If we admit that all explanations concerning the origins of suffering are unacceptable, then isn't all suffering really innocent suffering? Isn't that the point, in Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, of Ivan Karamazov's argument? We will do well to recall his words. Rejecting the consolation that at the end of history we will somehow restore the harmony wounded by a child's suffering, he cries out: "Can they be redeemed by being avenged? But what do I care if they are avenged, what do I care if the tormentors are in hell, what can hell set right here? I want to forgive, and I want to embrace. I don't want more suffering. And if the suffering of children goes to make up the sum of suffering needed to buy truth, then I assert beforehand that the whole truth is not worth such a price... I don't want harmony, for love of mankind I don't want it. I want to remain with unrequited suffering... They have put too high a price on harmony; we can't afford to pay so much for admission."
Who of us has never felt some sympathy for this stunning protest, echoing it in the deepest region of our heart. And that remains the question: Why this heart-rending protest? Who put it there? The rebellion of Ivan Karamazov is a least as mysterious as the suffering he decries. Human nature is not the origin of evil and suffering. Evil is something totally alien to the way we are made, to our identity as persons. The myth of original man and woman in paradise is far more revealing of how we are made than the evil and suffering that has been inseparable from history, as we know it. The fact that the "man and woman of prehistory" lacked knowledge of good and evil does not make them less human than us—it makes them more human. It is because evil is so alien to how we are made that suffering and death are so repulsive. We cannot imagine "history" without the struggle that brings about suffering, but deep within our hearts we hear a distant echo of what could have been, of how human life was really meant to be.
Well maybe. It’s hard for me not to see myself in this story, a person who tries to seize possession of what has been given in trust. When the time comes to render unto God what is due Him, how do I respond? When, for example, I look at my resources to decide what I should give to the Church, to the poor, or to organizations serving the common good, do I think first of those needs, and then my own? Or am I more likely to look at all the “important” things that I have to spend money on and then, if I have something left over, offer it to God?
In my experience, the two homily topics that are most likely to generate grumbling in the pews and angry e-mails to the rectory are money and sex. People—and I include myself in this—tend to react rather badly to the suggestion that Christianity has some definite ideas about how we should use our money and our bodies. The idea that our bodies and our money are not, in fact, our own runs very much against the grain of our culture. But if you went through the Bible and cut out every passage that dealt with one of these two topics, there wouldn’t be much left of it.
The theologian Stanley Hauerwas once gave a lecture at a business school associated with a Christian college where he suggested that the Church should require all its members, including those who wished to become members, to declare their income in public. The idea was greeted with disbelief and even a little anger. What is more private than what we earn and how we choose to spend it? The fact that such suggestions are able to generate such anger is instructive, for it reminds us that Jesus said a lot of things that made people angry enough to kill Him.
Somehow we need to reacquire the virtue of Christian asceticism. I should add quickly that I am not doing very well in this regard. But it seems to me a battle worth fighting, even if the territory gained is often measured in inches.
MADRID:Jesus Gil, who blogs from Madrid, has some information posted on the terrible bombing there this morning that killed 190 people and wounded 1,400. This is the worst terrorist act in modern European history. Please pray for the dead, the wounded and their families.
SAINT BLOGS: Rachelle Linner's take on Saint Blog's (which said very nice things about yours truly) is now posted on Commonweal's web site. Commonweal has also made a couple of major improvements to its website. The table of contents of the current issue shows the available articles highlighted in red. Those articles are also linked on the home page. They also have links to highlights from recent issues. All in all, a significant step forward in Commonweal's web presence.
WE’RE NOT WORTHY: Today’s readings and the fact that today is the feast day of Saint John of God have me thinking about the topic of “worthiness.” That’s a word that pops up a lot in our tradition. John the Baptist says that he is unworthy to fasten the sandal strap of Jesus. At the end of the rosary, when we pray the Salve Regina we ask Mary to pray "that we may be worthy of the promises of Christ." During the mass, we thank the Father for “counting us worthy to stand in your presence and serve you.”
We tend to be suspicious these days about the idea of “unworthiness.” It seems psychologically unhealthy somehow, this idea of beating our breasts and lamenting our unworthiness. And yet, it’s hard to escape the fact that some of our greatest saints are people who felt in their bones that they were “unworthy servants” of the Lord. What can we make of this?
I think the story of Saint John of God provides us a way through. In his early years, John was very much the breast beater. He eventually headed off to Africa to try to get himself martyred and was sent back because it was felt his motivations were unhealthy. He eventually became a religious goods merchant. After hearing a sermon by Blessed John of Avila, he began flagellating himself, beginning for mercy.
Blessed John of Avila met with him and gently suggested that this kind of penance was probably no longer doing him any good. He suggested that John tend to the needs of others. John went on to found a hospital to care for the poor and attracted wide renown for his good works.
I may be stretching this a bit, but I think that what ended up happening with John of God is that he moved from a sense of his unworthiness based on his own failings to a sense of his unworthiness based on his understanding of God’s love for him.
If I think, for example, of whether I am “worthy” of my wife’s love, I have to conclude that I am not—and not merely because I inevitably forget to remove the “line dry only” items from the dryer, thus shrinking my wife’s favorite clothes beyond recognition. Ultimately, my wife’s love for me is a mysterious thing that remains steadfast whether, on any given day, I am “worthy” of it or not. It is not something that, in the end, I have really earned. It is a grace.
To pray that we might be “worthy of the promises of Christ” is not, like John before his spiritual breakthrough, to pray for our own moral perfection. It is to pray that we might be fully opened to the stunning, overwhelming, inexplicable and entirely gracious love that God pours out on us and that we may be able to love like that in return.