Julian of Norwich, fourteenth-century mystic, reflects on this truth: “He did not say; You will not be troubled, you will not be belabored, you will not be disquieted; but he said: You will not be overcome.” Life on earth involves us in suffering -- our own and that of others. This is only natural in a finite world where life and death weave a constant dance. The simple truth is that we do not grow -- physically, emotionally, or spiritually -- without encountering, coping with, and learning from suffering. Certainly we learn far more from experiences that push us out of our comfort zones than from a life of smooth sailing. And as most of us discover, we cannot become truly empathetic or compassionate toward others if we have not known loss and hardship ourselves. St John of Kronstadt (nineteenth century) wisely counseled; “Do not fear the conflict, and do not flee from it; where there is no struggle, there is no virtue. Our faith, trust, and love are proved and revealed in adversities, that is, in difficult and grievous outward and inward circumstances, during sickness, sorrow and privations.”
In the spiritual life, without suffering there can be no maturing into the fullness of our humanity. The way of the cross entails dying to our small, ego-centered life so that we may rise into our true selfhood -- the identity that finds its center and ground in God. This true human identity is represented and fully embodied in Christ, “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). We too, are created in the divine image, and as believers we are promised the destiny of being conformed to Christ (Rom 8:29) in whom we recover the beauty and clarity of that image.
I do not believe God actively creates suffering for us, surely God allows us to undergo adversities with a continual hope that we will open up to the very real transformations they can work in us if we are willing. The questions we ask of one another and of ourselves in times of trial are important. What are you learning from this experience? How does it enlarge your view of life, of others, of yourself? Is there an invitation from God within this experience that is new of surprising to you? These are questions aimed at evoking our deeper wisdom and guidance from the Spirit dwelling within.
Nothing of our life’s experience is lost or wasted when we are open to grace -- even if we have made terrible choices, affecting our lives and the lives of others for years; even if we bear and inflict permanent scars; even if we have lost years of productive work to chronic illness or depression; even if our life seems that most boring, meaningless existence possible. God has promised to use our life experiences in ways that build toward a new configuration of goodness: “We know that God works all things together for good for the ones who love God.” (Rom. 8:28) God continues the long, patient process of reweaving our broken threads into a new tapestry. Our faith proclaims that ultimately God will prevail, unconditional love will reveal its fullness, the New Creation will manifest in glory, and --as Julian of Norwich saw in one of her revelations and put so memorable to words -- “Sin is necessary, but all will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well.” This is our deep faith, our realistic hope, and the source, sustenance, and destiny of our love. What greater encouragement could we hope for?
‘God had one son on earth without sin, but never one without suffering.”