A person going through a time of intense personal suffering was counseled that salvation would come precisely through these evil events. Not salvation in spite of; nor salvation from. But salvation through these very things. One can intuit that this pastoral counsel did not feel very comforting.
When confronted with suffering, the argument turns immediately and hard to the larger questions, albeit with a personal face watered by tears: how can a good God allow suffering? why this injustice? what good end can this evil possibly serve? But these are questions for philosophers and theologians. And their answers, to the degree such speculative questions can have any answers, do not suture and salve the wounded heart.
These sorts of speculative questions, however legitimate and necessary, however normal as a first existential cry, do not work the sort of transformation necessary to the suffering heart. They are questions whose answers are of the mind and do not, perhaps cannot, satisfy the heart. What the heart needs are asketical answers.
St Philaret of Moscow, in his prayer, asks of God:
O Lord, I know not what to ask of thee. Thou alone knowest what are my true needs. Thou lovest me more than I myself know how to love. Help me to see my real needs which are concealed from me. I dare not ask either a cross or consolation. I can only wait on thee. My heart is open to thee. Visit and help me, cast me down and raise me up. I worship in silence thy holy will and thine inscrutable ways. I offer myself as a sacrifice to thee. I put all my trust in thee. I have no other desire than to fulfill thy will. Teach me how to pray. Pray thou thyself in me. Amen.
“I dare not ask either a cross or consolation.” All our lives are an askesis, a spiritual struggle, to live the life of the Gospel in the power of Christ by his Holy Spirit, like Christ to do the Father’s will as our food. For this we are made, but we are not fit for it. Our choices and actions have become distorted through the many sins we so frequently commit: the contempt and condemnation we express toward our fellow man on the basis of nothing more than their political opinions or their appearance and mannerisms; our self-indulgence at the expense of offering ourselves in love to our spouse, our children, our neighbor; and all the varied ways we break the law of love. We cannot choose and act rightly because our sinful choices and acts have bent and misshaped our capacity to love. Therefore we need askesis.
Askesis has always simply been the discipline of the athlete. If one’s physical body is unhealthy–because of the accumulation of many previous choices and actions–then one needs askesis: the discipline of making the right choices and doing the right actions relative to eating and activity. This is not simply limited to “starving” oneself and going to the gym. It may involve deep introspection into the causes of overeating (mental, physical and spiritual). It may involve a full range of healing disciplines (some medications, rigorous and balanced nutritional regimens, counseling). But it does involve struggle. If one takes this struggle on voluntarily, one may avoid many of the involuntary struggles that will come about due precisely to the state of ill health. But voluntary askesis does not preclude involuntary askesis: the struggle resultant from injury or from catastrophic illnesses. How many have experienced a transformation in their health through the regimens necessary to heal an injury or a catastrophic illness or disease?
The athletic metaphor for struggle in the spiritual life is, of course, apostolic. We remember our St. Paul. Of course, because of the Incarnation, much of the “spiritual” askesis we undergo starts with the body: fasting, prostrations, vigils. No Platonic (or Cartesian) dualism for the Christian. Our bodies are quite literally temples of the Holy Spirit. But of course these bodily askeses are directed toward spiritual ends: the development of our hearts and souls to the ever-increasing capacity to act from love. As the bodily athlete has both voluntary and involuntary askeses, so, too, the spiritual athlete. One may observe the fasting and bodily disciplines, observe the hours of prayer, and so forth, but there are involuntary askeses as well: the crosses of life’s crises and sufferings we are called upon to bear.
It is the asketical quality of suffering that we must examine. But let us be clear: I am not saying that the purpose of suffering is or ought to be instrumental (for our transformation). Whether it inherently is or always ought to be the means for transformation is not for me to say, as I do not have the wisdom to address such a question. Rather, suffering can be transformative. This is the great reversal about which St. Paul speaks in Romans 8: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” This is not a theodicy. But it is a comfort.
Although we think ourselves infinitely wise and intelligent, the truth of the matter is we rarely know what is truly good for us. How many men, climbing the corporate ladder, suddenly stopped in their tracks by a heart attack, forced to deal with some very deep and personal realities and to make sometimes quite radical changes, do not often express that in this painful askesis they learned that they’d been wrong about what they thought was truly important? The truth is we do not know what is good for us, oftentimes, because our understanding has been distorted by our choices and actions and by those very things to which we give our attention.
If this is so, then we cannot judge the inscrutable wisdom of God who allows (this is the most careful word I can use to express it) us to experience suffering. We are right to ask all the existential questions, nearly all of which begin with either “Why . . . ?” or “How . . . ?” But if we fail to ask also the asketical questions, “What . . . ?” and “When . . . ?” and “Where . . . ?” we may potentially fail to experience the salvation to which we are being called and which is being given us precisely in these evil and painful moments. That is to say, whether or not suffering has or ought to have any instrumental ends, the great mercy of God is that he gives us, as more-than-victors, to transform suffering’s destructiveness with beautiful transfiguration.
The good to which all things work together, for those who love God, is ultimately our salvation. But this does not guarantee an end to the suffering or to its consequences. People are transfigured in their suffering from cancer, but they may nonetheless die from the disease. Hearts might become more open and loving when faced with the end of a relationship, but that does not promise a reconciliation. A financial disaster does not necessarily entail a recovery; the move from wealth to poverty may be permanent. While suffering can, through our cooperation with the joyous grace of God given with it, become instrumental to the good, we can neither predict nor determine what is that good. At least in the particulars. Yes, we will become more pure, more simple, stronger, more loving. And from these transformations will flow other beautiful consequences. But the results may not, and by experience rarely are, precisely what we had hoped for.
The good news, however, is that such results will always, always, transcend the open and loving heart’s expectations. God will not give a stone to those who ask for bread. Rather he will give a good measure, pressed down and shaken together. He has come that we may have life, and that abundantly.