Tuesday, June 14, 2016

What It Means to Suffer

The question of human suffering casts a long shadow on the human experience. If you talk to people long enough, they’ll get around to telling you that the issue of suffering has profoundly affected their spiritual journey. Either they’ll tell you it has brought them deep into the heart of God, or it has been the end of their relationship with Him. We all experience suffering. We all wrestle with it. None of us fully understands it, including me.

In my experience, suffering is oft misunderstood in Catholic circles. “He’s my cross.” I once heard a rather cranky older woman complain about her even crankier husband of many years. I’ve also heard illness, hurt, hardship, and any number of other maladies described in this fashion. Listening closely, time and again, I’ve heard the lie slip into the conversation. While not this blunt most of the time, it comes down to “this is the cross God gave me to bear.”

Comments like these betray a belief about the origin of suffering. While it may allow them to make religious sense of their pain, it is in the end a devastating lie against the very identity of God. St. John Paul II, in his encyclical Salvifici Doloris, clearly reaffirmed the Church’s constant teaching that suffering is always an evil. Let that sink in for a minute. Suffering is ALWAYS an evil. It does not have its origin in God. God, in His mercy, works all things to good, including evil (Romans 8:28).

A New Paradigm

Recently, I became acquainted with Fr. Sean Kilcawley, a priest from the diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska. As our conversation wandered across a number of topics, he brushed across the subject of pain and suffering. He said, “Think of pain as a physical experience. If you are working out in the gym, you endure physical pain. Suffering is a completely different experience. Suffering may include physical pain, but it is an internal experience. I suffer when I experience the gap- the gap between what is and what should be.”

I interrupted Fr. Sean at that point, dug out my notepad and asked him to repeat what he’d just said. We lingered over the subject for a few minutes as he explained in a little more detail. Suffering, he went on to say, is the experience of evil, of living in a fallen world that we instinctively know should be something other than what it is. Hence the suffering occurs in the areas of our lives where we do not experience God.

As I pondered this new construct, I first thought of Jesus and all of the theology around His suffering. Jesus, I believe, endured profound suffering, not only within the context of His passion, but every day. As the God-man, His entire human experience existed in the most acute awareness of the gap, living, in a metaphorical sense, with one foot in Heaven, and one on earth. In every person He encountered, He knew their heart in its brokenness, and knew His Father’s original intention for that person. Imagine Jesus, speaking to the 5,000, and experiencing the gap, the suffering, of each and every person there, individually and collectively. In His passion, I wonder if He was touching the gap, the chasm between what is and what should be, of every person who had, or would live across the span of salvation history.

When I Am Suffering

I don’t know about you, but there are days that dealing with my own suffering is almost more than I can bear, let alone take on someone else’s. I experience the effects of evil, and I know that it is not how it is supposed to be. I experience fear, loneliness, rejection, abandonment, powerlessness, shame. Sometimes I am willing to sit in the middle of it, experience it, bring it to Jesus. More often, I am inclined to run from it or medicate it. Who wants to suffer? Not me. In my flesh, the ache is just too much!

But now, I have a very tangible understanding of another piece of theology- redemptive suffering. Jesus, the Lord of all creation, became a man so that He could experience suffering, the gap between what is and what should be, in exactly the same way that you and I do. Not only did He experience it as an individual human, but His divinity exposed Him to the suffering of the entirety of humanity. Jesus forged into that deep abyss known as suffering, of evil, of the separation within ourselves, between us and God, for the very purpose of meeting us there.

So now, when I experience suffering in my life, I am still inclined to run or medicate. But I also now understand something that I didn’t understand before. Jesus lives in the gap. In my hurt, I do not experience Him there. But He is there already. And that gives me (on my better days) the courage forge into the darkness, to stand in the gap in my own heart between what is and what should be. After all, He is there already! He is waiting to meet me there, and to take me deeper with Him.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Wrestling With the Restless Heart

One of St. Augustine’s most oft-quoted writings,  “…our hearts are restless until they can find rest in you.”, was penned after more than a decade of  the great saints personal wrestlings, as he looked for meaning in his life.  Those words are profoundly important, echoing the long teaching of the Church.  The human ‘heart’, which carries the very imprint of God, is only at rest when it finds itself in communion with God.  Apart from Him, we are restless, wandering searchers.  
The Catechism sheds light on Augustine’s comment, telling us “the heart is the dwelling-place where I am, where I live… The heart is our hidden center, beyond the grasp of our reason and of others; only the Spirit of God can fathom the human heart and know it fully. The heart is the place of decision…   It is the place of truth, where we choose life or death. It is the place of encounter, because as image of God we live in relation: it is the place of covenant.” CCC 2563
A Broken-Hearted People?
As I ponder Augustine’s statement, and the Catechism’s profound teaching, I’m left wondering, “Why are so many Catholics leaving the Church?”  And, “Why are so many Catholics staying, yet barely practicing?”  I wonder these things, because these very facts are in evidence.  More than 80% of those receiving Confirmation leave the Church by their 23rd birthday.  Few ever return.    Of the 25 million people who have left the Church in recent decades, over 17 million of them state that the Church did not meet their spiritual needs.
These two realities seem to be incompatible at face value, that the heart is restless until if finds God, and that people are exiting the Church (and active participation) in record numbers.   The conclusion is almost inescapable, and quite sobering.  Apparently, something of western Christianity, and more particularly American Catholicism, is wanting.  Something of this particular representation of the Church, instead of drawing the restless heart of searchers “in” from the garbage dump of a secular culture, would appear to be pushing people “out.
As I listen to people who have left the Church, or the frustration of those in the Church, this is what I routinely experience- “their broken hearts”.  The deep longings of their heart, of which the Catechism speaks so intimately, have gone unmet within the walls of the local church.  They yearn for a real and intimate relationship with the living God.  They hope, maybe only in the deepest places within them, to actually encounter and know the God of the scriptures, the One who heals the sick, raises people from the dead, and walks on water.  
Simply put, our hearts are broken because we do not know Jesus.  On far more than one occasion, I have had a priest tell me, “My people don’t even know Jesus!”  Fr. Larry Richards, speaking at the North Texas Catholic Mens Conference last year, stated flatly, “Most of you don’t know Jesus, you just don’t…”  He wasn’t joking…
A Poor Substitute
If we aren’t introducing people to relationship with Jesus, and bringing them into intimate encounter with him, what exactly is it that we are offering them?  You might be thinking, “Come on, Ken, we offer people the Sacraments.  That’s what we offer.  And, that’s AWESOME!”  Well, yes, sort of, that is true.  
We certainly HAVE the Sacraments, but how are we bringing people into the PRACTICE of the Sacraments.  What does a broken-hearted world see?  In Confirmation, do they witness the power of Pentecost come upon our youth, or do they witness the confirmation of “don’t expect to experience anything when the bishop anoints you.”  Does mass look like the book of Acts, where the people worship with one heart and mind?  Or, does it seem more to be a collection of people, who may or may not know each other, practicing a tradition of their family and church?  When was the last time you saw somebody receive healing?  Have their life transformed by an encounter with God?  Bishop Barron recently stated that a church that is divorced from the supernatural is a dying church.  He went on to state that the western church, instead of miracles, encounters with the divine, and the power of the living God, often offers social justice, service to the poor and environmentalism- activities any good atheist could do.
Rabbits Foot Christianity
The Church has a word for this type of Christian expression.  It’s called “Superstition”.  The Catechism states, “Superstition is the deviation of religious feeling and of the practices this feeling imposes… To attribute the efficacy of prayers or of sacramental signs to their mere external performance, apart from the interior dispositions that they demand, is to fall into superstition.” (CCC 2111)
To say it plainly, to expect our religious practice to be fulfilling (efficacious) when our hearts are not disposed toward God, is to practice superstition.  Without a heart disposed toward God, we might just as well rub a rabbits foot, expecting some magical outcome. Fr. Marko Rupnik, in his book ‘Discernment, Acquiring the Heart of God’, offers a profoundly sobering insight.  The enemy attempts to separate the content of faith (sacraments, devotions, ritual) from the person of Jesus.  He asserts that this separation essentially makes one an “unbeliever”.
The Beautiful Antidote
The late great John Paul II understood this problem, and he consistently proclaimed the antidote to this illness in the Church.  The answer is a singular word- Jesus.  He understood, along with Augustine (and the entire teaching of the Church, that Jesus is the answer.  Relationship with Jesus- personal, intimate and powerful.  He is the answer to our restless hearts, and He is the antidote to superstition.  It is Jesus who is the life of the Sacraments.  Encounter Him and you will find the resting place for your restless heart.  John Paul summed it up with these words…
“It is Jesus that you seek when you dream of happiness; He is waiting for you when nothing else you find satisfies you; He is the beauty to which you are so attracted;… it is He who urges you to shed the masks of a false life; it is He who reads in your heart your most genuine choices…  It is Jesus who stirs in you the desire to do something great with your lives, the will to follow an ideal…”
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