Friday, 22 December 2017

Re-living the First Advent

Advent recalls the period of anticipation leading up to the adventus, the arrival or coming of Jesus—the Jewish Messiah-Saviour, born as a God-man in a town named Bethlehem.

Mosaic of the Journey to Bethlehem from the The Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora, Istanbul. Literal meanings aside, I like to see that old fella at the back, tailing along, as ourselves - surrogate fourth members of the Holy Family. On a side note, it looks like Joseph is either singing a folk tune to himself or asking, "God, why is this guy following us... again?"

Tracing the Longing

John the Baptist, by Bartolome Esteban Murillo.
In a general sense, Advent recalls this long anticipation of Israel over the course of millennia. A longing captured in the voice of the Prophets, finding its crescendo in John the Baptist, who likened Israel as the bride, Jesus as the bridegroom, and himself as “the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, and rejoices greatly at the bridegroom's voice” to such a profound degree that John says, “this joy of mine is now full” (Jn 3:29).

Such bridal imagery beautifully expresses the extent of the longing of the people of Israel for their Messiah, and it was one of their own, a young Jewish virgin woman, who completed this longing—desiring so fiercely for the advent of the Messiah, that He came. And marvel of marvels, the Holy Spirit wedded Himself to this virgin named Mary, irrevocably tying Himself to Her as His Bride, and consummating this loving virginal bond, He conceived in her womb the Messiah.

Yet this spiritual marriage, binding Mary to the Holy Spirit, was not without its sacramental, its visible and human element. For in the person of Joseph, the greatest saint second only to Mary herself, God had contracted a virginal marriage, from which the Messiah was to spring forth as a sapling, growing and living beneath their shelter until the age of thirty. Concerning this the same Holy Spirit speaks through the Psalmist: “Loving kindness and faithfulness have embraced; righteousness and peace have kissed [and] truth from the earth shall spring forth and righteousness shall look down from heaven” (Ps 85:10-11). Which is to say, “Joseph and Mary have embraced in the togetherness of betrothal, they have been sealed in perpetual virginal wedlock, and the Messiah, coming down from heaven, has sprung up in their midst.”


The First Advent

It’s on this tiny pixel of history, the Holy Family before Christmas Day, that Advent really focuses in on, whilst simultaneously reaching out into the past-longing of Israel and the ongoing longing of the Church for the eschaton—the second coming.

Joseph and Mary, and Jesus in Mary’s womb, gestating and on the way! Ordinary pregnancies are tremendous enough in their strange magnificence—a new being with an immortal soul sprouted into existence; a little person ‘baking away’ inside a woman. A life packed with potential squashed in a womb and nourished inside the mother, wholly and totally dependent—directly on the mother, and indirectly on the father through his protecting support of his wife. Yet here we have a man and a woman, chosen out of everyone else, from all generations, cultures and individuals, to raise God the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity, as their son.

It’s easy to get swept up in the pious cliché of the Holy Family—forgetting the real humanness of these figures, and the whole profundity of it all. It’s also easy to get so swept up in practical preparations for Christmas before it even comes, that Advent as a time to spiritually prepare is glossed over, unless we make a concerted effort. Meanwhile, even if we embrace Advent in the spirit of renewal, charity and prayerful longing, we tend to forget the personal and universal significance of the first Advent that ever was. For what Advent liturgically recalls now, Mary and Joseph concretely lived in the past, two thousand years ago in Ancient Palestine.

The Pregnancy

Anyway, back to the Holy Family. Here are Joseph and Mary, before the birth, and they are faced with the bewildering reality that God is dwelling inside Mary’s womb: transcendent Creator God, and immanently one of us. No nine months could compare to these nine months. Experienced uniquely by Mary as mother, aware all along, and experienced uniquely by Joseph as ordained father, made aware shortly into the pregnancy (as the consensus of tradition relates).

The Sudden Parentage

The context of their parentage mustn’t be forgotten: they remained virgins in wedlock—unparalleled, and unusual enough, especially for Mary as a biological mother! —but before they were married they both made vows of virginity, vows which they made in their youth, and maintained until their death. This is attested by figures such as Ss. Peter Damian and Thomas Aquinas.[1] So, until Jesus came along, never for one instant did either Mary or Joseph consider the fact that they would be parents. Sure, Mary likely knew she’d be compelled to marry according to custom, but she would have trusted in God’s Providence that He’d sort this out, someway, somehow. The same goes for Joseph, but maybe he thought he might never get married.

So, one can hardly imagine the gratitude and joy of Mary, who in the mirror of her virginity pondered in her heart the sublime gift of her motherhood. Placing her own hand reverently upon her belly as she woke, and during the day, and before she slept, as though to caress the little Messiah—her Maker, made in her.

Joseph too, never expecting he’d have a son, would have been struck by a supreme tenderness in the face of the dignity confronting him: to be called the father to God; marvelling also at Mary, whose dignity he knew was spotless beyond measure. It was in his apprehension of this dual wonder, that led Joseph to seek to hiddenly separate from Mary, for he could not believe that he was chosen from amongst men to be the custodian of such a woman and such a child. Reassured that this was his call by angelic visitation, the blessedness of his vocation to be wed to such a woman and to be the father of the Messiah-God in flesh, would never have escaped his mind. To consider the ecstasies that would have inundated his heart at the sheer thought he was spouse to the greatest saint, most lovely, kind, and beautiful of all women, and father to God Himself, is enough to chase one’s own heart into loving awe.

What Happened During this First Advent?

So what did Mary and Joseph do during their first Advent? Besides the ordinary proceedings of life, and a few key moments, if we consult the Scriptures we see that this first Advent was marked by at least two great journeys. Firstly, the 90-mile journey from Nazareth to the Judean village of Ein Karem, where John the Baptist is traditionally believed to have been born. Secondly, the 80-mile journey to Bethlehem from Nazareth.

Both journeys are no less than three days each way, possibly even four days, and perhaps almost a week when one considers Mary’s condition on the way to Bethlehem, and so during this first Advent, give or take, around two-weeks were spent in travel. This is when we factor in the return from Judea to Nazareth. Now, depending on how one dates Jesus’ birth in the calendar year, it is possible that Mary and Joseph travelled even more than this during Mary’s pregnancy. For example, it’s possible they travelled to Jerusalem for the Passover, and/or made other smaller journeys to Jerusalem when in Ein Karem, if their three-month stay (Lk 1:56, “approximately”) happened to synchronise with other Jewish festivals. Nevertheless, we know for certain that at least two journeys were made.

Visitation—Off to Ein Karem

After she receives the angelic message and conceives Jesus in her womb, Mary doesn’t delay, but μετὰ σπουδῆς—she went “with haste” or, literally, “with speedy diligence” to visit her cousin Elizabeth. The Archangel Gabriel never conveyed God’s Will directly, saying that she must visit her cousin, but simply revealed to her the fact that Elizabeth was in her sixth month of pregnancy. Yet this was enough for Mary—without getting wrapped up in a pious individualism, admiring the fact that she has just been made the Mother of God, Mary’s thoughts are totally selfless, other-focused, and so “with speedy diligence” (within two or three days, is the opinion of Cornelius a Lapide)[2] she goes to Judea to help her cousin, practically, yet above all, morally, by offering a sisterly presence and support.

Joseph’s accompaniment in the visitation isn’t mentioned in Luke’s Gospel. There is a view which takes this to mean that Joseph stayed at Nazareth and Mary went off without him, although as consensus holds, likely travelling with at least someone else, a matron or group, because a young woman travelling alone was deemed unfitting and dangerous. This view that Joseph did not accompany Mary to Ein Karem is commonly held today, and is reflected in various articles one might read on the subject.

Yet, if Joseph is to be excluded [from the visitation] simply because Scripture does not name him, so also must the supposed matron [or group] be excluded, of whom not a word is said in the sacred text; and when it becomes a question of supposing who might have been Mary’s companion, certainly it is only reasonable to conclude that Joseph was the person. True, the Evangelist does not say that he went, but neither did he say that he did not go; nor, again, does he say that Mary went by herself. Not to mention a circumstance is, assuredly, not the same thing as to deny it; and this applies peculiarly to the Gospel narratives. Clearly they do mot record everything, often leaving what they omit to be supplied by tradition, and even by reason and common sense.[3]

Yet here, tradition supplies, and supplies generously, weighing heavier than speculations divorced from tradition, that Joseph was indeed with Mary in this journey and visit.

St. Bernadine of Siena and St. Bernard are entirely agreed upon this point, and the latter enlarges upon the blessedness of the house which contained such holy persons, and on the joy which Joseph, in particular, must have experienced in accompanying Mary on this journey. Isolano goes so far as to say no rational person, or possessed of Catholic feeling, could admit for a moment that Our Lady at that tender age, went unattended, or that Joseph, for any cause whatever, could have allowed his virgin spouse to make so long a journey without accompanying her [(De Donis S. Joseph, p. ii. c. vi.)]. [Furthermore,] St. Francis de Sales… alludes to Joseph being Mary’s companion on the road as an unquestionable fact.[4]

The Plod to Bethlehem

We then come to consider the second and final journey that marked the first Advent: the 80-mile trek to Bethlehem. It is this journey that has (at least until now) captured the imagination of modern Western culture, as it preludes the fantastic event of the birth of God into the human world—not in the grandness of a palace, but in a stable as an outcast.

By a stroke of divine providence, working through the Roman decree to issue an Empire-wide census—the prophecy that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem was fulfilled (Mic 5:2). Joseph had to go with Mary to Bethlehem, his ancestral town, in order to enrol in the census.

Hundreds, if not thousands of Jews of the house of David would have had to have made the journey to Bethlehem. Mary being pregnant, would have led to their journey taking much longer. It is no surprise then, that on arrival Joseph is unable to find accommodation, since everywhere is full. These most holy of persons, with God Himself, about-to-be-born, among them—the first in dignity and sanctity, find themselves placed last. Compelled to take up lodgings in a stable—specifically, as tradition asserts, a stable-cave.

If we consider that this pilgrimage to Bethlehem would have taken between five days and a week, it is interesting to correlate our final week of Advent as a time in which we ourselves might concentrate on making an interior pilgrimage to the stable of humility and simplicity, wherein we shall encounter afresh the infant Christ. Adoring Him then, and even now, in the Bethlehem, meaning the House of Bread, which is ever before us: the churches and chapels wherein our Eucharistic Lord abides. Yet having received Him, we mustn’t forget that this infant, baked in the womb of Mary by the heat of her love conjoined to the Holy Spirit through the person of Joseph, abides in our very own hearts. Laying on the straw of our imperfections, and desiring the homage of our love.

Lessons from the Two Journeys

The fact that two journeys constitute the most significant events to take place during the first Advent, says a lot. Clearly, Advent is revealed in this way to be a microcosm of a journey, reflective of the journey of the Advent of this life.

This journey of Christian life, like the journeys of Mary and Joseph, is hard, is supposed to be made for the sake of others in mind, and all from a motive of obeying God’s Will, which doesn’t come to us by voice in angelic visitation or dream, but by means of God’s voice speaking through the Church, Her Scripture, Tradition and Magisterium, and our consciences informed by the angelic teaching of the faith.

Yet, as Mary shows us in the visitation, obeying God’s Will which means living out the faith of the Church, doesn’t mean cocooning ourselves away in selfish and private piety, but it means going out of ourselves to love and serve others, reaching out from a place of interior peace and contemplation—which is Eucharistic in focus. In this way, imitating Mary, we go forth into the world as people whose souls are pregnant with the divine life of God’s Presence—Emmanuel, God-with-us—sharing the joy of this God with those we encounter.

Advent as a Real Participation in the First

We’ve reflected a little on the first Advent. A time of surprise and wonder for Mary and Joseph, where they grapple with the profound vocation of their new parenthood—all in the face of the mystery of the Incarnation, God becoming man, and specifically, becoming their son. A time synonymous with Mary’s pregnancy itself; and a time marked by two journeys.

The liturgical season of Advent, drawing to a close, recalls this time. Yet more than a mere recalling it is an opportunity to spiritually unite and re-live the first Advent experienced by Mary and Joseph over two-thousand years ago. It is an invitation to participate in the mystery of the Incarnation itself, perpetuated in the Eucharist, and alive in our hearts.

True Devotion to the Holy Family - The Means

 It is a time in the year to especially emphasise this spiritual reality, but in fact it applies to our whole Christian life—an Advent in itself, tied to the first Advent that was. For by our baptism the life of Jesus was conceived in our souls, as it was in Mary’s flesh. The Eucharist nourishes and increases this life of Jesus within us: both by reception, and Adoration which magnifies in us, Him whom we receive.

Our devotion to Mary, involving the Rosary and such devotions for sure, but alive and living as an actual Marian disposition of the soul, is the ideal means of carrying and nurturing this divine life of Jesus, and by default, the Trinity, in us, and of giving birth, delivering it, into the sphere of our households, and the lives of others. Hence through Mary, ourselves and everywhere we are, turns into a living nativity.

Our devotion to Joseph fortifies this Marian devotion, and brings it to fruition, defending it from imperfection; as he protects the divine life within us from our own weakness, the world and the devil. Silently accompanying us in our daily journey—never forsaking us for one instant, being as He is, the human mediator of the Father, following that of Jesus.

It is in this threefold way—a Christocentrism culminating in a Eucharistic spirituality which is deeply Marian and Josephine, that is, by a true devotion to the Holy Family, that we accompany the Holy Family as a fellow member, a fellow traveler, in their first Advent which is our first Advent too—not merely recalled, but re-lived.


So that although Christ was born once in birth, once in resurrection from the dead, and that we ourselves have been reborn once in baptism into the life of Christ—our deeper immersion, hand in hand with Mary and Joseph, into this single rebirth, will be as though we are being reborn time and time again; and each time, getting a little bit closer in likeness to that meek child wrapped in swaddling clothes. Whose birth into the world marks our rebirth into the paradise of the pre-existent, eternal and beatific nativity scene of the Holy Trinity (where the Father eternally begets the Son within the exchange of the Holy Spirit, Their Mutual Love), given flesh in the Holy Family on Christmas Day - the abiding means to this blessed end that smiles in invitation in the face of the infant who lies on straw.

[1] Edward Healy Thompson, The Life and Glories of Saint Joseph (TAN Books: Charlotte, NC, 2013) originally published in 1888, p. 85-86.
[2] ibid., 169.
[3] ibid., 170-171.
[4] ibid., 172.

Friday, 15 December 2017

The Mystery of Human Suffering: God-Suffering-With-Us

"Guernica," depicting the Spanish Civil War, Picasso, 1937.

Human suffering… No human answer can say it all… The following was written in response to a wholesome question, posed after this person had read a previous article on John of the Cross [here]:
"He was remembered because he accomplished great things. What about the rest 99.9% of people who had it equally or even harder? Is there a point for most people's suffering in this wretched world?" 
One can only venture to answer fallibly, just as well God has already answered infallibly.

The Particular: Child Birth

Consider a woman that gives birth. She goes through tremendous pains, and through such pains, she gives birth to a child, and no matter how painful her labour, she sees such pains as worthwhile, because the joy of holding her baby in her arms for the first time, outweighs the suffering. Ask such a loving mother whether she’d choose to keep the child and the pains, or give up the pains and so give away the child, and she’ll say the pains were hell, but I’d choose the child any day.[i]

The Universal

This says something about suffering in general. Suffering can be meaningful if it results in a good, a thing, a fruit, that positively outweighs the negative experience of such a suffering. Accordingly, athletes go through rigorous and painful training, seeing the possibility of a gold medal as worth the pains. Soldiers have died in agony on battle fields, viewing the pain of their sacrifice outweighed by the reason they died (whether real or imagined): to defend their people, or to fight against tyranny. The pain of losing our first teeth is considered to have purpose because it makes way for better teeth, adult teeth. 

What About Those Other Sufferings?

However, when one considers the horrible sufferings people endure—broken families, terrorism, murders, rapes, depression etc.—there seems to be no benefit at all, just sheer pain, and one couldn’t be blamed for thinking, where does God stand in relation to this? He can seem distant, uncaring, some even think blameworthy. After all, he doesn’t always intervene with a lightening bolt. Much could be said, as countless books and articles have done so, regarding man’s free will, God’s respect of this freedom and His goodness and inability to do evil, somehow working all out for the good even if we can’t perceive it, and many other things commonly raised. Yet it really is a mystery, suffering is a mystery, we can explain it a little, but we cannot explain it perfectly.

To Question is Good, but the Answer is Better

But for the Christian, to question and to realise our inability to understand this is considered okay, because we believe that God has already answered and explained the mystery of suffering by speaking ‘once and for all’ His Word—Jesus—who was made flesh, born of Mary, and then at His prime, though innocent, was condemned to death, scourged and beaten to a bloody pulp, spat upon, and mocked, stripped naked by Roman soldiers, humiliated and laughed at.[ii] Then nailed to a chunk of wood to die cold and alone: and all willingly despite been able to save Himself, in order to prove His supreme love for us—dying so as to take the punishment of our sins on Himself, so that we might be freed from the prison of our sin and mortality, and enter into the perfection of grace and eternal life.
That’s how desperate God was to reveal His care for us. This shows where God stood in relation to every kind of victim of every manner of suffering. Not distant and above them, but suffering in them and with them, through them and for them. God has explained it all by His Word in Christ Crucified. It’s just that no matter how much we grasp it, this explanation of human suffering and misery, nailed to the Cross with open arms, is beyond our ability to reason and hence the need for faith, by which we embrace this explanation, this answer, this Word, this man, this God.

Suffering: Worthwhile, Not Wasted

So as a mother sees the suffering of her labour pains as a worthwhile sacrifice for the sake of giving birth to her child; the Christian sees the sufferings of this life as not wasted, meaningless or vain, but a worthwhile sacrifice (without advocating masochism, but simply accepting the sufferings that have befallen us) which in light of Jesus’ sufferings and by uniting our pains to His pains, can, by His grace through faith, serve as our share in the labour pains necessary for our rebirth—our delivery—into the eternal life of heaven.

For as silver is purified of dross through exposure to fire, so we can be purified by exposure to the fire of sufferings in our life. Pressure can make coal, but under the right conditions pressure can make diamonds. One key trend in the lives of the Saints, these diamonds of humanity, is that they suffered a lot, but not necessarily any more than many other people. It’s just that they suffered well and hence their sufferings made them better people.

Dr. Jordan B Peterson—"Life is Suffering"

On this note, I think it worthwhile to share part of a transcript of a powerful speech given by Canadian Psychology Professor, Jordan B Peterson, earlier this year. He doesn’t consider himself a Christian. At least, not in any defined sense of the word, but Catholic thought welcomes truth wherever it’s spoken, and whoever speaks it, even if partial disagreement remains. The link is provided in the footnotes. Heads-up, it’s an easy read.

Dr. Jordan B Peterson
People get upset with me because I bring up religious themes, but… it’s not an accident that the axiomatic western individual was someone who was unfairly nailed to a cross and tortured. It’s like, yes…right…exactly!... Well, there’s a deep idea in the West…“Pick up your damn suffering, and bear it… and try to be a good person, so that you don’t make it worse.” Well that’s a truth.

You know… I read a lot about the terrible things that people have done to each other, you just cannot even imagine it. It’s so awful. So you don’t want to be someone like that. Now do you have a reason to be? Yes! You have a lots [sic] of reasons to be… there’s reasons to be resentful about your existence. Everyone you know is going to die… you know. You too! And there’s going to be a fair bit of pain along the way and lots of it is going to be unfair. It’s like, “Yeah, no wonder you’re resentful!” It’s like, act it out and see what happens. You make everything you’re complaining about infinitely worse. There’s this idea that hell is a bottomless pit, and that’s because no matter how bad it is, some stupid son-of-a-#@% like you could figure out a way to make it a lot worse.

So you think, “Well, what do you do about that?” Well you accept it. That’s what life is like—it’s suffering. That’s what the religious people have always said. Life is suffering. Yes! Well, who wants to admit that? Well, just think about it. Well so what do you do in the face of that suffering? Try to reduce it. Start with yourself, what good are you? Get yourself together… so that when your father dies you’re not whining away in the corner, and you can help plan the funeral, and you can stand up solidly so that people can rely on you. That’s better. Don’t be a damn victim. ‘Course you’re a victim! …Obviously. Put yourself together, and then maybe if you put yourself together—you know how to do that, you know what’s wrong with you, if you’ll admit it. You know there’s a few things that you could like, polish up a little bit… And then maybe you could bring your family together, instead of having them be the hateful, spiteful, neurotic, in-fighting batch, that you’re like, doomed to spend Christmas with. So, then you fix yourself up a little bit, kind of humbly, because you know… you’re a fixer-upper if there ever was one... And so then maybe you get somewhere that way, and your family is sort of functioning, and you find out well, that kind of relived a little bit of suffering… And so… you’re a little clued in then, at least a bit, because you’ve done something difficult that’s actually difficult and so you’re a little wiser, and so you can put a tentative finger out beyond the family, and try to change some little thing, without wrecking it….

…And that’s another message of the West: it’s like how do you overcome the suffering of life? (I’m not saying it’s only the message of the West). How do you overcome the suffering of life is be a better person. That’s how you do it. Well that’s hard. It takes responsibility. And I think, you know, if you said to someone, “You want to have a meaningful life… Everything you do matters,” (that’s the definition of a meaningful life), “But everything you do matters!” But you’re going to have to carry that with you. Or do you just want to forget about the whole meaning thing and then you don’t have any responsibility, ‘cause “Who the hell cares”, and you can wonder through life and do whatever you want—gratifying impulsive desires {then sarcastically} for how useful that’s going to be. And [meanwhile] you’re stuck in meaninglessness but you don’t have any responsibility, which one do you want?

Ask yourself, which one are you pursuing? And you’ll find very rapidly that it isn’t the majority of your soul that is pursuing the whole meaning thing, because, well, look what you have to do to do that—you have to take on the fact that life is suffering. You have to put yourself together, in the face of that. Well, that’s hard… it’s amazing people can even do it…

I knew this guy, he’d been in a motor cycle accident, and it really ruined him, and he was like a linesman, you know, working on the power, and he was working with someone who had parkinson’s disease, and they had complimentary inadequacies. And so, two of them could do the job of one person. And so they’re out there fixing power lines in the freezing cold… It’s like that’s how our civilisation works. It’s like, there’s all these ruined people out there that only got problems like you can’t believe—[yet] off they go to work, and do things they don’t even work, and look! the lights are on {pointing upwards to the lights on the ceiling}. My G_d, it’s unbelievable. It’s a miracle.[iii]

A key divergence an explicitly Christian view of suffering would underscore, in contrast to what Dr. Peterson has articulated, is the inability of human effort to result in injecting human suffering with a truly deep, full and perfect meaning without the aid of divine grace, flowing as gift from Jesus’s sacrifice on the Cross. Without such grace, such meaning might be significant, but it can only remain imperfect and unsatisfactory. Only the meaning injected into suffering by grace is truly meaningful, perfect and divine, enduring into eternity, and faith alone is able to apprehend this meaning which comes from the presence of Jesus in us, in our lives and in our sufferings.

Nevertheless, one thing Dr. Peterson highlights is a twofold dimension of drawing meaning from suffering: 1) accepting it and carrying it, and 2) doing so in love, specifically, by trying to reduce the suffering we see in the world, in ourselves, at home and abroad. This is essentially Christian: carry your cross, and love your neighbour—that is, accept your suffering, but make the world a place of less suffering, don’t add to it out of spite, don't be a sadist of revenge or a masochist of self-pity, or most commonly, don't be just plain indifferent, but do something!

To Bear It Well

In Her Last Conversations before she died, St. Therese said: “It's true, I suffer a great deal--but do I suffer well? That is the question.” We have no choice but to repress the reality of suffering or to accept it. Since sufferings are already in our face, gnawing away at our souls and scratching at our bodies, and they will come to everyone in this mortal life, but such sufferings, depending on how we choose to bear them, can make us or break us—make us better, or make us worse, make us more empathetic to others, or make us increasingly apathetic to others.

Undoubtedly, suffering is such a personal thing that we can never judge another person based on how they have borne their suffering—since we cannot see inside the heart, we do not know. Besides, there are some sufferings that are so great, one has no idea what such suffering could even remotely be like. To bear suffering well isn’t to grin and bear it bravely like some heartless stoic, it’s something more subtle, profound, and interior, and it doesn’t mean the pain will ever go away. It means one has learnt how to carry one’s pain, seeing hope despite the immediate hopelessness.

For the Christian, how we choose to bear our sufferings is quite unique and specific. Since Jesus has already carried the Cross, and in the Gospels His insistent invitation to “pick up your cross daily and follow me” (Lk 9:23) is a summons to carry our cross, our sufferings in life which inevitably come, together with Him. It’s strange how Jesus says elsewhere, “My yoke is easy and my burden light” (Mt 11:30). Our mind is led to say: “You say what! Call us to carry our cross, our sufferings, and if Your cross is any indicator, it seems anything but light and easy!”

Love—Easy and Light

Without doubting, but inquiring nonetheless, I wondered once how the crosses of our suffering and “easy” and “light” could fit together, then I realised it was love. Love makes suffering meaningful, somewhat “easy” and “light”—not literally, no, the pain remains—but love transforms the hardness and weight of suffering’s meaninglessness into something richly meaningful, even worthwhile.

There are victims of various kinds of abuse, who from the wound caused by their abuser which they carry with them for life—a wound caused by indifference and hate—love manages to use such suffering for the service of others, helping other people who share their pain like no one else could. By her love a mother transforms her suffering of childbirth into something meaningful, rich with purpose—a means to her beautiful child. If this is human love, one can only wonder how a divine love infused into our hearts might transform the sufferings of this life from something meaningless into serving a purpose greater than the miracle of new life—the miracle of eternal life.

The essential transformative role love plays in suffering cannot be understated. Without giving love its proper place, perhaps it might be said suffering is only worthwhile if it’s matched by great, glorious and heroic deeds. This seems to be the attitude of the world.

The World’s View—What Constitutes Meaningful Suffering

In Homer’s Illiad, it is recounted how the great legendary war hero of ancient Greece, Achilles, welcomed suffering and even death, weighing it as light compared to the glory or renown which he sought. In fact, he was faced with a choice: to choose a long life lived in peace and prosperity without renown, or a short and glorious life in war. Esteeming the greatness of heroic deeds in war, he chose the part laden with suffering as worthwhile.

The world would agree on this, that suffering matched by great deeds is worthwhile. Hence the suffering of Edmund Hilary in ascending Mt. Everest is hailed as meaningful. The hardships of Gandhi who helped bring about political change through his way of non-violence are seen as commendable.

Yet when it comes to suffering which is not met with great and glorious deeds, such suffering is either deemed by the world as less meaningful, or totally worthless.

An ordinary father who slips in the bathroom and sustains a permanent chronic injury—well, this suffering isn’t seen as overly meaningful as such, more of a pity if anything, and it would be considered less meaningful than if he had injured himself more gloriously in the line of duty or at work where he provides for his family.
A bedridden elderly person who can no longer do anything but suffer and depend on others for assistance—this kind of suffering is deemed pointless, meaningless, so that killing them by euthanasia is deemed the only meaningful option.

As for the sufferings of people who by worldly standards have failed to meet the mark, who have not just failed to achieve great things, nor will be remembered in history for any trials undergone, but who have by all outward appearances completely stuffed up their life, from unrehabilitated gambling to drug addicts, to prisoners who died in ‘the slam’— what value could such sufferings of these people hold? Perhaps some value, a post-modern secular society living off the leftovers of a rejected Christian ethics would say, just not as much value as those who did great things—the Edmund Hilarys and Gandhis—who with their sufferings gave humanity something heroic to feast upon.

The Christian View—What Constitutes Meaningful Suffering

Here the Christian view could not disagree more. A view which holds that love alone gives meaning to suffering, not the grandiose economic-tangible-outcome of such suffering, which is merely superficial. So that the sufferings of an unrehabilitated drug addict, who lives alone, unknown to the world, could in all likelihood, far outweigh the purposefulness and meaningfulness of the sufferings Edmund Hilary endured in climbing Everest, if and only if, such sufferings were borne in greater love. How might this have been done?
The Christian, specifically the Catholic, might say: if such a person, was truly sorry for their faults and wanted to stop sinning, even if they remained involuntarily ensnared by their own addiction, and from the humility of their misery, offered their broken heart to God with all its sufferings out of love for Him, then that person’s sufferings would not be worthless, nor of moderate value, but invaluable and rich in meaning, filled with the very merit, value and meaning of Jesus’ own sufferings. Perhaps such a person wasn’t Christian, then they might be able to do so implicitly.

Regardless, the interior love with which suffering is borne, and not the greatness of such suffering’s outward result, whether reaped in that person’s life or posthumously, is hailed in God’s eyes as the real reason for suffering’s meaningfulness. The fact that the sufferings of a nobody can potentially be even more meaningful than the greatest personalities of history is a profound thought.

The Heroism of Human Weakness, Creatureliness, Suffering, in Light of Faith

Ernest Beker writes in The Denial of Death,

Culture opposes nature and transcends it. Culture is in its most intimate intent a heroic denial of creatureliness [and ergo, heroism is deemed synonymous with a denial or belittling of the reality of human suffering]. But this denial is more effective in some epochs than in others. When man lived securely under the canopy of the Judeo-Christian world picture he was part of a great whole; to put it in our terms, his cosmic heroism was completely mapped out, it was unmistakeable. He came from the invisible world into the visible one by the act of God, did his duty to God by living out his life with dignity and faith, marrying as a duty, procreating as a duty, offering his whole life—as Christ had—to the Father. In turn he was justified by the Father and rewarded with eternal life in the invisible dimension… In a word, man’s cosmic heroism was assured, even if he was as nothing. This is the most remarkable achievement of the Christian world picture: that it could take slaves, cripples, imbeciles, the simple and the mighty, and make them all secure heroes, simply by taking a step back from the world into another dimension of things, the dimension called heaven. Or we might better say that Christianity took creature consciousness—the thing that man most wanted to deny—and made it the very condition for his cosmic heroism.[iv]

Heroes of the Faith

To conclude, we return to the heroes of the faith, the Saints. Initially, one might look at a lot of the Saints, these masters of the spiritual life, and in the face of seeing such great deeds they accomplished, one could be tempted to see their sufferings as worthwhile because of the great things they did and the great legacies they have left behind.

Let’s look at St. John of the Cross whose feast has just elapsed—he was persecuted by his comrades, imprisoned and abused by them, and through it all founded a ‘new’ religious community of friars and is esteemed as one of the greatest poets of Spanish literature. He indeed did relatively great things, but there are others who never did great things, that have likewise been remembered.

Consider, St. Therese of Lisieux (1873-1897). She was a Carmelite nun, and died at 24 from the painful disease of tuberculosis. She lived such a simple life that those responsible for writing her obituary had no idea what to even write about her, since by human standards she did nothing great at all. Why then is she remembered? Even hailed as “the greatest saint of modern times” by Pope Pius X. She did little, but loved great. One has only to read her book, “Story of a Soul” to see how much love she had for God and neighbour alike, and it is this love which has touched the hearts of millions throughout the world to love in turn, inspired not by her greatness, but by her littleness.
St. Therese of Liseux
Sure, she died so young—24—and from a horrible disease, so she knew suffering well, but such suffering was far from meaningless, since although without achieving any outward glorious and grandiose deeds, simply lying in bed and dying—through her great love for God, her suffering, united to Jesus’ and by God’s grace, swiftly transformed, sanctified and matured her soul, until it radiated with a glory far more glorious than even a thousand Achilles’ could have won by a million heroic conquests.

So we see in Therese that the sufferings of the Saints have meaning not because of their great deeds, but because of their great love. Whether not they did great things by outward standards is accidental—periphery, and of little consequence, since it’s love, their love for Jesus and their fellow neighbour that gives their suffering a greatness of meaning.

St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta’s line is so often quoted, but with reason: “None of us can do great things, but small things with great love.”
We all suffer, some less, some more, and suffering is bound to come our way even more, as life goes along, since the pathway of this mortal life is strewn with roses, sure, but thorns as well. So, no matter what, we cannot really control how much we suffer, since it is beyond us to prevent it altogether, and for a mysterious reason God permits it to happen, without causing it or creating it. Since in this life, because of Jesus’ sufferings, sufferings contain a potent potential power to make us better, stronger, kinder, deeper, softer people, depending on the spirit in which we bear them. As we have said, pressure makes coal, but it can also make diamonds, and without such pressure the diamond could never be a diamond.


So yes, suffering as a whole, stands outside our power to control, but what is within our power, and free choice, is how we choose to bear such suffering—for no reason, or for the reason of love—using our pains to reach out to others, and to draw into deeper union with God who in Jesus suffered on the Cross, and who still today, suffers in our suffering, not distant, but near and intimate, as Emmanuel, a Hebrew name for Jesus meaning, “God-with-us”. Here we are in Advent, leading up to Christmas and I find myself writing on suffering. Yet this is no small matter, as the name Emmanuel, used especially in this season to speak of God coming down from heaven to be born as an infant in our midst, takes on a beautiful meaning when we consider the meaning of the word “compassion” from its Latin root compassio: that is, “one who suffer with”.
So in Jesus we see a God-who-suffers-with-us. Cries with us, bleeds with us, sweats with us.

The Christian message is profound, because it says that here, in Jesus, is God who suffers with us, and this God doesn’t ask us to pretend suffering isn’t real or to put on a fake smile as though we don’t hurt, or to live a life of pleasure that represses the inescapable sufferings of life. No, but rather we have a God, who while suffering with us, asks us, not to fashion crosses, but to acknowledge, accept and carry them when they inevitably come, and to suffer not alone, but with-Him, since with Him one’s soul is touched by His love.

A divine and human love comingled, which in some strange way replaces the hard heaviness of suffering’s meaningless into the “light and easy” burden and yoke of a meaning which makes this sometimes-painful mortal life, rich and beautiful and undeniably worthwhile, so much so that we cannot help but recognise something noble when suffering is marked by love—endured for the sake of others. Jesus, Kolbe, the Anzacs, a mother who’s given birth. For “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor 13:7); and where it resides, meaningless cannot abide.

[i] This calls to mind the words of God to the prophet Isaiah, words addressed to each of us: “Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.” (Is 49:15).
[ii] St. John of the Cross, The Ascent of Mount Carmel 2,22,3-5 in The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, tr. K. Kavanaugh, OCD, and O. Rodriguez, OCD (Washington DC:Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1979),179-180:LH, OR Advent, week 2, Mon.
[iii] Original source: The Speakers Action Group, “2017/01/22: Pt 2: Freedom Of Speech/Political Correctness: Dr. Jordan B Peterson,” 44:20-50:40, youtube, A shorter clip (~8 mins) which concerns the part transcribed above, see
[iv] Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (Free Press Paperbacks, Simon & Schuster: New York, 2007), p.159-160.