Since today marked the beginning of Lent, I thought I would resurrect this blog with a reflection I wrote on suffering and my understanding of suffering from a theological perspective. This constructive theodicy essay was originally written for a class on Theological Dimensions of Suffering during my first semester at Loyola University Maryland.
A Theodicy of Conversion – Transformation Through Love
The issue of suffering in the world has been a constant source of prayer and reflection for me. My encounter with the loving God, who is manifested in the person of Jesus Christ, has revealed the incongruity of suffering with the Divine plan. Rather than cause suffering, Christ promises us respite from its oppressive weight; “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28 New American Bible Revised Edition). In the here and now, we are invited to participate in Christ’s promise of liberation from the burden of oppression and injustice in our response to our experiences of suffering. Thus, our own suffering becomes a catalyst for personal conversion, a call to justice, and conduit for social transformation, in which we actively love our sisters and brothers, most especially the poor, the oppressed, and the excluded, and seek to alleviate the systemic sources of their suffering. This theodicy of conversion and transformation through love was influenced by the spiritual writings of Thérèse of Lisieux and Francis of Assisi, two great saints whom I admire and whose lives I wish to emulate. In reflecting on the lives and spiritual writings of Thérèse and Francis, I have come to discern that suffering can engender a quiet trust and faith in God that becomes manifested in an outward solicitude for others. This loving attentiveness towards others can become a vehicle for social change and collective conversion, in which those who have suffered can bring solace, peace, and joy to those who still experience pain, oppression, and violence. In essence, the sufferer becomes transformed into the loving God, who sits and loves all Creation in silence.
Development of a Personal Theodicy
One of the earliest literary influences in the formation of my personal theodicy is Thérèse of Lisieux’s (1996) autobiography, Story of a Soul. Thérèse wrote this work under obedience from her religious superiors as she was dying of tuberculosis from 1895 until her death 1897, at age 24. She lived an externally unremarkable life in the Discalced Carmelite convent in Lisieux, France. To her sisters she was pious and kind, but not any more so than the others, and yet the story of her life as recounted in her autobiography revealed a profound depth of faith despite intense doubts about the existence of God, an unusual vision of God’s activity (or lack of it) in her life, and a familiarity with suffering that was beyond the consciousness of most of her sisters in the convent. In the last section of her autobiography, written four months before her death and which was intended to serve as her obituary, Thérèse recounted the crisis of faith that plagued her last years in the convent, the quiet humiliation and suffering she endured, and a way of holiness that consisted of humble acts of kindness and mercy.
Towards the end of her life, Thérèse revealed a profound crisis of faith that she likened to darkness, the “fog that surrounds me becomes more dense; it penetrates my soul and envelopes it in such a way that it is impossible to discover within it the sweet image of my Fatherland” (Thérèse of Lisieux, 1897/1996, p. 213). Additionally, she expressed suicidal ideation that resulted from the severe pain of her disease (she was not given any morphine during her illness) and an oppressive doubt about the existence of God, in which the veil of faith “is no longer a veil for me, it is a wall which reaches right up to the heavens and covers the starry firmament. When I sing of the happiness of heaven and of the eternal possessions of God, I feel no joy in this, for I sing simply what I want to believe” (Thérèse of Lisieux, 1897/1996, p. 214). Thérèse’s superior at the convent recalled a conversation a month before Thérèse’s death on September 30, 1897, in which Thérèse cautioned her against leaving medicines near the bedside of suffering persons, “It needs only a second when one suffers intensely to lose one’s reason” (Thérèse of Lisieux, conversation with Sr. Agnes, August 30, 1897). Thérèse’s embedded theology, which had been cultivated since childhood by her devout parents and which reflected the pious sentiments of 19th century Catholic France, was eroded by the intense physical suffering she experienced because of tuberculosis and the psychological and spiritual agony that resulted from her crisis of faith. She expressed intimate knowledge of the experience of atheists and how she, if it was not for her earlier experience of faith, “could never bear such suffering. I am surprised that there aren’t more suicides among atheists” (O’Mahony, 1975, p. 254).
Despite these profoundly dark nights in the final years of her life, to the rest of her sisters, Thérèse maintained an outwardly peaceful demeanor: she continued her religious duties, she practiced little acts of kindness such as writing poetry and prayers for her sisters, and also entertained their requests to write a record of her life in the convent despite her exhaustion and pain. Although internally she was suffering overwhelming trials on many levels (physically, psychologically, and spiritually), her outward behavior was one of great solicitude and affection for her sisters. “I understood how imperfect was my love for my sisters. I saw I didn’t love them as God loves them… You know very well that I would never be able to love my sisters as You love them, unless You, O my Jesus, loved them in me” (Thérèse of Lisieux, 1897/1996, pp. 220-221).
Thérèse’s response to her spiritual crisis and physical suffering made an indelible impression on me in my teenage years. I discerned in Thérèse a person who did not sugarcoat suffering, who acknowledged physical and spiritual pain, and yet was not shackled by it. In the same way that Christ cried out, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?”, through her dark night, Thérèse acknowledged the doubt, uncertainty, and ambiguity about God that often accompany trauma. Paradoxically, Thérèse’s doubts about God, her acknowledgement of the suicidal thoughts that tempted her, and the “wall which reaches right up to the heavens and covers the starry firmament” was “not a lack of faith, but an expression of faith… There is more honest faith in an act of questioning than in the act of silent submission, for implicit in the very asking is the faith that some light can be given” (Long, 2011, pp. 126-127). I was moved by Thérèse’s disposition of quiet trust in God in the face of great suffering, even when there seemed to be nothing there for her to believe in. Even her own impending death did not hinder her ability to be in communion with others. In Thérèse, I saw the female face of Christ.
The other great figure who influenced the development of my personal theodicy is Francis of Assisi, founder of the Order of Friars Minor. After being captured in a battle, Francis experienced a spiritual conversion that inspired him to seek the poor and the sick who had been forced to live outside the protective walls of Assisi. My encounter with the life and charism of Francis of Assisi has revealed a person with a keen sensitivity to and a profound respect for the presence of the God in all of Creation, especially amongst the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized. Francis adopted a life of voluntary poverty, trading in his rich inheritance as the son of a successful cloth merchant for a life of friendship and identification with the poorest of the poor. He embraced the suffering of the outcast, the lepers, and the forgotten because he recognized in them the Incarnation of the Divine. When speaking of his conversion, Francis wrote, “what had seemed bitter to me was turned into sweetness of soul and body” (Armstrong, Hellman, & Short, 1999, p. 124). For Francis, this “sweetness of soul and body” resulted from sharing in the suffering and passion of Jesus Christ, not in an isolated, self-referential piety but in an outward, solicitous care for the plight of the poor and outcast. Francis discerned that the poor shared in the humiliating passion of Christ because God, in choosing to be incarnate in this world among the poor and the lowly, shared in their oppression and persecution. For Francis, suffering is an active sharing in the Divine act of self-giving. He praised God through “those who give pardon for Your love, and bear infirmity and tribulation. Blessed are those who endure in peace for by You, Most High, shall they be crowned” (Armstrong, Hellman, & Short, 1999, p. 114). And yet the affection and love that Francis had for the poor did not stem from an idealized, spiritualized attraction to poverty. In the same way the Jewish prophets rejected a “spiritualizing poverty that leads to an acceptance of injustice,” Francis’s embrace of the poor and their condition was out of solidarity, advocacy, and a desire to transform the systems of oppression operating in society (Hoppe, 2004, p. 102). Francis echoed the prophetic response that saw the “poor as victims. They were victims of the wealthy who violate the most fundamental stipulations of the covenant. There is only one proper response to these circumstances and that is protest” (Hoppe, 2004, p. 102). His embrace of suffering through voluntary poverty was a repudiation of the oppressive economic systems operating in Assisi, and as such, suffering became an opportunity for personal conversion and social transformation.
In addition to the concern and advocacy for the poor that resulted from Francis’ voluntary embrace of suffering, I was also moved by his idea of “perfect joy,” which is a profound happiness, forbearance, and love in the face of suffering and persecution. It is a rejection of the natural tendency to lash out in anger when one is faced with injustice or innocent suffering. Perfect joy reflects the Evangelical exhortation to not repay violence with violence. In an undated letter to Brother Leo, Francis wrote,
I return from Perugia and arrive here in the dead of night. It’s wintertime, muddy, and so cold that icicles have formed on the edges of my habit and keep striking my legs and blood flows from such wounds. Freezing, covered with mud and ice, I come to the gate and, after I’ve knocked and called for some time, a brother comes and asks: ‘Who are you?’ ‘Brother Francis,’ I answer. ‘Go away!’ he says. ‘This is not a decent hour to be wandering about! You may not come in!’ When I insist, he replies: ‘Go away! You are simple and stupid! Don’t come back to us again! There are many of us here like you – we don’t need you!’ I stand again at the door and say: ‘For the love of God, take me in tonight!’ And he replies: ‘I will not! Go to the Crosiers’ place and ask there!’
I tell you this: If I had patience and did not become upset, true joy, as well as true virtue and the salvation of my soul, would consist in this. (Armstrong, Hellman, & Short, 1999, pp. 166-167)
Francis’ non-violent response to suffering was not a masochistic love for mortification or self-abasement and neither was he advocating for injustice to be dealt with passively or complicitly. Rather, perfect joy becomes an acknowledgement of God’s presence in all aspects of our experience, even in our most profound, humiliating suffering, and it is an acknowledgement of the presence of God even within those who torment us and who cause our suffering. This Franciscan approach to suffering and to those who cause it becomes a declaration that all of Creation is good because God created it. Perfect joy reveals Francis’ understanding of the universal kinship of Creation, in which all peoples, the oppressed and also the oppressor, are held to be children of the all-good, all-loving God and thus worthy of only good will and love from God’s children. In the same way that our hearts are moved by those who suffer under the cruel weight of injustice and oppression, so should our hearts also be moved by those who perpetuate oppression and evil, for they too are groaning under the dehumanizing yoke of sin. When taken with great solicitude for the poor, solidarity with their suffering and a desire for justice and universal kinship, Francis’ conception of perfect joy ruptures the violent cycle of aggression and retaliation, thereby liberating all of us from the oppression of suffering.
Suffering and Transformation
While the writings of Thérèse of Lisieux and Francis of Assisi had a profound impact on my spiritual life and how I relate to God in the midst of suffering, it was the events of September 11, 2001 that awakened me to the possibility of the personal and collective transformation that can result from trauma. A few weeks into my first semester at the Cooper Union School of Art in the East Village, two planes struck the World Trade Center and fundamentally altered the social and political landscape in this country and the world. 9/11 forced me to reassess my relationship with God in the shadow of massive devastation. In the period following this act of terrorism, I struggled to make meaning as to why a God of love and justice, the God I knew in the Catholicism of my childhood, could allow so many innocent lives to perish. I was baffled by the Divine inability to save so many lives from death and by God’s deafening silence in the wake of so much loss. However, as I ruminated on why so many people died in 9/11, I began to realize that the anger and frustration I felt towards God had resulted from a genuine concern for the victims of the attack, the survivors, and the people of New York – none of whom I had met. The atrocity of 9/11 had engendered within me a sense of solicitude and concern for others that extended beyond my own consciousness in a way that simply had not happened before. It was as if in one September morning, the insular world I had inhabited as an art student in New York City all of a sudden opened up to a collective consciousness, a shared experience that was connected to complete strangers, to people from all walks of life. I realized that many New Yorkers, and indeed many people throughout the United States and the world, expressed the same collective concern and sorrow after 9/11.
A feeling of solidarity, kindness, and neighborly concern enveloped New York City in the weeks and months after 9/11. People of all faiths, cultures, and traditions responded to this tragedy with an outpouring of love. Because of this experience, I realized that suffering, even on a massive scale, can be positively transformative and can engender love and solicitude for one’s neighbors. This new sense of collective care and relationship resonated with Calhoun and Tedeschi’s theory of posttraumatic growth, in which a traumatic event can lead to positive transformation and a changed perception of one’s life (2006, p. 5). Posttraumatic growth after 9/11 allowed me to reevaluate my relationship with God in light of a perceived “greater connection to other people” and “an increased sense of compassion for other persons who suffer” (Calhoun & Tedeschi, 2006, p.5). Because I experienced a spiritual growth and a deeper relationship with God and others in the wake of 9/11, I discerned that God could not have willed the events of 9/11 to unfold as it did. I could not believe that God would have needed the suffering and death of so many people in order to attract the affection of others. Rather, I understood that God’s activity during 9/11 was in the invitation to move beyond our own suffering into a loving concern for others who were impacted by this attack.
Suffering of the Oppressed
As with singular traumas or disasters, the suffering that results from systemic injustice can also be an occasion for transformation, both personally and collectively. Those who suffer from systemic injustice are especially vulnerable because of the enormity and ubiquity of the oppressive structures that cause their suffering. The experience of gays and lesbians at the hands of discriminatory rhetoric of conservative religious and politicians is an example of the large-scale persecution that the dominant culture levies on individuals. When I was in New York City, several of my friends experienced physical, emotional, and spiritual violence because of their sexual orientation. Many expressed a distrust of and an aversion to organized religion because of the discrimination and homophobia they felt from religious people. These violent attacks, which came from family members, strangers, and the Church, engendered self-loathing and self-destructive behavior. I recall one particular event in which I accompanied my friend Ted* to the emergency room in a Jersey City hospital. When he was 17 years old, Ted* left his family in Texas because of the constant harassment and homophobia he encountered. Without a supportive network of close friends or family, he engaged in risky sexual behavior and contracted HIV when he was 19 years old. After a period when Ted* didn’t return my phone calls, I came to his apartment and discovered that he isolated himself for days – his mouth, covered in a layer of what looked like white, fuzzy velvet, was swollen from a severe case of oral thrush. When we arrived at the emergency room, the nurse at the receptionist looked at him with pity. As he was being treated, I called my mother in the parking lot and cried, asking her why this was happening to my friend, who was so young and undeserving of this disease. In the back of my head, I could hear echoes of condemnation and homophobic rhetoric coming from the Church while God remained silent.
In many ways, I was ill equipped to provide spiritual care for my friend. Up until this point, the theodicy I had constructed for myself was theoretical and not grounded on any direct, personal experience of suffering. 9/11 was a massive tragedy, but my friend Ted’s* HIV status was a direct hit to me. My theodicy, which was essentially a romanticized view of silent suffering and a placid friendship with God based on spiritual literature and on the lives and suffering of others beyond my immediate circle, was not enough. When I was faced with the suffering of people whom I cared for deeply and whom I loved, I became angry and afraid. I was afraid of the virus that infected them. I was angry at the institutional Church for its bigotry and homophobia. I was angry with my friends for being so negligent about their health and I was angry with myself for being gay, fearful of the possibility that my lifestyle could lead me to become like them. This self-centered response to my friends’ suffering resulted from a sense of helplessness and a hopelessness because “our misfortunes make us turn in upon ourselves and see ourselves as the center to which all must be related: other persons and even God, whom we thus idolatrously turn into our servant” (Gutiérrez, 1987, p. 13). Furthermore, the injustice that I sensed in the Church’s condemnation of gay people “produced resentment and a rejection of the presence and existence of God, because God’s love becomes difficult to understand for one living a life of unmerited affliction. The result, then, in both cases is a radical questioning of God” (Gutiérrez, 1987, p. 13).
I could not believe in a God who would make my friends gay only to condemn them, and I refused to believe that HIV was retribution for their sins, after all, I surely committed as many sins as they had, if not more. I railed against God for letting this happen and in doing so, I tacitly acknowledged the hope, and the deep disappointment, I felt in a God who, up until this point, had revealed the Divine as accepting, unconditional love. My anger and my pleading with God “both acknowledges and yearns for the love of God” in the way that a revealed a profound sense of betrayal and disappointment when this love was not reciprocated because of suffering (Long, 2011, p. 128). The physical, psychological, and spiritual torment that my POZ friends experienced, and the indignation I felt as a result of their pain, resulted from a ruptured bond between us and society, the Church, and God. I began to realize that in order for healing to take place, this rupture must be mended. Our shared pain then became an opportunity for my own personal conversion because I realized that not only did the anger that I levied against the world do nothing to assuage the suffering of my friends, but also that my disappointment in God had resulted from a genuine experience of God’s love, which I know was still there. “Only in expectation that God is good and that creation is good, only a relationship of faith and trust, does the presence of evil prompt us to shake the finger of accusation in God’s face” (Long, 2011, p. 126). The end to our suffering and the restoration of our relationship with God therefore must result from an affirmation of the unconditional love that God has for us and that our suffering (as well as that of the poor, the migrants, and other marginalized groups) is not God’s will. This is not what God wanted. This conviction impelled me, and continues to inspire me, to communicate the special, particular affection – a preferential option – that the Divine has for all who suffer because of discrimination, oppression, and exclusion. Ultimately this is a profound trust in that the old promise that says, “The last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:16).
Encouraging Conversion in Pastoral Practice
I have come to believe that suffering is not a divine mandate, a purgative test, or retribution for evils done personally or collectively. Suffering is a fact of life, part and parcel of the human condition in the same way that joy, success, love, and other more positive elements are. And as these happier experiences so easily reveal to us God’s loving presence in our lives, suffering too can be an opportunity to discover God’s will and an invitation for transformation. Suffering allows for conversion because it invites us to share in the Divine action through our response to painful or traumatic events. I recall again the example of Thérèse of Lisieux, who in the last year of her brief life wrote that because she suffered great “temptations against the faith, He (Christ) has greatly increased the spirit of faith in my heart” (Thérèse of Lisieux, 1897/1996, p. 219). In the face of a tremendous spiritual crisis and despite intense physical and psychological pain, Thérèse adopted a disposition of love and trust, and a generative, loving kindness towards others. In the words of another great Carmelite, this is a theodicy that “preserve[s] a loving attentiveness to God with no desire to feel or understand any particular thing concerning him” (John of the Cross, 1991, p. 92). We engage in a loving attentiveness to God amidst our suffering without any expectations that God will easily fix things or explain why we suffer as we do. In doing so, the loving attentiveness that we lavish on God in the face of our suffering becomes a genuine, unsolicited love that spills over into our interaction with others.
This loving attentiveness for God and others in suffering can lead to a personal conversion that is manifested in activism and justice work. Addressing systemic sources of injustice, such as the homophobia, bigotry, and xenophobia in our religious and political institutions, necessitates a profound trust in the goodness of God’s Creation because “God did not will this evil, does not cause this evil, and this evil does not come from God, not even the left hand of God” (Long, 2011, p. 131). If our trust and faith in God’s profuse goodness and unconditional love is what can sustain us through suffering, it is God’s silence that makes conversion and transformation after suffering possible. The Divine silence in the face of suffering invites us to actively search for meaning in our prayer, in our relationships, and in the events or structures that cause our suffering. Because of the Divine silence, one’s conversion into love is not predicated by a belief or adherence to a particular tradition – the manifestation of the Divine in our lives transcends cultures and traditions, yet resonates with us on a personal, individual level. By reflecting on the nature of our suffering in prayer and by examining our relationship with others and with the God encountered during and after our suffering, we engage in a process of rumination that becomes the way in which we “repair, restructure, and rebuild” our understanding of the world (Calhoun & Tedeschi, 2006, p. 10). This reflection and prayer engenders a spirit of mindfulness that opens up a new perspective to our suffering and the suffering of others, and can become the vehicle in which conversion occurs. With a new perspective, wherein we view suffering as incongruent with the Divine will, we become inspired to engage in action and social transformation in which we strive to amend the sources of injustice and oppression that have ruptured the universal network of relationships.
While it may not be realistic, or necessary, to expect those who are in the midst of suffering to adopt this theodicy of conversion, I myself can trust in the loving transformation that God is affecting in all of our lives while reflecting the vision of God that I have come to through my own conversion. For instance, in the case of those who may feel marginalized and ostracized by society and religious institutions (such as LGBTQ, divorced and remarried, migrants and refugees, minorities, and other minorities), I can approach their suffering in two steps: 1) by being a loving presence and by underscoring their inherent dignity and status as children of God in a way that they may not have experienced in society or the institutional Church and 2) by actively working within the institution(s) to raise consciousness and affect spiritual conversion so that oppressive and discriminatory practices and teachings become transformed into love and acceptance. This is tremendous work that cannot be done by anyone individual alone. In speaking of herself and her limitations, Thérèse wrote that “God needs no one, much less her, to do good on earth” (Thérèse of Lisieux, 1897/1996, p. 208). This is not a poor excuse that shirks the genuine responsibility we have to care for each other and for all Creation – rather it is an acknowledgement that all of our care, all of our good deeds, are nothing compared to the profuse love that flows forth from God to all of us. As a Franciscan friar and social justice advocate, I feel a great desire to be present to and to comfort those who suffer, to mourn with them, to cry with them, to share in their suffering, and to address the systemic sources of injustice and inequality that are at the root of all social ills. However, while I feel called to encourage a spirit of hope and trust in God’s love for the oppressed and the marginalized, I would be remiss to believe that my good intentions are sufficient to liberate anyone from their suffering. It will be God’s infinite love alone that will “bring glad tidings to the poor… to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord” (Luke 4: 18-19). My job then, as a spiritual caregiver, is to stand in wait with those who suffer, to voluntarily suffer with them, and to do what I can to alleviate or assuage any pain they may have with the very finite resources I possess.
In reflecting on my own relationship with God and in my discernment as a Franciscan friar, I have come to view suffering as an opportunity for conversion and transformation. Suffering becomes an occasion to love and trust in the Divine precisely when loving and trusting is most difficult. This loving trust reiterates the goodness of God and of all Creation and invites one to transcend one’s self. This engenders a similar loving attentiveness and solicitude for others. When one is able to achieve this, one rises above the present experience of pain and becomes transformed into the object of love, thereby becoming a conduit and catalyst for social change and transformation for those still suffering under the yoke of oppression and violence. In essence, the sufferer convert participates in the Divine action of loving all Creation, despite great personal pain and suffering, in the same way that Christ loved and redeemed humanity through the ultimate sacrifice of His passion. In our loving response to our own suffering and the suffering of others, we become transformed into the face of Christ.
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Calhoun, L. G., & Tedeschi, R. G. (2006). The foundations of posttraumatic growth: An expanded framework. In Calhoun, L. G., & Tedeschi, R. G. (Eds.), Handbook of posttraumatic growth: Research and practice (pp. 1-23). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
Gutiérrez, G. (1987). On Job: God-talk and the suffering of the innocent. (M. J. O’Connell, Trans.). Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books. (Original work published 1985).
Hoppe, L. J. (2004). There shall be no poor among you: Poverty in the Bible. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.
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Long, T. G. (2011). What shall we say? Evil, suffering, and the crisis of faith. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, Co.
O’Mahony, C. (1975). St. Thérèse of Lisieux by those who knew her. Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, Inc.
Thérèse of Lisieux. (1996). Story of a soul: The autobiography of Thérèse of Lisieux. (J. Clark, OCD, Trans.). Washington, DC: ICS Publications. (Original work published 1897).