving. In Haití and Chile, people suffer on various levels the losses of life and stability. Solidarity in this moment provides some comfort to victims, but not an answer to the question, “Why did this happen?”
My confrere, Padre Pavol Noga, C.M., in response to a question about the recent disasters in Haití and Chile submitted to his column at the International JMV web site, wrote,
“Sólo quiero decir a ustedes que yo no conozco la respuesta, igualmente como San Vicente no conocía las respuestas…. A partir de esta catástrofe cayeron las vendas de nuestros ojos y se abrieron nuestros corazones, y todos, los ricos, los más pobres empezaron a ayudar a este país e interesarse por buscar algunas solución para esta gente y a esto yo lo llamo el signo de los tiempos para esta gente y el futuro de esperanza. De lo que aparentemente parecía como el fin de todo puede surgir algo nuevo.”
I won’t translate directly. What Pavol is saying is “I don’t know….” but, I know I have to respond.
All sorts of attempts to make sense of suffering and tragedy have been proposed, often trying to navigate the perilous waters of theodicy — the questions arising from belief in a good God who is all powerful, yet “permits” tragedy and suffering. I’m sure you felt some of the same anger I did as public “preachers” spouted their own warped theologies of castigation and punishment for supposed sins of the Haitian people shortly after the earthquake there. It was at that time that I stumbled upon an article written by David Hart a number of years ago that helped re-frame the questions. Is God “doing” this at all? Is suffering a part of God’s plan? Can we know the answer to these questions, or is Padre Pavol’s “I don’t know” an answer with a level of profundity that has escaped us? David wrote,
“This is why it is misleading (however soothing it may be) to say that the drama of fall and redemption will make the final state of things more glorious than it might otherwise have been. No less metaphysically incoherent — though immeasurably more vile — is the suggestion that God requires suffering and death to reveal certain of his attributes (capricious cruelty, perhaps? morbid indifference? a twisted sense of humor?). It is precisely sin, suffering, and death that blind us to God’s true nature.”
Perhaps what we can find in the tragedies of the day, large and … no, there are no “small” tragedies or cruelties … perhaps what we can find is the summons to human closeness and accompaniment. Instead of stumbling around in the darkness of “Why?” could it be that the only truly human question of the moment may be, “What must I do?” This question can begin to be answered when I affirm that:  God detests the suffering of his children, for God is God of liberation;  Jesus confronts pain and suffering with words and touches of healing, but even he, at times, seems limited in what he can do;  the human quality of being able to feel the pain of others, if we allow ourselves to do so, is one of the greatest gifts we have. These three things, aspects of our faith and the evolution of what we call our “human nature,” can become the strength we need to accompany, to act, to heal, to love our suffering sisters and brothers in concrete and sometimes costly ways.
The season of Lent brings us close to the mystery of the cross and its meaning for our pasts, presents and futures. For Christians, the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus is supposed to frame our existence, not “explaining” our lives, but providing a harsh lens through which we can view them. Pavol wrote, “La cruz para los apóstoles parecía como el fin de sus esperanzas, como lo comentaron los apóstoles de Emaus, pero este signo de desastre se convirtió en el signo de nuestra esperanza. The cross for the apostles seemed like the end of their hopes, as the apostles commented on the road to Emmaus, but this sign of disaster was converted into the sign of our hope.” But how?
Still unsatisfied with the answer, but more convinced that staying close to those who suffer is ultimately the “way” of the true disciple, I turn to David Hart again,
“As for comfort, when we seek it, I can imagine none greater than the happy knowledge that when I see the death of a child I do not see the face of God, but the face of His enemy. It is not a faith that would necessarily satisfy Ivan Karamazov, but neither is it one that his arguments can defeat: for it has set us free from optimism, and taught us hope instead. We can rejoice that we are saved not through the immanent mechanisms of history and nature, but by grace; that God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable; that He will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature, but will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes; and that, rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, He will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes — and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and He that sits upon the throne will say, “Behold, I make all things new.”