I have had Bp Joseph’s words on my mind since I posted them:
The sensations of the heart [i.e., the conscious and perceptible experience of God] assume that someone is under spiritual supervision and has undergone substantial purification. Most of us do not acheive this kind of purification except through intense involuntary suffering. So if you want to experience God in your heart, you must be willing to experience suffering. No saint was ever formed without pain and suffering.
It is not, I do not think, a false humility to assert that I do not know what it means to suffer. Perhaps I am overly cynical about such matters due to our hyper-therapeutic age wherein all pain and sorrow is to be done away with or narcotized. Perhaps it is my descent from a line of stoic, pragmatic Kansas farmers, which gives rise to the dry, deadpan humor that approaches all injuries with the remedy, “Rub some dirt on it.” I will admit to knowing something of sorrow, but I think this is no great claim.
Because I do not know what it means to suffer, if I may take His Grace’s words on their face, I do not know, at least not very much, what it is to have the conscious and perceptible experience of God. And because I do not know what it means to suffer, and thus to have a conscious and perceptible experience of God, suffering and the will of God is one great mystery to me.
I have taken some pains over that last sentence. Though redundant and obvious, please note the juxtapositions.
I am struck by what Bp Joseph says regarding the nature of this suffering: it is “intense involuntary suffering.” Intense. Involuntary. It is a from-the-cross, or excruciating, pain. And it is unwanted and unwelcome.
It is perhaps not difficult to imagine what kind of suffering that might be. Surely one involving unjust acts, slander, and the severing of relationships. One need only look to the passion of our Lord to see such injustices, false accusations and divorcements.
Indeed, it was while watching Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ this past Friday night, that I was struck, as I always am when reading the Gospel accounts, by Jesus’ Gethsemane “Nevertheless.” Surely we are not unable to identify with Jesus’ words, “Lord, if it be possible, let this cup pass by me.” What sane person would invite intense and involuntary suffering into their lives? Who would will themselves to be cut off from their most beloved? Who would gladly undergo the decimation of one’s reputation? Who would willingly embrace a pain that haunts every waking moment, the tears that lie back of every breath, and the emptiness that the upheaval of a life and all its dreams brings?
I know that I cannot. Even the possibility that this might turn out for the salvation of ones most loved is not enough to undo this extreme reluctance to embrace what surely feels like the curse of God. It is no wonder that our Lord was exceedingly sorrowful, even unto death. I can imagine kneeling before his icon, asking that this suffering pass me by, and being wholly unable to come to the “nevertheless.” In the face of enormous pain and sorrow, I do not know how to will such a thing.
It comes, perhaps, I do not know, from a lack of faith. Pain and sorrow have such a myopic affect on one’s faith. One can only see what is close to hand, tangible. One loses the capacity to see what lies on the other side of what Fr Patrick calls the translucent veil. When pain and sorrow magnify in the heart and soul, one can only see the need for relief, for justice for mercy. Endless prayers and copious tears poured out before God seem to end in echoing silence. The refrain goes up, “How long, O Lord, wilt Thou utterly forget me? How long wilt Thou turn Thy face away from me? How long shall I take counsel in my soul with grievings in my heart by day and by night? How long shall mine enemy be exalted over me?” and it is such a long way, a seeming lifetime to the reply, “I have hoped in Thy mercy. My heart will rejoice in Thy salvation. I will sing unto the Lord, Who is my benefactor, and I will chant unto the name of the Lord Most High.” And over such a distance, my will is unable to travel.
How can I move from “Let this pass,” to “Nevertheless”? I do not know. The heart wants what it wants, and leaps at all the promises of God, only to be cast down at repeated pains and sorrows. This is a mystery of grace and freedom of suffering and God’s goodness that I cannot fathom.
I do, then, the only thing I know to do. I kneel and prostrate myself before the icons of our Lord and our Lady. I let the tears fall. I beg mercy. I pour out the desires of the heart. I read the Scriptures. And I let the tears fall again, and again.
It is for saints to suffer and to come to know God more deeply. For me, I will kneel before Christ’s icon, pour out my sorrows, kiss his blessed image, and hope for mercy.
The rest is the darkness of mystery.