Thursday, June 19, 2014

Theology of Suffering

When I was a teenager and with the Boy Scouts (i.e., Venture Scouts) I went to Manatoba, Canada to do a Northern Tier trek, a canoeing expedition. We arrived at a small town with a population of about 90. We got on a little puddle-jumper plane, they flew us over the beautiful landscape, and dropped us off in the middle of a lake. We told them where we planned to be in 10 days and off we went. About two days into the trip we were going along a river with high reeds on either side. We stopped and discussed our path at a fork in the road: take a 2-mile detour by canoe or portage through a wet area. Our guide told us that the portage would be about “a third of a mile” and the water would be “maybe up to your knees.” Needless to say neither of these things were the case. The portage may have been one of the most miserable experiences I've had. Mud, water that was at times up to my hips, hidden branches that tripped me, caught me, and at one point could have cased me to drown. I was at best 150 pounds and was carrying at least 35-40 pounds of equipment plus heavy, wet clothes. Some three hours later, after a lot of cursing and frustration, we made our destination with still a lot of travel left in our day.

This situation captures the feelings I have towards a theology of suffering. Indeed, from a distance things may seem simple and we can reassure ourselves about the probable course of suffering, at least until we get there.  I consider the looming task before me as I begin CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) where every seminarian spends a summer intensive at a hospital doing hospital chaplaincy. Therein we are spiritual care providers to anyone and everyone. Here we may confront traumatized patients, broken families, and frustrated staff members. Any theology is informed by experience and yet suffering is surprisingly one of our weakest theologies.  While it is true that we all suffer and have experienced the suffering of others it also seems to be the case that we attempt to distract ourselves from the ultimate reality that suffering reveals: death.

It is hard to accept that suffering is natural despite it being perhaps the most natural things of all. Suffering in a very profound way helps us to understand the Cross but it is not enough to speak in moral platitudes or theological maxims. Indeed, Christians receive the whole repertoire of “God will not leave you” or “God is with you.” There is likewise the common and, in my opinion, misguided phrase “offer it up” comes up frequently. However true these sentiments may seem, I have found that in my own experience they alienate rather than alleviate. Certainly some complaints and problems are minor and are annoyances to others—being a complainer myself I know all too well it can wear on people. Yet sometimes minor problems reveal something deeper, namely our struggle with suffering, death, and our perception of what we “deserve” in this life. I call to mind those famous words

My soul is full of troubles … I am reckoned like those who go down to the pit … like the slain that lie in the grave … your wrath lays heavy upon, and you overwhelm me with all your waves. … Every day I call to you, O Lord; I spread out my hands to you. … O Lord why do you cast me off? Why do you hide your face from me? … Your wrath has swept over me; your dread assaults destroy me. They surround me like a flood all day long; they close in upon me together. You have caused loved one and friend to shun me; my only companion is darkness” (cf. Ps 88).

And, moreover, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” (Mt 27:46). Indeed this very quote of Jesus is from Psalm 22. While verses 22-31 speak of God's faithfulness, His glory, and how he lifts up the afflicted. Nevertheless we have to get through the first twenty one verses. Suffering can be reduced to something superficial, where minor injuries aren't that important, and where feelings of hopelessness are addressed by telling someone to have hope.

The Incarnation is a theology that includes the Cross. “Incarnation” makes us think of Christ sharing in our humanity, but what has he shared in? In the hospital “incarnation” and “cross” have met: blood, broken bones, hopelessness, fear, pain, defecation, a loss of control, abandonment, betrayal, schism, and waiting in silence. As a chaplain it would seem like we're sent into this circumstance and situation to life people out of this mire but in a strange we we are not asked to lift up but step down into it. In that strange and wonderful way we, by sinking into the depths we also lift to the heights. Why? Because by acknowledging suffering, experiencing it, and by experiencing it with others we do lift each other up. Perhaps this is why the phrase “Duc in altum” (Lk 5:4) can both mean “go into the depths” and “go to the heights.”

No one catches fish without first casting your line to the depth they swim at. We don't experience the Resurrection if we don't experience the Cross. Christ can not redeem all unless he had sunken lower than all.

It would seem strange that in a place of death or, at the very least, a place entrenched in its inescapable realities I might find life. Most of all I'm called to love these people and consider their life, counted by the world as pitiable and worthless, with a sort of divine dignity. May the Son who died for all give us all life, even if we have to walk through the muck first.