Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The More You Try to Avoid Suffering, the More You Suffer

As is well known to regular visitors here, I have never been able to get through The Seven Story Mountain, Thomas Merton's autobiography. However, I owe a debt of thanks to Jim Campanella at Uvula Audio. He is departing from his regular science fiction, P.G. Wodehouse, and other old classics to read for us this book on his podcast (podcast RSS here). It has made a world of difference and I find myself enjoying it very much, as well as getting good points to ponder about spiritual living.

A few of these lines he wrote about suffering are fairly well represented on the internet as I look about, but not in sufficient length, or so it seems to me. His point is exactly what I saw my father and mother suffer over the last year or two as they struggled with various ailments and problems, but without any faith. Merton wrote this in response to remembering his father's death from cancer in the 1920s.
What could I make of so much suffering? There was no way for me, or for anyone in the family, to get anything out of it. It was a raw wound for which there was no adequate relief. You had to take it, like an animal. We were in the condition of most of the world, the condition of men without faith in the presence of war, disease, pain, starvation, suffering, plague, bombardment, death. You just had to take it, like a dumb animal. Try to avoid it if you could. But you must eventually reach the point where you can’t avoid it any more. Take it. Try to stupefy yourself, if you like, so that it won’t hurt so much. But you will always have to take some of it. And it will all devour you in the end.

Indeed the truth that many people never understand, until it is too late, is that the more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller insignificant things begin to torture you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt. The one who does most to avoid suffering is, in the end, the one who suffers most: and his suffering comes to him from things so little and so trivial that one can say that it is no longer objective at all. It is his own existence, his own being that is at once the source of his pain, and his very existence and consciousness is his greatest torture. This is another of the great perversions by which the devil uses our philosophies to turn our whole nature inside out, and eviscerate all our capacities for good, turning them against ourselves.
As many Catholics will tell you, one of the things they love and appreciate about our great faith is that capacity to use suffering, to not let it go to waste by offering it up. The best explanation I have seen for this lately comes from Praying the Mass: A Guide to the New English Translation of the Mass by Jeffrey Pinyan (which I can recommend, by the way, though I am not quite done with it).

This is part of Pinyan's commentary upon the part of the Mass where the priest prays that the sacrifice being offered will be accepted by God.
The bread and wine (and afterwards, the Eucharist) and ourselves are united as one at the hands of the priest. The bread and wine which the priest holds during the words of consecration represent us, since they represent the fruits of our labor. Then, as the priest offers the Eucharist to God, we join our very lives -- all of our worries, cares, sufferings, and prayers -- to Christ in the Eucharist. It is only by joining ourselves to Christ, the perfect sacrifice, that the contribution of our living, spiritual sacrifice can be truly acceptable to the Father. (cf. Rom. 12:1, 1 Pet. 2:5)

Because Christ is both priest and victim, our share in His priesthood (exercised in intercessory prayer, as well as in this offering of ourselves as living sacrifices of praise) must also include a share in His victimhood. This does not mean that we should expect to undergo a persecution and death as grievous as His, but we should unite the suffering we encounter in our lives to the suffering that Christ endured for our sake. The words of St. Paul to the Colossians are particularly meaningful in this regard: "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church." (Col. 1:24) St. Paul is not saying that Christ's sufferings were imperfect or incomplete, but that our participation in Christ's sufferings has yet to be fulfilled; in St. Paul's suffering for the sake of the Church, he is completing his participation in Christ's life, which he began in his baptism.
We do not seek suffering, of course, but when it comes and we offer it up at least it does not go to waste. For me, that is a thought that helps a great deal when suffering comes my way, as it inevitably does in life.

Of course, there is another great benefit which Merton goes on to mention. He says that his father was refined and purified by the suffering he experienced until he became saintly. Which brings me to Peter Cameron's commentary in this month's Magnificat. This hit me and then hits me again as I contemplate all the above:
The difficult circumstances of our lives are not just things to put up with. We are deluded if we think that peace and contentment will come if we can just figure out how to "improve" our circumstances once and for all. God deploys the problematic circumstances of our life to awaken us, challenge us, educate us. For the way that we deal with our circumstances reveals to us and to the world just who Jesus Christ is for us. We think that, when something goes wrong in our life, our predicament is outside the all-embracing purpose and meaning of life. But God intends such circumstances to move us to discover this meaning.
This is why I also ask God to show me the good that will come out of the bad I am experiencing. And you know what? It's a prayer He answers more than you'd think.


  1. Seven-Storey Mountain is great, and some of Merton's poetry/prosetry (his poem in memory of his brother is excellent) is good, but he sadly became "the Church has got to move with the world and the times" towards the end of his life.

    For pure joy, Wodehouse has no equal. As Waugh said, Wodehouse's world has no evil because it never fell. The television series (available on DVD) with Hugh Laurie and Stephen Frye is an excellent introduction.

  2. That is a great comment about Wodehouse. I have read many, many of Wodehouse's wonderful books since I was in junior high so need no introduction.

    Actually, they spoiled me for any depiction because my "mind's eye" photo can't be matched. I HIGHLY recommend Jim's reading of Wodehouse for those who are either uninitiated or who simply enjoy Wodehouse.

  3. I check in here every once in a while LOL so was thrilled to see that you steered us to Uvula audio and Merton's book -- I'm downloading it as we "speak.".

    But Wodehouse ... never fails to bring a smile to my face!

  4. MaryjoO - I concur! But it is funny that when you come over here I am just sending you more to listen to. We are fated to be listenin'-buddies! :-D

  5. Peter Cameron's commentary reminds me of a quote I once heard, "God goes to you as your life." Or as Cameron puts it, "For the way that we deal with our circumstances reveals to us and to the world just who Jesus Christ is for us."

  6. Tante Leonie1/20/10, 6:10 AM

    Julie, you've done it again!

    I will not bore you with the details of just how viciously pear-shaped our move has gone. Suffice it to say, I really, really, really needed this today.

    If our printer was hooked up yet, I'd print this and carry it around with me like a talisman.

  7. Tante ... ok, I feel much better for having been thinking of you all day. I kept thinking that it was odd of me to see that "suffering" headline and wonder why you hadn't said anything. Now I see, it was the Holy Spirit (or pure vanity ... NO, I'm gonna go with HS!)

  8. My grandmother always used to tell me to "offer it up to Jesus." I thought about that in many a long, boring meeting. If long, boring meetings are the worst thing ever to happen to me, I am a pretty lucky person.

  9. Tante Leonie1/20/10, 1:55 PM

    Julie-- thanks for the thoughts; the Holy Spirit is doing His radar-thing again!

    I've not been commenting because I've been off-line for a few days.

    First we got the dreaded Blue Screen Of Death on our desktop. We had to switch over to our seldom used lap top, but then had to wait for our internet connection to be activated in our new apartment. Today was the first day I could even peek at the internet.

    Happy Catholic has the distinction of being my very first blog stop after we got connected, and I got a millisecond to rest. I missed you!!

    I can see I missed a lot of great content, and will have to catch up in dribs and drabs, as the chaos over here allows.

    Pico and nano prayers appreciated. God has me in a place of great testing and purification. The Suffering post was a life-line for me today, and will be in the days ahead.

    As always, thanks!!!

  10. Tante, so sorry to hear about all the problems ... although so flattered to hear that you came here first! (And it's all about me, right? Sheez!)

  11. Reminds me, too, of the C.S. Lewis quote:

    "If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end; if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin, and in the end, despair."

  12. That is a wonderful quote ... C.S. Lewis, always so pithy and efficient.