The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if only we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.
Romans 8: 16-17
In my earliest religious upbringing there seemed to be in our religious tradition something of an almost perverse fixation on suffering. The teaching seemed to be that we should long for suffering as somehow a good in itself. At times it seemed as if the measure of one’s love for God was the amount of suffering one had and was willing to bear. We read stories of saints who prayed for suffering, a prayer, of course, that will always ultimately be granted. For, as the Buddha pointed out, all of life is suffering.
The Buddha also said that we suffer because of our craving and aversion, that is, because of the action of the “pleasure principle” in our lives. We tend to crave pleasure and to avoid pain. Since this way of living is doomed to failure, the more we live by it the greater our suffering. But, as we should not crave pleasure, neither should we crave pain. The Letter to the Romans, however, speaks of a suffering that is a certain ground of the experience of the “child” and “heir” of God. It is a sharing in the suffering of Christ that comes with the awareness of our true place in the world, as child of God but as living out so much of our time as if we were far less than that.
To be a truly awake human being is to live with a haunting sense of alienation from a life and a truth that is more than our common daily experience. It is to live with a longing and desire that is insatiable and that brings to almost all aspects of our lives a certain pathos. Our difficulty in bearing with this pathos is, in large part, how life becomes, for the vast majority of us, a living in forgetfulness. Among English poets, William Wordsworth gives this experience its most insistent and powerful explication. In his Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood, he writes:
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature’s priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.
For Wordsworth, daily life in the world is a “prison-house” that closes around us and that entraps our deeper consciousness, our transcendent consciousness. As he dies on the cross, Jesus prays: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Beyond any physical suffering, perhaps the greatest suffering that Jesus undergoes is lack of recognition, of him and of the gift of God that he is, of the truth he carries about the world and humanity as beloved of God. We suffer with him, as the letter to the Romans says, to the degree that we live in awareness, without forgetting. who we really are and the life we have that is, as is written in Colossians, “hidden with Christ in God.”
At least in the western world we seem to be living in a time in which anger is the dominant disposition. Whatever our perspective, we feel enraged at those whose views and beliefs are different from ours. Perhaps a good bit of that anger is based in fear. At some level we recognize our own insecurity, and thus those who are different from and other than us evoke fear in us. Perhaps, however, such a state of affairs is inevitable in societies and cultures that have not merely forgotten but perhaps have almost lost any sense of and connection with transcendence. Perhaps we are on the verge of losing our capacity for the spiritual sadness, for the sense of pathos that recognizes a depth to others, to life, and to world that is not apparent to the naked eye. Without a longing for more, “the shades of the prison house begin to close” us in. We experience our lives as a competition for the scarcity of resources and of love that others, our competitors, are attempting to deprive us of. Perhaps we are so angry because we do not dare to be sad, to suffer the ambivalence of our human condition, to understand that our longing always for more is an intimation of our spiritual and transcendent potential.
It is the nature of the ego to work, and the nature of the soul to suffer. The soul suffers because it knows a truth that can seem in our day to day life and relationships to be absent. The more we live in awareness of that truth, the more we recognize the tears of Jesus as he looks over Jerusalem, and the truth in the words of St. John of the Cross: “I die because I do not die.” Such suffering is not passive self-pity. It is rather the very source of a faithful and committed compassion and service. It is a sharing in the suffering of both Jesus and the world. It is the “groaning” that we share with all creation.
In a very practical sense, it is much easier for us to be angry than to suffer the sadness of our fallen world. To live from the spirit requires of us that we live beyond the demands of our unconscious and even of our ego. We must “descend” from our heads to our hearts and ask ourselves, in the midst of our reactions, what we are really going through. We need to summon the courage to raise “the shades of our prison house” and to respond to the question that the angels asked of the women on the day of Christ’s resurrection: “Whom do you seek?”
A couple of weeks ago I was feeling at an impasse with aspects of my work, and for that matter of my life. I think it was a feeling I shared with several of those around me. It was at this point that a good friend asked me: “If you could do whatever you really wanted to do, what would that be?” Much to my surprise, I had an answer ready at hand. The two of us, then, began to work together on, at least what seemed, a possible way forward. Some days later, as we spoke with each other, we shared what a good week of work together it had been, and in retrospect we could see that the shift had happened when, by means of the question, we had moved from a place of reactivity and frustration to the aspirations of the heart and spirit.
There is suffering in living deeply. It is, however, a very life-giving, creative, and even joyful suffering. When we are put in our place, we know how limited and weak we are, how “little” we can really do in the face of the enormity of the cosmos. Yet, when we touch what is ours to do, as relatively little as that is, we experience a transcendent potency that is ours alone; we discover how we are to give the gift we have been given.
Frederick Buechner tells us that “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” It is yet another of the great human paradoxes that the way that deep gladness and the deep hunger of the world meet is first through the experience of realizing and then suffering that hunger. We need not seek suffering, because it is “built in” to the very structure of our life and world. We long for a life that we know but cannot fully realize. The great human sin may well be to live in forgetfulness of this truth because we fear the suffering it brings. At such times we fail to recognize that it is a suffering that is actually the seed of our own deep gladness and the source of our call.
I know that the day will come when my sight of this earth shall be lost, and life will take its leave in silence, drawing the last curtain over my eyes.
Yet stars will watch at night, and morning rise as before, and hours heave like sea waves casting up pleasure and pains.
When I think of this end of my moments, the barrier of the moments breaks, and I see by the light of death Your world with its careless treasures. Rare is its lowliest seat; rare is its meanest of lives.
Things that I longed for in vain and things that I got—let them pass. Let me but truly possess the things that I ever spurned and overlooked.
Rabindranath Tagore, The Heart of God: Prayers of Rabindranath Tagore, p. 22