Abiding in Love: Stories of Affliction, Resilience, and Hope
Dr. Harkins’s fine essay reminds us that not all difficulty is pathological and not all devastation lacks the possibilities of resilience. These are important insights, not least because there is something about suffering that can feel humiliating and isolating. I would like to offer a few thoughts on the nature of devastating suffering and the ways in which the church’s stories contributes to resilience – and sometimes to devastation.
Simone Weil makes the surprising claim that genuine compassion for the afflicted is more of a miracle than walking on water: “Among the people they [the afflicted] meet, those who have never had contact with affliction in its true sense can have no idea of what it is, even though they may have known much suffering…Thus compassion for the afflicted is an impossibility. When it is really found, it is a more astounding miracle than walking on water, healing the sick, or raising the dead.”1 When I first read this, I wondered if she were an unusually cynical person. It is obvious there is a great deal of pity and compassion, succor and consolation for those who suffer. People in obvious crisis often provoke a compassionate response: visits to the hospital or funeral home, dinners brought in the wake of injury or grief, money sent, clothes donated, volunteer hours, phone calls and cups of coffee when someone is in trouble. Churches are often on the front line of this kind of aid and sympathy, both by organizing it and by creating communities that form people who know how to respond to suffering. These kinds of concrete actions help create conditions in which reserves of resilience within individuals, families, and communities are nourished.
But Simone Weil points to another level of suffering which may be less obvious. Affliction is more of a state than an event. It is the effect of suffering rather than suffering itself. Afflicted persons are maimed by suffering: they have taken in the lie that suffering assaults only those who deserve it. An appearance of normality belies the shattered self-esteem, the half-conscious terror, the shredded memory. Awkwardness or peculiar eruptions of irritation alienate friends and strangers alike. We can feel compassion for someone we learn has experienced domestic violence, or has been thrown from their country as a refugee, or who languishes with an illness that appears mortal. But can we feel compassion for those who walk among us, wounded and half blind, their stories unknown to us? The afflicted person, family, or community does not necessarily appear to be suffering. But an aroma of disorder wafts off them, as if a rancid wound festered, hidden under their clothing. We pass by such people without noticing their suffering. “What [person] is capable of discerning them unless Christ himself looks through [their] eyes? We notice only that they sometimes behave strangely, and we censure their behavior.”2 Because we see the effect and not the suffering itself, we respond less often with compassion than with faint disgust. Those exiled to the land of affliction often wander alone. Suffering isolates them from the expectations of normal life; their maimed spirit isolates them from a community that might support them. Too often, Christian theology and liturgy, with its emphasis on sin and forgiveness, isolates them from the balm of Great Compassion. In this situation, resources for resilience can seem few and far between.
Every human being will suffer. Often they will find resources in family, in faith, or in their own spirit to turn that suffering into wisdom. Suffering knocks off some of the judgmental edges and gives a kind of sensitivity and insight that allows us to perceive the suffering of others and respond with greater generosity. But if one has not entered the land of affliction, it is less real than the dungeons of Azkaban. One question to consider is how the church can empower resilience in situations of afflictive suffering? I raise this question not as a pastoral counselor but as a theologian and as a practitioner of the art of survival.
Part of the difficulty may be that we experience afflictive suffering as alien to us: it is something that happens to other people, something that comes to those who deserve it. We are often ill-equipped to reach out to others and we conceal our own suffering. We are “fine.” We want others to be “fine,” too. We are not fine. We are part of a creation that is piercingly beautiful and populated with persons and beings to whom we give our whole hearts and yet this creation stalks us relentlessly with death and its first cousin, suffering.
Our religion can conspire with this discomfort by making suffering a sign of guilt. We justify God by saying we deserve our suffering. This association between guilt and suffering is also part of the collective un-wisdom of American society: other people’s suffering is pathological and our own is humiliating. If only we had eaten healthier or exercised more or been somehow “better” we could have staved off the blow. But this is the day the Lord has made. If we are to understand how to rejoice and be glad it in, it will be in part by finding the resilience to integrate even afflictive suffering – ours and everyone else’s – into our everyday faith. I myself believe this has something to do with the version of the story of Christianity that we tell ourselves.
As a person of faith, I will say that one of the most powerful possibilities for resilience is the utter confidence that we are adored and cherished by the divine Beloved and that our true identity can never be reduced to the awkward and humiliated shard of personhood we have become through suffering. We are what we have been from before the dawn of time: jewels in Christ’s crown. We are Mother Christ’s adornment and delight. Knowing this, we may still be defiled by violence, helpless in the maw of a racist legal system, or rootless flotsam of natural disaster. But some deep awareness, not belief but a relentless desire, testifies against our suffering. The Beloved is carried with us into hospitals, immigration detention centers, prison cells, or tents made of cardboard and plastic. We suffer no less. We are not saved from physical or psychological mutilation. But even in this shattering, a brilliant light pours in. We know something about who we are and who God is and our spirit continues to love, continues to hope, continues to desire good not only for ourselves but for others. This deep awareness, this great faith, is a source not only of survival but resilience. To keep loving, even when maimed physically, psychically, or spirituality, is tremendous resilience. It is a gift of grace, a gift that churches, when they are being church, are able to help mediate.
In all innocence we tell the story of Christianity as one of inherited sin and fragments of forgiveness made available through the intercession of a crucified God-man. In this story, we are worthless sinners. God is impatient or angry, offended by our mistakes and by our very being. It is also a story of love, of sorts: the kind of love that can be earned through torture and death. Therapists may be familiar with this narrative: this sense of infinite worthlessness, an angry Father-God, the infinitely receding possibility of forgiveness is the story of suffering and affliction. Perhaps this is part of why the story is so popular. It is one we afflicted humans know only too well. It is told to us through careless or violent parents, through poverty and social violence, through remorseless pain, through the blows of loss and grief. Not only does my raped body tell me I am worthless, but Christianity echoes this truth, telling me I am a worthless sinner. Not only am I in prison, I am told that I deserve unending torture in hell. Not only my disease, my attacker, my remorse, or an unjust system are arrayed against me, but the liturgy of the church reminds me that my ultimate identity is a sinner, perhaps forgiven but in any case deserving of punishment. Even if we believe we may be “forgiven,” we must accept the idea that we were guilty in the first place. Job’s comforters have been allowed to tell the story of divine love. This story prepares us to think of suffering as deserved. It prepares us to despise ourselves or others when affliction comes calling.
There are other versions of this story. The story of the Beloved’s presence to us “here below” does have a great deal to do with suffering. But it is a story of the enormous tenderness with which the Beloved holds us in the midst of our suffering. We know this in part because the Great Compassion bodied forth in the midst of this world not as an emperor or warrior but as a refugee child who grew up to be a victim of state sponsored execution. This intimacy of the Divine with suffering severs the connection between guilt and suffering, showing us that nothing separates us from divine compassion, least of all our suffering. It seems that our minds insist on a link between suffering and guilt and this link makes suffering not only painful but humiliating and alienating. But this link is broken by the great intimacy God has revealed between God’s own being and the suffering of humanity. It is not that we must suffer to come near Christ; Christ suffered in order to come near us, to come to us in our deepest need. We have in the core of our faith a sign of resilience that makes transformation and redemption possible, no matter how deeply affliction gnaws.
The church preaches to the afflicted every day but does not necessarily know it. What the church and people of faith say about God might be some triviality that is meaningless in the face of real trouble. It might be a theological death-blow that pushes the afflicted person into an abyss of self-loathing. Every word that comes from the mouth of a preacher, every liturgical act, every prayer, every celebration of scripture must be able to testify for the afflicted. They are invisible among us. What we say and do must be good news even in the face of the most destructive affliction. It is the test of the truth of our faith. If it does not make sense to the afflicted it does not make sense to the human condition. It does not make sense of the Incarnate One who clothed himself in affliction but continued to radiate the purity of divine love. In the light of this revelation, we can see that what the world says to us in and through affliction is not the word of God.
Because affliction is usually invisible, it is not enough to find a good word to speak to someone obviously suffering. It is necessary to speak at every moment as if we were speaking to the afflicted. We do not know when the blow will fall in our own lives or in the life of someone we love. We do not know to whom we are speaking, except, as people of faith, we know we are always speaking to Christ. It is necessary for us to school ourselves, every moment, in the awareness that in God there is nothing but love. Resilience does not mean that we do not suffer or that suffering does not take its toll. When we fall on pavement, our skin bleeds. When we fall into affliction, our souls are maimed. Love does not depend on us being “fine” or attractive or brave. It depends on nothing at all. It is the eternal and undying truth of divine being. It is the source of the ability to continue to love or hope to love, even when our life is ashes in our mouth. The church does not always help us in these moments. When it is unable to do so, when our suffering and our tradition conspire against us, love still abides. Nothing, not even the worst stories a church tells us, can separate us from that love. Whether we know it or not, it abides. Even if we cannot find the resilience to endure, a time will come in this life or another when we will come to know that every living being, even ourselves, is adored and cherished. Resilience is a great grace. But even if the means are not there to allow us to feel it, Love abides. This witness to love in the midst of affliction is the good news that Christianity has been commissioned to spread among the nations. To everyone who suffers and does not find consolation we are commissioned to say, “You are beloved, you are precious, you are endlessly beautiful. Christ has not left us desolate” (John 14:18). He has left us a single commandment (John 15) so that through our love for one another, we make Christ’s love live again, still, forever.
1 Simone Weil, “The Love of God and Affliction,” in The Simone Weil Reader, ed. George A. Panichas, (Mt. Kisco, NY: Moyer Bell Ltd, 1985), 441.
2 Ibid., 440.