And Jesus began to teach them that it is necessary for the Son of Man to suffer many things, and to be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and to be killed, and after three days to rise again. And he made this declaration frankly. And, taking hold of him, Peter began to admonish him. But he, turning about and looking at his disciples, admonished Peter and says, “Get behind me, Accuser, because you think not the things of God but those of men.”Mark 8:31-33
Unless one lives in total illusion, it will cross one’s mind and heart more often than seldom that life is difficult. Of course, it is also blessed and joyful, but in the course of life each of us will find ourselves confronting the painful reality that human life is fragile and, in some foundational way, broken. We experience this in sickness, in natural and human made disasters, and especially in the way we live out our relationships and commitments to each other. In today’s gospel, then, the disciples hear from Jesus a very painful, although truthful, teaching. “It is necessary for the Son of Man to suffer many things.”
Famously, Peter wants to deny this necessity. He takes the role of the loving parent who, whatever her or his children’s ages, wants to protect them from the painful aspects of life. I think of my godson who died at the age of 22 after over three years of suffering from brain cancer. In the course of those years, and up until the end, he would constantly assure his parents that he was okay and that everything would somehow be okay. In his last moments of consciousness, as he was riding in the ambulance from the hospital to the hospice facility where he would die, he was singing words from a song he’d heard in church: “All is love; all is peace.”
So, as often in life, we are confronted with the reality of, apparently, polar opposites: the “necessity” of suffering and the trust in “the things of God,” that are those very necessities. Recently in my own experience I have been confronted with the reality of these polar opposites. Around a year ago, I was asked to take on a new role and task. I readily accepted this role because it seemed to afford me the possibility of bringing more fully to bear in my daily tasks the deeper vocation I long ago recognized of serving the human and spiritual formation of others. It also afforded an opportunity of closely collaborating with others, something I had been missing for the previous four and a half years.
This task required a a level of attention and a commitment of time and energy that far exceeded what I had been doing. Yet, precisely because of its collaborative, and creative aspects, as well as its high level of engagement with and relationship to others, it brought a great deal of joy and energy into my life. It also brought to the fore, however, those aspects of lifelessness and ossification that were taken for granted in our shared communal lives. At this point, the tensions and conflicts arose that are inevitably a part of all deeper human interaction.
In today’s gospel Jesus tells the disciples that the following of his path will necessarily bring conflict and suffering. He is also telling us that the cost of discipleship, of accepting, walking, and fulfilling our path will be the same. And Peter, as we, wants to dispute and avoid this truth. As life has become more difficult of late, I often fantasize about how it would have been much easier to say no to the responsibility to which I was invited. It is easier to live without having to deal with all that is broken and fallible in myself and in others. it is easier to pass the time and get through one’s days without really investing ourselves.
An aspect of the necessity of which Jesus speaks seems to be that the more our hearts are engaged in how we are living and what we are doing the more we shall suffer the experience. When something truly matters to us, we can be certain that our own and the world’s limits will pain us. This is, perhaps, how human beings, slow to learn as we are, truly experience transcendence. And here, my godson Keith again returns to mind.
As I stood next to his bed after he had made the decision to forego further medical intervention, it was he who was teaching me that life is not easy but that it is always to be trusted. “I don’t want to die and most of all I am sorry for the pain of those I love, but if this is my time to die, I am okay and not afraid.” Some years ago I learned that it was not so much my physical death that I feared but rather to have lived without living my own life. I realized I could spend time on the earth doing things, experiencing some hurts and gratifications, some successes and failures, and yet never walking the path that was mine, never really living my life.
If we are truly trying with our heart to live the call that we are and so engaging life and world out of our hearts, we shall experience deep joy at times, but we shall also experience the necessity of suffering and pain. In Jesus we see that the pain and suffering of human life is potentially redemptive. Perhaps what makes it redemptive is when it is in service of the truth, a truth that involves living and giving away the unique call, the originality that is ourselves and not keeping that unique task, assignment, and call hidden under a bushel basket. If we act or not act, speak or not speak, work and live out of the call that is ourselves, if we walk the road to Jerusalem that is ours to walk, what we suffer along the way can be redemptive for ourselves, those we serve, and the world. If we just exist and conform, if we live for the acceptance and approval of others, our suffering may become a reflection of our avoiding of our call and a summons to integrity and authenticity. In either case, however, because we are human we shall suffer along the way.
It is necessary to suffer, as Jesus says, because it is the human way. Our call in life is not to live only attempting to avoid the suffering. It is to find the “one thing” to which we are called and to commit ourselves so fully that we accept and even embrace the suffering it brings. The voice of Peter will always be tempting us to avoid the suffering of such whole-hearted living. Yet, that temptation is actually tempting us to avoid our own life, the small but significant work for which God has created us.
He devotes himself to his job—
but he is in doubt as to its importance and, therefore, constantly looking for recognition: perhaps he is slowly nearing the point where he will feel grateful when he is not criticized, but he is still a very long way from accepting criticism when he is.
You asked for burdens to carry—. And howled when they were placed on your shoulders. Had you fancied another sort of burden? Did you believe in the anonymity of sacrifice? The sacrificial act and the sacrificial victim are opposites, and to be judged as such.
O Caesarea Philippi: to accept condemnation of the Way as its fulfillment, its definition, to accept this both when it is chosen and when it is realized.Dag Hammarskjold, Markings, p. 20