Love and Suffering

I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his Body, which is the Church, of which I am a minister in accordance with God’s stewardship given to me to bring to completion for you the word of God, the mystery hidden from ages and from generations past. 

Colossians 1: 24-26

In an age without soul, love and suffering, to speak nothing of joy and suffering, are seen as opposites. When we live as if only the bodily and functional dimensions of our personality are ultimate, then there are no values other than pleasure and success. The author of Colossians rejoices in his sufferings, he says, because he is suffering “for the sake” of those he loves. Because we are spirit and because we have souls, we are a capacity for life and for love far beyond what we can ever realize and accomplish within the limits of our daily lives.

For the past few evenings, we have watched a truly extraordinary 6 hour Italian series entitled “ La Meglio Gioventu,” “The Best of Youth.” It is a sprawling epic tracing the lives of two brothers from their very young adulthood in the late 1960’s well into middle age at the turn of the century. To see such a well drawn view of the span of decades of their lives is to be powerfully reminded of the joy and the pain of our lives and our longing for love. The film is filled with the intense suffering of human limitation and even despair. And yet, it concludes with the son of one of the brothers, traveling to the same places in Norway his uncle had visited in his youth, writing to tell his uncle that, as his uncle had told him, “It is all beautiful.” The power of this film, as all great art, is that there is no nostalgia and sentimentality in it. It never shrinks for a moment from the loss and pain of human relationship and life, yet it communicates what we all know when we live all the aspects of our life deeply, that finally “It is all beautiful.”

Maimonides teaches that Job is a good man but not a wise man. Aeschylus writes that wisdom comes only “through the awful grace of God.” Until we experience suffering in love, we have little or no idea what love really is. It is easy for us to have our ideas about the meaning of things. We readily offer our words of wisdom to others at their times of suffering and readily have the answers to questions that have really not yet penetrated into our hearts. Yet, it is only when, as with Job and his friends, the conventional answers fail us that we really begin to learn and to understand.

Because we are all “imperfect” in love and because love always involves loss, loving another will always involve suffering. It truly is such suffering that purifies our love, that teaches us how and where what we have thought of as love was merely for our own benefit. In the film, Nicola, whose wife abandoned him and his young daughter as a small child, tells his now adult daughter, who is about to be married, that now, in her joy, “is the time to be generous” with her mother. Often in our age, we live with a somewhat perverse psychologism that seems to relish regret and resentment. We confuse the gratification of anger and “getting back at” those who have hurt us with joy. They could not, however, be more different. The gratification and satisfaction we may feel as we inflict hurt on those who have hurt us will always demand of us increasing levels of rage to be satisfied. The generosity that Nicola calls forth from his daughter, at the appropriate time, is rather the self-emptying in giving that leads to joy of heart and spirit. To the degree we feed the flames of passion in our infra-conscious and unconscious demands for gratification, we shall become increasingly restless, lonely, and agitated. To the degree that we touch within us a capacity for love that comes not out of our own limits but from the spirit within us, we shall, as that love passes through us, know love and joy within ourselves.

This is how it is possible to “rejoice” in our sufferings. It is when we suffer for the sake of others, as Christ did, that we realize the joy that our love for them contains. At first blush, this may seem to us perverse or masochistic. And, to be certain, there have been at times perverse readings of the tradition that did seem to foster a kind of masochism, a desire to suffer for its own sake. This is not, however, the experience that the writer of the letter describes. The great danger in human love and life is a kind of nihilistic despair. Much of our “settling” for so little in life is really a form of this. This nihilism is born from our refusal to suffer the depths of our humanity, the deep life and pain of our soul and spirit.

Those of us who live in the relatively affluent cultures of the north find ourselves face to face with the social dimension of this danger of nihilism. We have reduced life to the measure of gross domestic product and competition. We have contorted education to a means of increasing the “competitiveness” of our children. We refuse to face our responsibility for the degradation of our planet and our children’s and grandchildren’s “common home” for the sake of our own wasteful consumerism. We pervert our sense of the truth to whatever gratifies our own moods and desires of the moment. We confuse gratification and comfort for love and joy.

We do all this, at least in part, because we opt to refuse the truth of our human reality. To care, to love, to be open to beauty requires of us that we suffer the truth of our human condition. When a moment of beauty penetrates into our heart, we know it is all too much for us. When we are touched by and drawn in love to another, we realize that somehow our hearts will be broken open in the process. When we acknowledge our share in the responsibility for the harm we have done to others and to our planet, we shall experience profound sadness and grief. Yet, in all of that is the very experience of love and joy. For, in acknowledging and accepting our truth, we discover that we participate, in common, in a life and a love that transcends all our limits and failures, all our suffering and pain. In our pain we are “filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ,” the afflictions he experienced by becoming a human being. We are forever thinking that we become truly human in the denial of our humanity. The revelation of Jesus is that it is in and through our suffering and limits that we are all together being drawn into “the love that moves the sun and the other stars.”

What is a poet? An unhappy man who hides deep anguish in his heart, but whose lips are so formed that when the sigh and cry pass through them, it sounds like lovely music…. And people flock around the poet and say: ‘Sing again soon’ – that is, ‘May new sufferings torment your soul but your lips be fashioned as before, for the cry would only frighten us, but the music, that is blissful.

Soren Kierkegaard, Either/Or, Chapter 1

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