Sunday, October 18, 2009

Year B 29th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Readings: Isa. 53:10-11; Ps 33:4-5.18-20.22; Heb 4:14-16; Mk 10:35-45

Several centuries before Christ, the Buddha observed that "to live is to suffer." While this is certainly true, suffering is not the final word on human existence. Even though pain and suffering are part and parcel of being human, nobody, not even the Buddha, is content to leave the matter there, to resign himself to endless and pointless suffering. Of course, the Buddhist path to overcoming suffering is the annihilation of the self, which is the overcoming of individual consciousness and melding back into the oneness of the universe. The point of many reincarnations is to achieve that goal. What you are reincarnated as marks either your progress or regress towards the overcoming of your individuality.

If there is no denying that, at least to an extent, that to live is to suffer, it does not take too much awareness to realize that some people suffer far more than others. Too often the basis of our gratitude with regard to suffering is it could always be worse, or, being thankful that I do not have to suffer as much as other people. In other words, we have an understandable fear of suffering that leads us to work hard to avoid it. It was Freud who reduced all human motivation to what we call the pain/pleasure principle. This principle states that all human actions are aimed, in the first instance, at avoiding pain, then to maximizing pleasure. In a more theological mode, Fyodor Dostoevsky made a distinction between redeemed and unredeemed suffering. Redeemed suffering, according to this great Russian author, is when we suffer for reasons beyond our control, whereas unredeemed suffering is made up of the natural consequences of our bad choices.

What is important, however, is not to precisely define and categorize suffering, but to acknowledge the role it plays in helping us to achieve the end for which are made. To acknowledge that suffering happens is to already ask the question about whether suffering has meaning. This is what leads us to consider, not reincarnation, but the Incarnation of the Son of God, who, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us, is our “great high priest," who shared fully in our human condition, including suffering, doing so without sinning, thus showing us the meaning of suffering and how to experience it. This is why he can sympathize with our weakness. As this same author writes earlier in Hebrews: "it was fitting that he, for whom and through whom all things exist… should make the leader to their salvation perfect through suffering" (Heb. 2:10). This means that suffering is a means of sanctification, for becoming who God made us to be.

Msgr. Luigi Giussani taught that "[t]o have an experience means to comprehend the meaning" of what happens to you. Indeed, experience is the instrument given to us for our human journey. In a recent correspondence with a friend, who has endured an incomprehensible amount of suffering over the past six months, I told her that what she is experiencing is not a punishment from God because God isn’t like that, God is love.

She responded to my assertion by writing, "[i]f this is all not some divine punishment but is meant to draw me closer to [G]od, I don't like the methods being used." Her response is understandably human, meaning it is limited, as is yours and mine. What you experience, your life, the circumstances you face is the instrument for your journey, your path to destiny. Hence, it is the means God uses to draw you close. Why? It is a great mystery, but it is mystery in the sense that is something known only because God reveals it to us, not something that is ultimately unknowable. It is revealed to us precisely in and through the events of our lives- it is not something tacked on afterwards. The meaning of what happens to you-that which we must come to understand- is contemporaneous with its occurrence. Jesus tells James and John, who have no idea what they are asking, that they will be baptized with same baptism with which Jesus himself is baptized (Mark 10:39). When we are baptized we, too, die and are buried with Christ.

What happens to you, the circumstances you face every day, are the means God uses to draw you close to Him, who is your origin and fulfillment. Therefore, the first step of faith is to recognize that the answer we need won't come from human relationships, or from philosophical or theological discourses, but from faith, which is a form of knowledge because it is rooted in the fact of the Incarnation. In Christ, God gives us everything. In light of his passion and death, of the fact that he is the suffering servant foretold by the prophet Isaiah, the high priest who is like us in all things except sin, the One who "did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many," is present in a special way to and through those who suffer. Christ is compassionate because He suffers with us, which means that we, too, must suffer with each other.

Too often we abandon those who suffer because we are unable to fix them, unable to eliminate the cause of their suffering. By mistaking compassion for problem-solving we bring about disastrous consequences, like seeing abortion or euthanasia as answers to suffering, preferring to eliminate the perceived cause of the suffering to engaging these painful circumstances head-on and remaining present to those to whom it is happening. Far from being compassionate, trying to fix everything is nothing less than a recapitulation of the original sin, a refusal to recognize that you are not God, that you are made and that all people exist for a reason and have a purpose that is revealed in and through what they experience. Compassion is antithetical to problem-solving, it is an acknowledgement of our limitations and, hence, an acknowledgement of our dependence on God, who did not spare his only Son, thus not sparing himself.

All of this can very easily be reduced to a comforting sentiment by someone who is not suffering and who is unacquainted with it. It can also be dismissed as a pious platitude by somebody who is suffering, or one who has a person near and dear to them going through something painful. The only way to verify what I am saying is by living the circumstances of your life, taking our Psalm response to heart and placing your trust in the Lord, recognizing through experience that by his resurrection Christ overcame all suffering. He even destroyed death and because of this, in baptism, we also rise with him. We must live the experience of what happens to us even when we wish reality were otherwise, even when we wish God would choose other means, but we do so in the confidence that, in Christ, victory is always already ours. The only alternative is to assert yourself against reality, which brings no satisfaction.

Veni Sancti Spiritus, veni per Mariam.

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