The Suffering God

Christ is present in all the pain and suffering of the world, not safely separated from it but immersed in it to the hilt. “In all our affliction, he was afflicted” (Is. 63:9).

The cross of Christ is the sign to us whenever nature is red in tooth and claw and whenever men have to endure their agonies of bloody sweat and lonely darkness or are the victims of oppression, injustice or violence. There God is. Our feeling of exile on earth, our longing for Heaven makes sense and nonsense simultaneously, because where God is, there is Heaven.

One of my favorite saints is Dostoevsky’s whore, Sonia. In response to Raskolnikov’s cynical question:

“And what does God do for you?” Sonia replies: “He does everything.” She can only imagine what he does in the mountains, woods, lakes, oceans and deserts, but she knows what he does through the hopeless and incomprehensible tragedy of human destiny. She sees God in all and all in God.

So Mother Teresa of Calcutta put it: in the face of ugliness, meanness and squalor, she sees him “in his most disreputable disguise.” No sentimentality here; no escape from the scabrously raw matter of the world or the dirty devices of a dehumanized society.

Karl Jaspers gives it a philosophical twist: “God’s infinity does not face finiteness as other — for then it would be finite also. God is the complete infinity which includes everything finite instead of confronting it” (Philosophical Faith and Revelation, Collins, 1967, p. 260.).

That’s why I don’t understand the bewilderment of my philosophical friends when I say matter-of-factly, “God is the bear.” The more earthy stuff we uncover, the more heavenly glory we discover. The more distinctively and robustly human we become, the more divinely endowed we are.

With a soul-friend I passed through the pits of the purgative way, the lustral, lacerating sightings of the illuminative way and the bracing breakthroughs, that take forever, of the unitive way.
I saw the mysterious manifold presence of God in every light and dark aspect of that labyrinthine way. What might have seemed like a terrifying moment of divine absence was my own blindness in the face of Fire. Few make it to the unitive way, that is, to realized union with God.

It is with anxious misgiving that I mention “ways” — degrees of union — because if we concentrate on the ways, or become preoccupied with where we are along the passionate pilgrimage into the Absolute, we are bound to become priggishly or worrisomely self-conscious and so inevitably lose the Way — lose him: the Way, the Truth and the Life.

The main reason so few of us make much progress toward the perfection of charity is that we secretly know and are pathologically afraid of all the fierce and fiery refining required to Christen our deified hearts and minds. As I mentioned above, the final breakthrough takes forever. The other disconcerting thing is: the closer we come to Reality, the more obscure it is.

Clarity comes with metanoia — a radical change of heart and mind, a change so radical that our dominantly human mode of conception on the surface of things gives way to a dominantly divine mode of reception — wise passivity — at the heart of things. Then comes the pure and simple intuition of Reality — of God — born of love. This is contemplation. In the real world it’s “where the action is.”

No compulsions, fixations, addictions. No clichés, slogans, platitudes, disguised eroticism, narcissism or idolatry. Sheer action! Only the contemplative knows how stifi pure action and how active pure stillness is. After all, what is there to do or say when you suffer mindfully and joyfully the Divine Onslaught of Love!

Who is more involved and engaged, though leisurely and detached, than such a person? And who is more socially and politically relevant than such a person, silent and solitary presence at the Center, in communion with the Ultimate, committed to one thing, Christ, and frill of compassion for everything, interceding for all?

Apostolic hermits, the members of our community, are my favorite and most compelling examples of this kind of world-saving, joyful suffering and upbeat intercession based on coinherence enjoyed by all the members of the Mystical Body of Christ — a reference to the Church which is still, I think, unbeatable: especially when you think of what nonsense modem ministerial “mouths” have made of “the people of God” and brought to practical life by a carefree carrying the cross with such wild, wonderful gladness that it might seem to the dreary, driven crowd like a quixotic form of madness.
Among canonized saints, a recent good example is St. Thérèse. During a long siege of darkness she said:

I find only one joy, to suffer for Jesus .. . this unfelt joy is above every joy… I have hit upon the secret of suffering in peace. Peace does not mean felt joy. To suffer in peace it is enough to will whatever Jesus wills . . If you knew my joy, how great is my joy at having no joy, to give pleasure to Jesus! It is the essence of joy! The only happiness on earth is to train oneself to find delightful the lot Jesus gives us.

Don’t misinterpret. Thérèse wasn’t into real estate but into the state of being real. Von Balthasar says
of her: “it is not happiness which draws her. She longs not for happiness but for love. Eternal love, not eternal happiness, is the center of her being in God, and the laws of love are infinitely richer and deeper than the laws of happiness and repose” (St. Thérèse: The Story of a Mission).

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