This is a perennial topic in spirituality, and Christian devotion is certainly no exception. We have our ascetics who have glorified the value of suffering to the point of practicing the most extreme forms of mortification. We’ve had clergy and elders who have directed the faithful to always quietly submit to whatever abuses, cruelties or injustices they may have suffered as trials of faith. I’ve heard of Inquisitors who went into raptures of ecstasy at hearing people cry out to God as they burned at the stake. Mother Teresa allegedly did not allow patients in her care to receive pain medication because she believed it was so important for people to suffer with Christ.
As mystics we seek to know union with God, and to live in accord with our faith in and knowledge of that union. How does suffering, our own and that of others, fit into this context?
The Roots of Suffering
Let’s avoid the temptation to slip into distraction with ontological tail-chasing about why suffering exists at all. My preference is to begin by simply accepting the existential reality, and from that place begin considering what meaning it has for me. And, before going further, it may be helpful to note that there are two general classes of suffering: The first is the basic experience of physical and emotional pain immediately resulting from loss, injury or disease, and the second is the additional suffering we create for ourselves with our mental responses to the fact or possibility of such things. While this post has relevance to the first class of suffering, it is actually the second class that is of primary concern. That sort of suffering is something we have more opportunity to prevent or transform, and not only for our own benefit but also because it so often spills over into the lives of others.
It first occurs to me that suffering reveals our illusions, or at least our attachments to them. It is actually our resistance to accepting illusions for what they are that causes so much of our distress and dis-ease in life. Sometimes this happens when we get what we thought we wanted, only to find the reality is significantly different from our dreams. Sometimes it happens because of the experience of impermanence and our vain struggles to preserve what was.
“Attachment” and “impermanence” seem to be key words here. It’s simple enough to see how our desires to keep and hold what pleases us must always be thwarted by the reality of impermanence here in this world. A deeper truth of this is that we tend to define ourselves through our attachments, though we might not realize it, either on the whole or with specifics. But anyone who has experienced a significant loss – like the death of a loved one, the breakup of an intimate relationship, the loss of a career, an ability, a reputation, a home, or even membership in some group – to some degree knows that anxious sense of having lost something of the self. Sometimes in these situations we even ask ourselves, “Who am I now?”
So we can see how in the depths of such suffering one often, if not always, perceives a blow to one’s own self-concept, and there is little to nothing we want to protect and preserve more than the self-concept; it is simply the survival instinct, if nothing else. The truth, however, is that the personal self is temporary. It is always changing and, despite a more or less constant sense of a “me”, that “me” is obviously never precisely what it was a little while ago. It is memories of “me” that largely form the collage each of us habitually relies upon for a self-concept, the patchwork emblem we have of the present “me”. So at best the self-concept is a fluid theory or working hypothesis of who and what we have been and are becoming in this world. At worst it is an illusion we mistake for a concrete actuality, the psychological equivalent of an idolized statue standing on fragile clay feet, destined to eventually be broken.
The Transformation of Suffering
I think this issue is close to the very core of the mystical impulse. On the one hand suffering urges us to desire the eternal, to identify with it no matter how paradoxical that may seem. On the other hand we are drawn to the fleeting unique beauty of impermanent things. Is there an unresolvable opposition here that begs us to abandon one for the other? There are many ways we can respond to this juxtaposition, but it seems the general tone of Christian mysticism is to focus on Love. For us, the value of suffering can begin to be found in its revelation of our illusory attachments and reminding us of our obsession with protecting and preserving the self-concept. We are thus provided the opportunity to transform temporal suffering from something to be fled at all costs into a catalyst for more fully knowing eternal Love.
Among other ways, people have tried to define Love as the very principle of union itself, the reintegrating power that resolves oppositions and dissolves separation into oneness. However, when two or more join in love, another one often arises from them. So it is with all forms of Love as we know it, and so it is that the principle of union is never the last word on the meaning of Love. Love transcends the duality of separation, union, and the birth of the new. It is in Love that we know and rejoice in both the eternal, transcendent mystery of non-duality and the temporal ever-becoming, ever-passing wonder of the relative world.
So, for Christian mystics, what are the implications about the suffering of others? First and foremost it is a reminder of our shared humanity, and that awareness combined with the focus on Love naturally delivers us to compassion, kindness and service. Yet, as the human heart and mind strive to express something of Love, it is often said that one can only love another to the extent that he or she loves self. It’s easy to get the idea that one must place self-love first and foremost on some sort of love agenda, as if we would otherwise have less Love to offer others. On the other hand, much has also been said about forgetting self in the love of others, as though time spent in loving self always robs others of Love. But these distinctions reveal our fear that there is some absolute limit to our ability to express Love, if not a limitation in Love itself; it is an assumed lacking that reduces infinite Love to a temporal commodity rather than an eternal good. Notions such as these are veils on Love’s transcendence of all dualities, for genuine love of self and genuine love of others each have the effect of magnifying the other, despite the suffering that may be intertwined with them. Like mirrors facing one another, notions of giver and receiver evaporate into the infinite depths of their shared reflection. And so it is that in expressing compassion and kindness in response to the suffering of others, we become a unique temporal flowering of the transcendence of eternal Love; we actually participate in the mystery of the Incarnation, and thus, in the language of our tradition, shine as the light of Christ in this world.