Beauty and suffering

This is from the talk I prepared for Radio Maria in February 2017 as part of a series on Beauty.

Week 3- Beauty and Suffering
This week we are going to look at Beauty and Suffering. It might sound very strange to put these two things together, without sounding slightly sadistic.

You hear a lot about happiness these days. You have to be happy 24/7. You have to only do the things you love. You have to wake up everyday and jump out of bed, because if not, you’re broken or you’re unhappy or not motivated. While I certainly wish that were the case, the fact of the matter is, it’s unrealistic. We can’t always be happy, we can’t always do the stuff we love, we can’t always wake up every day feeling like we can take on the world. While there is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to be happy, we all too often make that our main objective in life. And in our quest for bliss and contentment we fail to embrace the beauty of suffering, when we are faced with it. One of the life-long arguments against the existence of God is the question about suffering? Why does God let people suffer? Why does God let children suffer? Why does God let good people suffer?
So today, I am looking at finding beauty when all hope is lost, it is about the beauty of suffering.

Over the past two weeks we have look at beauty as a form of God’s communication of his message and his love. It is expressed in many ways, and the forms become the medium of the message. We look at how art, literature, poetry, music, architecture can all point us towards God. We are conscious that we are created by a Creator God, out of love, purely to be for him. He delights in us, in the Creation event recounted in the Book of Genesis, we are told that God said ‘it was good.’
The common theme of this exploration on Beauty is the belief that Beauty will save the world. This is a phrase from a Russian novelist Fydor Dotohyeski. As Christians we believe that this beauty is Beauty with a capital B, it is a person, it is Jesus Christ. However beauty is not just all niceties. It is a purified beauty. The beauty that will save the world is the love of God. This love is both human and supernatural in character, but it germinates, flowers, and comes to fruition only in a crucified heart. This might sound very harsh  but it is only the heart united with Christ on the Cross that is able to love another as himself, and as God loves him. Only such a heart can pass through the narrow gate of the Cross and live in the light of Resurrection. The good news is that this resurrection begins here and now.
Dostoevsky once wrote in another of his works, his Notebooks, “Suffering is the origin of consciousness.” He freely acknowledged that his novel entitled The Idiot could only have been created as the fruit of his personal sufferings. This is why the Church has frequently called artists to open their hearts completely to Christ, so that as they live in the fullness of both crucifixion and resurrection, living words might flow through them. In the age of comfort and materialism, many artists draw back in revulsion from this invitation and, like the rich young man in the Gospel, turn sadly away. They fail to understand that within the mystery of suffering with Christ is hidden a great joy—and inexhaustible riches.

In both the icon and the liturgical iconography of Holy Saturday and the Paschal Vigil, Christ descends into hell, searches for Adam and Eve and all their children, seeking us to save us. You might have seen this icon. Jesus is stretching out his hand to Adam and Eve, our first mother and father. In them we see represented the whole of humanity. At the heart of the Church and the Gospel, the cause of paschal joy, is the suffering, risen Lover of humankind. Christ descends into a place of suffering to bring freedom.
On the cross, the realities of God, beauty, and suffering are held together by love.The tension between the beauty of the cross and the violence of the crucifixion creates a dissonance within Christian theology. The unique form of Christianity is the cruciform—Christ upon the cross, arms outstretched in offered embrace, forgiving the world its sins. This is the beauty that saves the world, and the symbol of this saving grace is the cross.

Again, we see how that the Roman cross, an instrument of physical torture and psychological terror, could ever become an object of beauty representing faith, hope, and love is an amazing miracle of transformation. Every cross adorning a church is in itself a sermon—a sermon proclaiming that if Christ can transform the Roman instrument of execution into a thing of beauty, there is hope that in Christ all things can be made beautiful! This is precisely the claim that the Christian faith makes concerning what Jesus accomplished in his death—and it is an astounding claim! When we look at the Cross, we see the power of love. Nails weren’t needed to hold Jesus on the Cross, his love for us and his love for the will of the Father held him there.

Many images of Christ on the cross capture the horror of crucifixion. We remember the prayer of the suffering servant in the Book of Isaiah. The Suffering Servant is a strange and mysterious figure whose picture is drawn on the pages of Isaiah.  The picture is of one who suffered terribly and undeservedly, as one whose contemporaries regarded him as an outcast by people and God, of one whose sufferings came to be seen as a redemptive act for mankind, and one who in the end was vindicated by God.  One of the verses reads: “We look upon Him that we have chastised.” We gaze at the Cross. This is not an easy thing to do. I am sure that many of the listeners have seen some kind of film on the story of Jesus, be it Zepharelli ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ or Mel Gibson, ‘The Passion of the Christ’. It is hard to look at Jesus in his disfigurement. I remember this in particular from watching The Passion of the Christ. It was so hard to look at the Suffering Servant and yet the love in the eyes of Jesus draws us in. When we think of it, sometimes we might be more accustomed to seeing violence in a film or a video game and it doesn’t bother us or affect us yet when we look at the Cross, it can’t help but touch our hearts because we know that He died for us, out of love, and love is beautiful.
Other images look past the physical suffering and try to capture the kallos, the beautiful goodness of Jesus. There is a cross called the New Melleray's processional cross and on it, Christ is beautiful, shining gold. He is not sinking downward by the pull of gravity, with his head hanging toward the earth. Rather, he is already straining upward away from the cross, ascending toward his Father in heaven, only temporarily held back by the nails in his hands and feet.

In Pope Francis’ letter, Evangelii Gaudium, EG 276, he speaks of this pull between death and resurrection: “Christ’s resurrection is not an event of the past; it contains a vital power which has permeated this world. Where all seems to be dead, signs of the resurrection suddenly spring up. It is an irresistible force. Often it seems that God does not exist: all around us we see persistent injustice, evil, indifference and cruelty. But it is also true that in the midst of darkness something new always springs to life and sooner or later produces fruit. On razed land life breaks through, stubbornly yet invincibly. However dark things are, goodness always re-emerges and spreads. Each day in our world beauty is born anew, it rises transformed through the storms of history. Values always tend to reappear under new guises, and human beings have arisen time after time from situations that seemed doomed. Such is the power of the resurrection, and all who evangelize are instruments of that power.
Yes, the Cross changes death into life: We are imprinted with the image of God and created for the purpose of his incarnation, and the fall cannot change this, as he wills it. Therefore, in God’s love, the Incarnation becomes redemption. God our Father wills that nothing be left unbeautiful and He redeems his creation through his Son.

The words pain and suffering have a relatively negative connotation. You hear the word pain and you immediately get set to run. But paradoxically, without them we wouldn’t know what it is like to be happy and content. Suffering is inevitable. The strong challenge for us is to accept that pain, death, and sadness are felt by every human to ever walk the earth, and that we are called to unite our suffering with Jesus, who holds us close at these times.
We don’t purposefully find ways to be miserable. Life events naturally happen where sickness, death, anxiety, separation will cross our path. I personally find great strength in the phrase ‘The will of God will not lead you where his grace will not keep you.’ And another is that the Lord will not send you a cross which is too big for your shoulders’. Sometimes when we resist the pain that a sickness or death can bring, the deeper our wounds grew. It wasn’t until I saw the beauty in my own suffering that I began to be grateful for the life that I had.

The majority of the world suffers on a regular basis. Many deal with wars, drugs, poverty and inner demons. At first glance it may seem like there is nothing you can do, but with suffering comes the opportunity for each one of us to make a difference. To be a beacon of light where there is only darkness. With suffering comes the ability to rise above. With suffering comes the chance for you express the loving person you are. Don’t run away from your pain, fears, and heartache. Embrace them. For every person suffering, there is a moment of love and compassion. For every person hurt, there is a time of healing. For every dark alley, there is a beacon of light. This is the balance of life. The beauty of suffering lies in your ability to do something about it, conscious that this is a share in the redemptive suffering of Jesus.
There is a Christian writer, Ann Voskamp who wrote: ‘I want to see beauty. In the ugly, in the sick, in the suffering, in the daily, in all the days before I die, the moments before I sleep.’

This might be a good place for us to have our piece of music. And it’s a piece called ‘At the foot of the Cross.’ It reminds us that it is at the foot of the Cross that grace and suffering meet.
And the chorus is beautiful:  "And I will trade these ashes in for beauty
And wear forgiveness like a crown, Coming to kiss the feet of mercy, I lay every burden down at the foot of the cross."

So maybe as we listen to this song, we make that act of surrender, that as we come to the foot of the Cross with whatever suffering we carry at this time, we lay all our burdens down, knowing he will change our ashes into beauty.


The trouble is, we all want to see beauty in suffering, so we look for it, peering at our own pain or the pain of someone we love, wielding Bibles and stacks of recent bestsellers on the topics of pain, suffering, healing, etc, as our guides. But our efforts often can seem futile. Beauty is, by its very nature, incompatible with chaos. But the end result of the chaos can be beauty: St. Paul in the Letter to the Roman reminds us that “…The whole creation groans and suffers as it brings to birth the new creation…”. So what do we do with our suffering? We examine it, but not in search of beauty. We can go one step further. We examine our suffering in search of hope, the hope of the beauty that is to come. When contemplating suffering, hope is really all we have. Hope that something exists beyond the chaos, hope that our suffering will someday be taken from us, hope of heaven, where all will be made perfect — beauty made manifest.

Our suffering echoes the suffering of Christ. We remember his body broken for us in his death — a very particular chaos, an unjust interruption in a life if there ever was one. We take the sacrament, drink the wine, eat the bread, so that we do not forget. We are faithful to the call: Do in remembrance of me.
Yes, Christ’s suffering was not beautiful. For Mary Magdalene and the other women, the ones who loved him — watching Christ die on the cross was objectively grotesque and subjectively horrifying. Yet, through all of this, his misery was, strangely, hopeful. Christ’s death on the cross splintered the darkness, and tore the veil, and since he suffered, those of us who believe are able to glimpse another reality, one that transcends the decay and pain and brokenness of a fallen world. We remember the end of the story, the part that comes after the scarring, the terrible death. We remember: Christ rose from the dead. His resurrection is the ultimate demonstration of hope, the belief that death itself can be overcome. Christ transcended every chaos, he conquered death, and he lives on. As will we, trading our suffering for joy, our ashes for perfect beauty. We can only hope.

Before his death in 1983 due to lymphoma, the saintly Terence Cardinal Cooke, Archbishop of New York, gave us an incredible insight into the beauty of suffering and death, when he wrote : “Human life, God’s precious gift, is no less beautiful when it is accompanied by sickness or suffering, disease or illness, hunger or poverty, mental or physical handicaps, loneliness or old age. Indeed, at these times, he wrote, life takes on extra splendor, as it reveals God’s power shining through our human weakness. “It is in and through the weakest of human vessels that God continues to reveal the power of His love.” All of us know the experience of suffering in its many forms, or we have come very close to that reality through the experience of family and friends and those for whom we care. These are privileged moments which invite us as individuals and as a community of faith to enter into a mystery which is a paradox, namely, that suffering and death are actually something beautiful. The question naturally arises, “How can that be?” or a natural response, “That doesn’t make any sense.
When Jesus took up his Cross and walked the way to Calvary, already the world saw an impending death, a tragic end to a beautiful life. Naturally, we tend to be attracted by the pleasurable (masked as beautiful) and repulsed by the painful (masked as ugly). Rather than separate the good of pleasure from the evil of pain (which is the natural view), the Christian understands and experiences the paradox of the beautiful in and through the ugly. In this sense, the natural evil of pain and suffering and eventual death is something good. What? Yes, while mysterious, it is imbued with meaning and purpose as our means to purification, a greater trust in God, and a participation in His own experience which becomes our own. In other words, people who embrace this paradoxical experience through faith often will say things like the following: “Through this sickness, I have come closer to God.” “Through her illness, our family has come together in ways we never thought possible.” “I feel healing when I know that He knows my pain and suffering.” “I have hope now. I am beginning to live for the first time in my life. I am really in love with God and my family.”

Christian faith, then, offers some “sense” to the apparent “non-sense” of sickness and suffering and death as something beautiful through the distinctive Faith we embrace in light of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ – the only God-Man ever in the history of religion to embrace human life in its entirety from conception to death. When we look at our divine Lord on the Cross, then, the natural sense is that His pain is not something which attracts but, rather, is to all outward sense entirely hideous, tragic, ugly, and that death has once again seemingly robbed Him of His beauty and life. Paradoxically (through the lens of faith), however, His suffering and death brought salvation to the world. His death is our ransom from death, we say, and “By His stripes, we have been healed,” among so many familiar Easter antiphons and prayers we announce these 50 days of paschal celebration.
The Servant of God, Fr. John Hardon S.J said: "Love wants to suffer for the Beloved... Love wants to expiate the sins that have so deeply penetrated mankind. Love wants to make up for the lack of love among those who sin. Love wants to relieve the debt of suffering that sinners owe to God. Love wants to give God what sinners are depriving Him of by their sins." What is true for Christ, is also true for those who suffer. So, when we look at others who are suffering, God’s love at work in and through them. They become God’s incredible instruments of love, just as Jesus was the perfect instrument of God’s passionate and compassionate healing love for us all. In and through that natural weakness, pain and suffering – even death itself – come even greater love and charity, trust in God, inner healing at every level. For us who care for the Lord’s sick and poor, we see our loving Savior inviting us to draw close to Him through the most beautiful act of suffering and love.

St. Therese once said in the Story of a Soul: “I understood that to become a saint one had to suffer much, seek out always the most perfect thing to do, and forget self. I understood, too, that there are many degrees of perfection and each soul was free to respond to the advances of the Our Lord, to do little or much for Him, in a word, to choose among the sacrifices He was asking. Then, as in the days of my childhood, I cried out: 'My God I choose all!' I do not want to be a saint by halves. I'm not afraid to suffer for You. I fear only one thing: to keep my own will; so take it, for I choose all that You will!”  What St. Therese of Lisieux says here is very true, we are all called to participate in the Passion of Jesus in varying degrees. What is important is that we give the Lord all of our heart, in whatever act we carry out for him and through him.
My humble experience has taught me that suffering and pain can only be faced head on. It is tempting to shy away from them and like the Scriptures tells us there is a time for everything. The biblical approach to pain is to experience it, to wrestle with it, and more importantly, to enter it with God. Only in the light of the Father’s eyes can the sense of our suffering be glimpsed. To do this, there are some truths we have to cling onto, even if our experience may seem to suggest that they cannot be true anymore:

1.      That God is utterly and overwhelming Good, and everything he does is good
2.      That he is our Father who desires such great happiness for us, we can scarcely imagine it. He wants us to experience the fullness of life.
3.      That he can transform every evil, pain or suffering into what will make us more free, and therefore, more happy – if we suffer it with him.

How easily we can scan over these truths and nod our heads – and yet, how hard it is to deeply believe them. You see, I think deep down we often distrust God. When something bad happens to us, our pre-rational response is that this is a punishment from God, or a sign that God does not really love us. Part of our transformation in Christ is – through the work of grace – shedding these lies and suspicions about God. Part of our transformation in Christ is realising that he is truly good, and that all things work together for our good. Or as the Greek word for good translates, He is beautiful and he wants us beautiful in Him.

 Part of our transformation in Christ is realising that he can be utterly trusted – in all things, at all times. How important, then, when we are going through a season in our life that is painful, dark – even at times unbearable – that we have space, silence, solitude… to be alone with God… to allow our hearts to be “pounded”, and yet to reach out to the One – who we might experience as absent – but who we know is Good, and who can be trusted. How can we do this? Sometimes it means retreating into our hearts in the early morning stillness, knowing God is there and experiences within us all that we feel. Sometimes it might be while walking the dog, or swimming lengths at the local pool. It might be going to sit in an empty church. In a season of suffering, we have to find that place where we can be alone with him and receive his love. Undoubtedly, this will be an experience of love that is new, that we had not experienced before. It is a love that cannot be expressed in words, that is a mystery, beyond all feeling. But it is real.

Going through this, there will come a point when we can make an act of surrender: Whatever is your will, O God. I place all things into your hands. And it will be the most truthful, honest, heart-wrenching surrender we have ever made. Because surrender that comes out of suffering is powerful. We will even feel there is something “dangerous” about this surrender, because we know we are giving God free reign. But there will also be something that we recognise as solidly Good, honestly True, and tenderly Beautiful about this act. This act of surrender deepens the union of our heart with God’s. It is, truly, the work of Redemption in us, and it is why God allows our hearts to be broken.

I’d like to finish by reading a segment of the Pope’s Message for World Day of the Sick which will be celebrated on the 11th of February next. He says:

“On this World Day of the Sick let us ask Jesus in his mercy, through the intercession of Mary, his Mother and ours, to grant to all of us this same readiness to be serve those in need, and, in particular, our infirm brothers and sisters. At times this service can be tiring and burdensome, yet we are certain that the Lord will surely turn our human efforts into something divine. We too can be hands, arms and hearts which help God to perform his miracles, so often hidden. We too, whether healthy or sick, can offer up our toil and sufferings like the water which filled the jars at the wedding feast of Cana and was turned into the finest wine. By quietly helping those who suffer, as in illness itself, we take our daily cross upon our shoulders and follow the Master (cf. Lk 9:23). Even though the experience of suffering will always remain a mystery, Jesus helps us to reveal its meaning.”

As we go about our lives, we keep asking Jesus to reveal the meaning of suffering to us so that we can embrace it as a beautiful thing.