This is the title of Fr John Garvey’s latest column in Commonweal. He wisely avoids trying “to make everything understandable or even all right.” Here are a few paragraphs:
If you could be that science-fiction creature, the empath, someone who could walk down the street and absorb the suffering of the people you passed, you would probably be destroyed within a couple of blocks-if you could get that far. I think of pastors, nurses, doctors, and other people whose work makes them take in great draughts of sorrow. There is a glut of suffering at every level: depression, physical illness, mental illness, resentment, the hard-heartedness and self-righteousness of people who refuse to be reconciled, poverty, war, torture inflicted by states, torment inflicted by families, bereavement. When you understand that suffering and sorrow are essential to an understanding of what it means to be human you begin to see something that only Buddhism and Christianity have appreciated. This is not an accidental part of being human. This is the bleeding heart of it. We are born, we suffer, and we die.
The reason this needs to be presented as news to so many of us is that in the affluent West it is quite possible to reach the age of thirty and never to have known death-a rare thing in most of human history. This real inevitability comes as a genuine shock. But the question remains, as it always has: Why are we put through this, if God loves us?
The important Christian contribution is to insist that God is not the author of evil, and that if death and the suffering that precede it have power in our world it is because of something else…sin is the usual culprit, and the free will of humans who are allowed to choose evil its usual means. There are problems with this answer, and they will have to wait for another column. But one of the things we may begin to learn from what human suffering means (and they will not explain it away, or reconcile us to it) is, first of all, to see that it does have the value of showing us that the world, as it is, is not the world that God means us to inhabit. The second and more important lesson is that suffering and love in this world are inextricably tangled.
There is no greater suffering than watching the suffering of someone you love, or losing the company of someone you love. Every good marriage, every profound friendship, learns this at some cost. You are aware that one of you will die first, and the other will suffer the loss; and if one of you dies at the end of a long and draining illness, the other will have daily wished to assume the suffering of the other, if only it could be done. Any parent watching the suffering of a child knows the same feeling. And it is not only our children: when we watch the suffering of others, of other peoples’ children, we are tied into their suffering, and in our best moments would suffer in their place. Paul moves us towards this understanding: “Why, one will hardly die for a righteous man-though for a good man one will even dare to die. But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5: 7-8). Just as the love of a parent does not demand that the son or daughter be sinless-see the story of the prodigal son-so God’s love for us is unimaginably generous, and is joined to the cross. This is a large part of whatever lesson the inescapable fact of suffering has to teach us.