Suffering Teaching Love

(Some recent, ongoing, and wholly-inadequate-to-the-subject reflections inspired by the Encyclical Salvifici Doloris…)


In his encyclical, Salvifici Doloris, John Paul II states that suffering exists “in order to release love, in order to give birth to works of love…” (SD, n.30). I do not think I have ever wrestled with a line or statement as much as I have over this. It sounds, at face value, impossibly harsh and unjust. That suffering could somehow be a good? Could exist for a good purpose? Surely, there must be other ways to learn to love than suffering. But he says this with so much conviction—he who suffered in his life to an unimaginable degree, and whom I have come to trust for his wisdom and truth on so many other levels, that I must confront this claim, and seek to understand it.

The first thing that I came to recognize, in grappling with this statement, and his unfolding of it in the rest of the encyclical, is the fact that John Paul II draws a sharp distinction between evil and suffering. He does not say that evil brings about good: that bad things are allowed in order to give us opportunities and to teach us to love. No, he says that our human capacity to suffer is what gives birth to love. This, already, is a significant distinction. Suffering, he tells us, is a uniquely human experience: it belongs to what it means to be human. This doesn’t mean we were madein-order-to suffer. We were made with the capacity to suffer. These are two extremely different things, though you might think the distinction unimportant. Being made with the capacity for suffering means that when evil, when sin would come into the world, we would have the capacity to experience this evil as a lack, as a void of something that ought to be there… so that the depth of us, the places made to be filled with this good, could recognize it precisely when it was absent, through the thirst of suffering.  Therefore, while suffering as the response, the experience of a lack, an evil, belongs intimately to what it means to be human, the cause of suffering, the evil thing itself, the painful circumstance, is not a good, is not natural to us.

This already is a source of peace for me: before we can even begin to entertain the possibility that suffering is human, that the painful experience of living a lack of good can make us more fully ourselves, we oftentimes need the assurance that this painful thing that is happening to me should not have been, according to the original goodness of God’s plan for me, and is not a good in itself. Only then can suffering truly be what it is: a mourning, a living experience of the loss of something good and true and whole… and a call to take up and offer this experience of suffering out of love.

The claim that suffering belongs intimately and uniquely to what it means to be human is central to the following premise that “suffering releases love”. Because for John Paul II, to love and be loved is the core of what it means to be human, to be made in the image of a God Who is a Communion of Persons.  It requires us, therefore, to look seriously and deeply at such a claim, that suffering itself is now, (after the Fall, and the Cross), the context in which we are given the means to live this: to live most deeply what we were made for.

This brings us to the heart of the encyclical. For the only reason the experience of suffering has the capacity to open us to love, is the fact that this fundamental human experience of suffering in the face of evil has been transformed, redeemed forever by Christ’s taking on all evil in His suffering on the Cross. Suffering, the human experience of evil, can only be such a “teacher” can only re-insert us into our humanity, can only be a means to call forth from us a response of love because of the Cross. Because of the singular event that in the Cross, Christ forever united suffering with love. The radical claim of the Cross says to us that suffering, this human response and experience in the face of the void of evil, can be a means to our fullness. In other words, evil, through Christ’s claim over its’ effects by taking them on and living them Himself, has been turned on its head, and can be undone by the very suffering that it causes.

Think about that, for a long time. It is something we need to be soaked in. Something we profess to believe in every Sunday, in the Creed, in our “Amen”, in every prayer of the Church’s liturgy. And yet it is something we are not accustomed to thinking about or realize the true significance of.  

If I am honest, I recognize from my own experience that these paradoxes are true: that suffering has a capacity to call forth love from us in a profound way; that it can teach us about ourselves more truly than many other things. To be taught is to be taken by the hand and led deeper within the truth of things. It is to be formed and shaped, stretched and opened into a fuller, more true, more real reality of yourself, by being brought into deeper relation with the truth of things around you. Understanding “teaching” in this way, suffering has a profound capacity to teach us; suffering is one of those things that is particularly prone to effecting this movement in us: forming, shaping, stretching, opening, and in the end, leaving us more real, more ourselves, more human.  

This is not to deny that suffering also draws out of us our deepest weaknesses, our insufficiencies, our failures. And yet the equally present though often less visible reality is that it draws out of us simultaneously our deepest capacities to love, to be present, to sacrifice. Therefore, to say that suffering has a capacity to deepen love, is to imply that there is still a choice involved: a call for us to respond to, in the face of every suffering. We must ask the questions, What is being asked of me in this painful experience? What is the meaning here? Why?

I have also found that there are two very different ways to ask why in the face of suffering. The first is to ask “Why?” almost half-heartedly, already from the beginning being certain that there is no answer, and to remain there, and to let this question grow into resentment, bitterness, despair, until the whole horizon of your world shrinks dramatically, and in the end, you lose your ability to see: yourself, the other, life. Until you cease to expect anything. The first way is a dead end. The other way to ask “Why?” is to ask it in the face of Someone Whom you know and trust infinitely: Someone Whom you choose to believe has the answer, and of Whom you will continue to ask it until you also see and understand. This way of asking why begins with a presupposition that there is an answer, that the world is larger than this narrow horizon shutting in on you, and the more you push, and insist and drive at this conviction, the broader, the deeper the horizon of life becomes; and instead of closing in tighter in resentment and despair, your heart–indeed, in intense pain and grief, but nevertheless–your heart grows larger, expands, goes out of itself searching to an infinite degree. I think this is what hope means. And it is how the Christian is enabled to suffer, how man is capable of suffering because God Himself suffered all suffering on the Cross.

To suffer this second way is to stand in the face of suffering, and ask, “What is the meaning of this?” To look at yourself in the suffering, and ask for your eyes to be opened to the ways in which you are meant to be formed, to be changed, to be deepened, to be shaped by this precise experience: how is He using this for you? It is from within this stance in the face of suffering that John Paul II can say suffering is the context for our deepest response of love. He recognized that if we allow it to, suffering calls forth from within us a deeper awareness of our intrinsic need to give all of ourselves, and to receive all of the other. And the promise is that when we give our “yes” to this invitation to pour out all of ourselves we, in turn, will receive ourselves: that we will “find ourselves in a sincere gift of self”. 

When we are faced with great suffering, then, we are being presented with an opportunity, with the challenge, with the work, the task, the “call”… the vocation to love on a seemingly impossible level, to an unthinkable degree, to an excruciating depth. And it feels like pouring out every last drop of your life blood, and being asked for more. It feels like laying down your life, and waking up the next morning to realize you are being asked to do it all over again. It is a white martyrdom that I dare not say is harder than the red one of our modern brothers and sisters in Syria and Libya, but nevertheless, no less real, no less a martyrdom, to wake up every morning and be asked to give every drop of your life.  But at the end of the day, this giving all of ourselves is what it means to be human. This is life. This is what we were made for. The good news, then, is that even these means, even this painful, most unwanted suffering has been made a place, an opportunity in which to live this deepest need of ours, to be with, and to offer, to love and to lay our lives down to the end; to go to the end of love, and there to find ourselves.

I have been driven to ask these questions, to test the limits of what it means to say that suffering opens us to love; even what it means to say that love is laying our lives down for the other, and that this is what we are made for, only because I have lived these things. And I am able to talk about them, only because I have experienced the truth of it. In the face of this fact, during the darkest periods of suffering, no matter how much it still hurts, I am aware that this task is also a privilege. I have to acknowledge that being drawn deeper into an understanding of these things, through living them personally, is a gift. A painful gift. A gift I would not have consented to receive, if my permission had been asked ahead of time. But thank God that He allows us everything we need, even the suffering that we need, without asking our permission.

Each of us will have stretches of the journey harder and darker than others. And I am finding it another mercy of the providence of God that He often places along the way certain periods of light and hope for some that coincide with others’ darkness, so that we each can take turns being an encouragement and a shelter to each other on the way. So often, in the midst of suffering’s teaching, it is our companions on the way who allow us to see, and inspire in us the courage to give our ongoing “yes” to this forming: recognizing the promise of the resurrection in their lives as the answer to the current cross in our own.

In the end, I give thanks to the One Who has Himself redeemed and restored our humanity, and the wonder of the mystery that even here, even in the face of my weakness and insufficiency, even in the face of the most painful, and darkest realities that those I love are facing, and that I would do anything to spare them from… that even in these things, He has opened a way, precisely through them, into the glory of eternal love.


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