20 June 2019

Question On Suffering Well

[[Hi Sister Laurel, I am trying to learn what it means to suffer well. I just was diagnosed with a neurological disorder and my pastor said something about learning to suffer well. I have read several of your articles on suffering and on chronic illness as vocation. I found where you wrote: [[As in Christ's life, of itself suffering is not redemptive; it is our dependence upon God, our remaining open to God's grace (God's living self) in spite of and within that suffering that is redemptive, for it implicates God into the places or realms from which he would otherwise be excluded. (Realms like sin and death are also personal realms, and God cannot simply force his way into them, or overcome them by fiat; they imply human decisions to live --- and therefore to die --- without God, and thus they come to be embodied realities which are deeply personal. ]] Could you say more about what you think it means to suffer well? You don't talk much about your own suffering. I am wondering, do you think you know how to suffer well? I think doing that must be different than I think it is because I am getting nowhere except maybe more depressed.]]

It's a great series of questions! I am genuinely sorry for your diagnosis. Please be assured of my ongoing prayers. As you may know, I have lived my entire adult life with a medically and surgically intractable seizure disorder and a form of complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS formerly called RSD) all coupled with PTSS. Through the years I have been to the OR about 14 times and have been on any number of med trials, stellate ganglion blocks, electrical nerve stimulation, depth electrodes, opioids, and innumerable lab trips and doctors' appointments, tests, treatments, therapy, etc., to control either seizures or chronic pain or deal with the psychological ramifications of these. (Never mind the broken wrist, severed ulnar tendon, frozen shoulders, etc!) Some of these were helpful and I am grateful to God for them and especially for several of my doctors, but more important than all of these in learning to "suffer well" (I dislike this term and will say why in just a moment) has been my work in spiritual direction and personal formation. By the way, listing all these things makes me feel a little like I am doing an insane thing, and speaking in a crazy way like Paul does in Friday's first reading from 2 Cor 1:18, 21-30. But Paul does it to focus on his own weakness as the counterpart of the Grace and power of God in his life and I truly would like to do the same! Except to suggest that perhaps I can empathize some with your situation, there is no real reason otherwise to make such a list!

It is important that seizures and pain be controlled as well as possible, of course. I and anyone with disabling conditions need to function as best we can. Getting appropriate medical care is simply necessary --- morally as well as medically. These days I have found a fair combination of meds and other treatments that help with control, especially with pain, but both conditions are still uncontrolled. The real key, however, to living with these (or any!!) kinds of debilitating conditions is not to learn precisely to "suffer well" where the focus is on our suffering, but instead, to learn to live well with and within one's limitations. The focus must be on living. We are each of us so much more than our medical conditions and that is especially true when we view reality from the perspective of the grace and presence of God! Moreover, I am personally convinced that so long as our focus is on our suffering and not on our living with and in Christ, so long as our work in spiritual direction (or inner growth work) and prayer is not geared toward becoming and being essentially well, whole and/or holy in spite of our medical conditions, we make no real progress. Neither will we be able to witness effectively to others if our suffering is more than a momentary focus here or there!

Now let me be clear. I don't mean to say that we are not to speak directly of our suffering with our directors or close friends, pastor, etc. We will and must do that, of course, and we will also struggle to pray and do our own inner work in spite of the suffering that accompanies it (as it will in any deep healing or inner work --- for yes, of course all that will be involved). We cannot simply stuff our feelings or deny our pain; to do so is to deny our humanity and close ourselves off to the grace of God which can come in the midst of suffering. Still, the focus of one's life and of one's work --- especially in spiritual direction --- will be on learning to live well, coming to an essential wholeness in spite of our medical conditions. This is the very nature of any vocation. Some kinds of personal work will occasion intense suffering of itself, but this is always done so that one may live fully the abundant life God wills for and offers each of us. In Friday's lection, Paul lists all the tribulations he has dealt with, all the weaknesses he has experienced and had revealed to others through the persecutions he endured, but he does so only in order to witness to life-in-spite-of his weakness and a God whose power is perfected in weakness (both God's own kenosis and our own weakness). In this way Paul never sounds like a victim; instead he is someone whose weaknesses serve to glorify God.

To What Will we Witness?


I never feel called to witness to suffering per se. Suffering is associated with sin, the state of brokenness and estrangement, alienation and self- centeredness. It stems from our separation from the God of life and wholeness --- to whatever extent that is true for God's creation in general. (I am not speaking here of personal sin, by the way; please be very clear about that when you read me here! I am referring here to an existential state we are born into, not something we cause with our own personal sin.) What I do feel called to witness to, therefore, is the life God gives me, the hope and sense of futurity that is the result of God's grace, God's presence and "time" in my time.  When I talk this way I am talking about the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God, the inbreaking of God's time, of eternity into space and time. When this happens time takes on a new character. We find it is measured in terms of hope and also of love. One of the real problems of pain and suffering is that they make of time an endless succession of empty,  meaningless, or hopeless moments with no end and no real future in sight. When God breaks into our world of space and time our perspective shifts and time --- because of love --- is transformed and, in fact, is measured by the presence of hope.

This is what I want to witness to when I am suffering, not the pain per se. This, I think is what I am called to find and witness to when I am suffering (just as usually it is what Paul witnesses to in spite of all he has suffered for the sake of the Gospel). Not all suffering is meaningful of course, but despite the senseless suffering we may experience, the real question posed is can one find the meaning in one's life and live for and from that? Hope is a function of meaningfulness (or perhaps it is vice versa!). For those of us who are people of faith (people who trust in God), we believe (we come more and more to know)  that we are loved with an everlasting love; we know that we are important to God, that our lives are meaningful in light of God's life and that we are called upon to witness to this. Whether we suffer or are feeling joy we witness to the life that is ours in spite of our own limits and pain. After all, suffering, though real and sometimes truly awful, is not the whole of our world even when it feels like it is. We must find a way to regain the perspective we have in and through Christ before our view is filled with pain --- the eschatological or Kingdom perspective we had before pain threatened to rob our lives of meaning and hope.

Maintaining a Human Perspective:

One of the quotes I have used here before is by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I think it is very helpful in maintaining the kind of perspective needed to deal creatively or fruitfully with suffering. Bonhoeffer said, [[Not everything that happens is the will of God, but inevitably, of all that does happen, nothing happens outside the will of God,]] In other words, God does not will illness or pain; he certainly does not will lives of disability and torment; however, when these things happen we will find they can be touched and transformed by the grace of God. Paul speaks of God bringing good out of all things for those who love God, and this is the same idea. We cannot blame God for our sufferering. I don't for a minute believe God wills my illness or disability, but I have seen time and again that God will bring amazing fruit out of my suffering. It doesn't stop the seizures or the pain, but in the midst of all of that I have hope and my life is meaningful. Sometimes, because of my own resulting vulnerability, God is able to speak to me in new and more profound ways; when days are filled with pain I must remember this larger, more truly human perspective.

Again, I believe that suffering well means living well, living from and for the love  of God in a way which witnesses to hope and meaning. There's nothing easy in learning to live this way, but I am convinced it is the only way to deal with suffering effectively. Cultivating the Theological virtues (Faith, Hope, Charity or Love)  in a life characterized by suffering is critical! We have to remember that when we ourselves are mainly or even only screams of anguish,  God wills that we become instead, articulate language events which speak convincingly of God's faithfulness, love, and presence. This is what every human being is called to be, an incarnation of God's Word and Wisdom, God's love and life in Christ. If we can only be a scream of anguish, if our pain is our only discussion topic, the only thing we can talk about or focus on, we have lost perspective and need to recover it. Friends, family, therapists, spiritual directors and others can assist with this. For those with serious illnesses and disability, such persons are indispensable in helping us to maintain a truly human (and Divine) perspective --- that is, a Kingdom perspective where time is measured by hope and life by the meaning God's love gives us.

By the way, Paul only listed his litany of beatings, shipwrecks, imprisonments, etc once in all of his writing. No one ever forgets it but in the main his writing is about the Grace of God and readers have no sense at all of Paul's life being a scream of anguish. Instead he is an incarnation of the Gospel --- a powerful proclamation of the power of God perfected in weakness (2 Cor 12:9). Those who suffer should aim at being the same!

I hope this is helpful. Please feel free to write again whenever you need.