Chosen for Suffering
As I drifted off to sleep last night, I reflected on a good day, and a good week that brought some resolution and restoration to a number of challenging events and situations. I murmured prayers of thanks. And then, my mind then immediately meandered over to the future, and future worries and concerns. Trepidation over the events of the very next day, remembrance that it seems very rare to have multiple consecutive days of peace and security anymore.
I asked the Lord, when can we just rest in your peace and not live in this constant waiting until the other shoe drops?
By the way, I am conspicuously bad with metaphors, and in my struggle to remember the above adage about shoes dropping, I stumbled onto its origins. Apparently, it came into use in the late 19th and early 20th century, based on New York City tenements built on top of one another, where you could hear the bedroom directly above you and notice when your neighbor took off one shoe after work and let it drop to the ground...and waited for the inevitable second one.
Our lives are still intertwined thus. Your shoe dropping becomes my warning that something else is a-comin'. It's amazing how other people can bring out the worst in us! We may have a delusion of our own goodness, but the presence of even a single other person is more than enough to bring about conflicts and kerfuffles. Not to mention a mirror to our own internal issues.
My worries over things that haven't even occurred yet betray a desire to avoid--to weasel out of the next difficulty, as if the "real" parts of my life are the peaceful good times, and the difficulties are to be avoided at all costs. They are worried about in anticipation, suffered through reluctantly, and reframed and reimagined in hindsight.
This has not historically been the Christian way.
We don't even have to look to the ancient world for different attitudes toward difficulty and suffering. Protestants and Catholics alike celebrate the life of Brother Lawrence (17th century), who was a lay brother in a Carmelite monastery in Paris. Reeling after serving in the Thirty Years' War, he joined the Carmelites at age 26 when his service ended. He is famous for his humble work as a lay brother, serving as a cook and then a sandal maker, and then his "practice" of the presence of God throughout the day as he engaged in his menial tasks.
I have long admired his model and am considering how to implement what he describes in The Practice of the Presence of God (compiled posthumously from conversations and letters). However, contemplative prayer is certainly much easier when engaging in everyday household tasks rather than the constant meeting, talking, and brainstorming with others that I do in my daily work. Very little time for silence except at the start of my day at home.
Besides Brother Lawrence's preference for an emphasis on informal rather than formal prayer, there are lots of other gems in this book. For instance, his views on suffering. While we today may view suffering as a punishment, a la the prosperity gospel, historic Christianity often viewed suffering as evidence of divine favor. This was certainly Brother Lawrence's view. For example, in one of his letters, he writes:
I always believed that he would allow you to be reduced to this point of desperation. But you can be sure that he will come to you in his own time and when you least expect it. Count on him more now than ever. Thank him for the favor he shows you in this moment, and especially for the strength and patience that he gives you in the midst of your suffering. It is an obvious sign that he is taking care of you. Comfort yourself with him, then, and give thanks for everything.
In another letter, addressed to a reverend mother, he says,
I will not ask God to deliver you from your trials, but I will ask him earnestly to give you the patience and strength needed to suffer as long as he desires. Find consolation in him who keeps you fixed to the cross; he will release you when he judges it appropriate. Happy are they who suffer with him. Get used to suffering, and ask him for the strength to suffer as he wants, and for as long as he judges necessary. The worldly do not understand these truths, and I am not surprised; the reason is that they suffer as citizens of this world and not as Christians. They consider illness as natural afflictions and not as graces from God, and therefore they find in them only what is difficult and harsh for [our] nature...I wish you were convinced that God is often closer to us in times of sickness and suffering than when we enjoy perfect health...
Such important truths in this second quote; let me take them in reverse order.
I think the modern Christian world is pretty clear on the last point, that God can often feel nearer during times of suffering. We quote Psalm 34:18, that God is close to the brokenhearted. I'd just add that St. John of the Cross's "dark night of the soul" is also a very common response that Christians have during times of suffering, so it's an important counterbalance Brother Lawrence's optimism. When the shoe drops, everything else can drop, too. All sense and feeling of security, and well-being. All sweetness in prayer, everything...can just...go. Both of these experiences are possible and well-described by many who have walked this Christian walk.
But, an important reminder in Brother Lawrence's quote is, "They consider illness as natural afflictions and not as graces from God." Despite Jesus Himself teaching the exact opposite (see Luke 13 when he uses a current tragedy to illustrate that those who were afflicted did not sin more than others and so therefore "earn" this tragedy), we somehow still are stuck with bad theology that afflictions are usually punishments. Uncomfortable and painful equals bad, while easy and free of pain is good. And yet, Brother Lawrence and others point out that while affliction is not always punishment, God's children are always in His care, and that care may include discipline. Hebrews 12:6 ("the Lord disciplines those he loves") insinuates something about those whom he doesn't discipline and therefore "leaves" to enjoy the pleasures of this world.
There's an interesting passage in the book of Jeremiah that alludes to this. Concerning Moab, God says,
Moab has been at rest from youth, like wine left on its dregs, not poured from one jar to another--she has not gone into exile. So she tastes as she did, and her aroma is unchanged.
Jeremiah is addressing Israel, who experienced the discipline of the Lord through exile quite a bit. Moab is a contrast. While Moab was left alone for awhile, this was not a good thing ultimately. Suffering and difficulty brought out the deep wine that was Israel. Moab...not so much. Like wine left on its dregs, it remained untouched until the shock of destruction ultimately came its way. The insinuation is that growth did not occur because it was left alone and did not experience suffering until much later in its history.
It's interesting that Brother Lawrence points this out directly. We are worldly, and not suffering as Christians if we do not understand these things. We also should "get used to suffering."
"But we don't wanna!" we cry. This is a lesson that the world--and not just Christians--desperately needs to hear. In societies that avoid pain at all costs, we see how we reap very negative effects, such as an inability to function as whole adults in the world. The current preponderance of psychological concepts such as grit (i.e. perseverance) and growth mindset (i.e. see challenges as opportunities) shows that the scientific community is recognizing that we are in bad shape regarding our ability to psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually handle life's difficulties.
We need a major reframing, and Christianity definitely offers it. We have to turn to Scripture and to those who came before us to rekindle this lost understanding.
Back to Brother Lawrence---the guy has guts! Writing to a reverend mother, no less, he reminders her that prayers for healing are not the only prayers. The only victory is not necessarily complete healing. Patience, strength, and consolation during suffering are also Scripturally-backed prayers, and these imply that the suffering is continuing.
I recently saw this in action when a friend and colleague offered prayers of healing for someone intermixed with prayers that God would aid the person with sweet intimacy, adding this beautiful quote from C.S. Lewis in her prayer,
We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.
Amen! It was such a beautiful prayer, because there was no getting ahead of God in it--no declaration of what the purpose of the suffering was or whether it was the person's fault. Prayers that the suffering be removed, but most importantly that good would come out of it.
Another place we see this in Scripture is John 15--the vine and the branches:
I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.
The Gospel of John is my favorite gospel (and Chapters 1, 15, and 17 my most beloved sections!), and I've concluded that I could (and must!) spend the rest of my life pondering and prayerfully trying to live out John 15. But Jesus clearly says here that it is the fruitful branches that get pruned. It doesn't get more clear than that!
It is not on us, in our human understanding, to declare for ourselves or others what the deeper meaning, cause, or intended purpose is for any particular bout of suffering. But at the same time, we know that fruitful branches get pruned. We don't want to be the dregs at the bottom of a wineglass. How often do we look back at difficult times and think that while we would never choose this, we'd be loath to go back and undo everything...because changing it would alter our very selves. We were forged during these times. Some suffering is unthinkable and some events we'd of course like to undo (a death, a serious accident, an overdose, what is happening in Ukraine right now).
Lord, please spare us from these unthinkable events. But, thank You for pruning us and changing us--in ways we would never choose for ourselves, but that You choose for us so that we can become something truly beautiful and connected (like a vine) to all the other beautiful creations that You are shaping at this very moment.