The final week of Lent is an emotionally difficult time for me (and I’m sure I’m not the only one). I know the culmination is Easter and the resurrection, but Holy Thursday and Good Friday are so emotionally taxing that I find it hard to stay mindfully engaged on those days.
The Catholic Church treats these three chronological days together as one liturgical day – the unfolding of the paschal mystery. This year I realized how wise that approach is since, without this perspective, I’m likely to get caught in the Good Friday despair at how brutal, insensitive, and heartless the world can be. I am always tempted to rush through Holy Thursday and Good Friday, doing a minimum of reflection. But since my theme this year is attentiveness and staying awake, I’m being more mindful of this tendency and trying to stay present for all of it.
These days inevitably make me dwell on suffering. I don’t understand why God allows suffering in the world. Obviously, this is one of the great questions of every religion, and I’m not the first to want an answer. Theologians throughout history have contemplated this question and come up with different responses. But everything I’ve read on this topic leaves me without a tidy, satisfying answer. So I’ve come to the disappointing conclusion that I’ll never understand this mystery.
All I know is that there is suffering in the world, and there is also a God who loves us. Both of these are true. And I’m left with a paradox that is beyond my understanding. So what do we do? My only answer to that perplexing question is that we experience it all, knowing God is always with us.
We have to stay awake during times of suffering, times of joy, and everything in between. Because God made us human, and we’re here to experience this particular life we’re given. And if we’re not paying attention, we’ll sleepwalk through our life, and then it will be gone. There will be a life for us in the Kingdom of God after death, but there has to be a reason why we have a physical, earthly existence before that. And I don’t believe it’s just one big test for us to endure to see who gets into heaven.
I acknowledge that this perspective is coming from a privileged life situation. I do not have to fight for my continued survival daily, and my life is comfortable with many options under my control. But no one escapes some suffering.
From staying awake to my suffering (as much as I can manage – everything in my brain wants just to escape it), I can see that some goodness comes with that awareness. I would never say that it’s a fair trade for the suffering, but my suffering makes me kinder, more compassionate, and more empathetic to the suffering of others. It makes me want to eliminate everyone else’s suffering, and therefore I’m more likely to actually show up and do something when I see someone in need. It makes me more aware that suffering is easier to bear when we have people who love us who reach out (with some form of physical help or just understanding and love to accompany us). It makes me realize that God is ok with me being angry about suffering and what I see as God’s willingness to allow it.
But in the end, I don’t have any answers. And I’m not happy about that. Sometimes I’m downright furious with God about it. But I always come back to the basic trust I have in God. I know that I have only a limited perspective (on everything) and am willing to admit that since I can’t see God’s plans, I shouldn’t be so quick to judge. So that’s where I end up, time after time. I wish I had better answers to share and could assure you that you won’t have to suffer if you are a good person. But it doesn’t seem to work that way. Instead, I can only offer my belief that God just wants us to stay awake and in relationship, even when we’re furious at the world’s apparent unfairness, suffering, and sorrow.
Suggestions for Further Reflection
If you feel inclined, here are some questions to reflect on this week. (But it’s ok if you prefer not to dwell on this topic further. This was a difficult post to write, and I’m ready to be done too.)
- Have there been situations in your life you have judged as totally horrible in the moment, but now you realize they have brought some unexpected blessings? (It’s ok if you still don’t think the price you paid for those blessings was worth going through the suffering. Also, some situations are as horrible and pointless in retrospect as they felt in the moment. Not everything has a positive side.)
- Have you ever paid attention to how you deal with the difficult feelings of Holy Thursday and Good Friday? Like me, do you attempt to rush through them? (There’s no need to change anything, but awareness of how you’re reacting can be good.)
A Blessing for When You’re Suffering
Suffering can seem noble in the abstract, but there is nothing noble about it when you’re actually suffering. It’s the only thing you can feel, and you’re terrified that it will continue forever. During these moments, we need God’s grace to keep going.
When you’re suffering, may you feel the presence of God close to you, holding and supporting you. Especially when you feel alone and afraid.
May you have someone you love to keep you company. To give you a moment of respite when it gets too hard to bear alone. To listen to your thoughts, doubts, and fears.
May you be awake enough to recognize moments of grace and beauty, even in the suffering. The way the sunlight warms your face. The comfort of holding a warm cup of tea. A hot, delicious bowl of soup to sustain you. The faithful presence of your pet by your side. An unexpected card from a friend. The shockingly neon green sprouts of new plant life that appear in spring to remind you that life is constant growth and change, and this, too, shall pass.
Before reading your blog, I did my morning prayers. Lately, I’ve been praying for the victims of ALL the weather related disasters (floods, snowstorms, hurricane, tornados, earthquakes (not really weather related but on my list)). I think about those tens of thousands of people who have lost everything — EVERYTHING — and I ask God why that has happened to them.
I think about Jesus and what it must’ve been like for him — the unfathomable suffering he endured at the hands of people, humans, who could be so evil and self-serving.
I, too, get confused and angry at the lack of clear understanding and answers. But your words help, Tacky. As always, thank you for sharing them.
It seems like every week, there’s a new natural disaster and devastation for so many people. It’s hard not to fall into despair with all the suffering in the world. The only thing that saves me is that there is such beauty and compassion also in the world if we look for it.
Cathy, Please put all your devotions into a book for me and others! Your perspective speaks clearly to my generation. Being aware of suffering and the joy that comes from it is so demonstrated in Holy Week. Thank you for reminding me and inspiring me to participate in the awareness of Holy Week. Have a blessed Easter. Deb
Thanks, Deb! I’m not sure I’m ready to write a book, although it’s something I will likely consider at some point. I hope your Easter is filled with many blessings and joy.
Thanks for all this Cathy, too much for me for a single read so I will be back to re-read. Thank you for all the time and effort and reflection preparing this!!
Focusing on suffering this year, the Spirit has pushed me to think about (and to try to place myself in the scenes during) Jesus’ time before he is handed over by betrayal.
Specifically his last visit with Lazarus and Martha and Mary and knowing he would be leaving these dear friends, the sadness he must have felt, and at the Last Supper – both in John’s and Matthew’s gospels, how his knowing he will be betrayed must have broken his heart as well.
Its a different view of the infinite depth of his love and compassion for us… emotional suffering in addition to all he suffered physically. How infinitely blessed we are!
That sounds like it was a powerful experience for you! I never thought about how hard those interactions must have been for Jesus, since he knew it was the last time he would see the friends he loved, but they didn’t. It gives a greater intensity to the things he said and told them.