Feb 062011

jesus-sweating-blood-in-gethsemaneThis 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.


  9 Responses to “On the Meaning and Transformation of Suffering”

  1. Outstanding post! Wise discourse over the transformation of suffering, brings to mind Deuteronomy 32:11 As an eagle stirreth up her nest, fluttereth over her young, spreadeth abroad her wings, taketh them, beareth them on her wings:

    Suffering is that stirring of the nest without which our wings remain untested and our ability to soar remains only in hope.

  2. I enjoyed your post Chuck. It gave me pause to relect on my own ideas and experience regarding suffering.
    While I believe it is true that we must be able to transform our suffering in our path toward emotional and spiritual maturity, I do not believe that it is a “given” that suffering is always transformative. To the extent that we stubbornly cling to our attachments through and after suffering, we can in fact become rather embittered.
    I think that suffering may be the poor man’s remedy to the entire problem of acceptance and our lack of acceptance is forever tied to the reflexive actions of our individual egos. There are other paths to God, the path of suffering being only one. Suffering, I think, acts within us as a potential release from the domination of our ego, but it does not happen for everyone.
    For myself I can see, only in retrospect, the opportunities suffering offered me in my maturation process. What is more difficult for me to see is the distinction between the existential suffering which is uniquely human and that suffering which resulted directly from my personal preferences. The ego seems to be so intimately involved in both.
    Perhaps the value of suffering is in its potential ability to either conform the ego to accept what are the harsh facts and ultimate end of our human existence, or our transformation to an ego-less state of being. I suppose this latter state to be a pre-unitive state. Ironically, to reach our “goal” , if you will, of the unitive state the ego must somehow be involved in its ultimate conformity or demise!

    • Hi Steve,

      Yeah, I hear you. Suffering in itself, at least within the context of a single lifetime on this planet, is not a guarantee of attaining greater degrees of maturity or liberation from the tyranny of the ego. It seems to some degree to simply be a matter of intention and effort, which certainly does involve the ego. Whether we speak of the ego in mystical terms or psychological terms, it does indeed seem to be part of who we are that must go along for the ride. Granted, there are ego-less states, but getting there usually requires the ego’s cooperation, and upon coming out of them we find the ego ready and waiting to do its thing.

      Thanks for the thoughtful reflections.


  3. Thanks for this post, Chuck. Your comments about self are especially pertinent to me right now as I finish reading “The Experience of No Self”. Much of our anxiety does seem to arise from the self.

    Also, you used my two favorite words: “ontological” and “existential”! 🙂

  4. Hi Seth,

    I’m really looking forward to your review of “No Self”. Yes, those are great words, and I almost managed to use them in the same sentence, but even with my penchant for run-on sentences I couldn’t quite bring my self to do it. 😛

  5. This was very well written and I loved it very much. I think that suffering for those who are in Christ is valuable and produces holiness in the believer. When my faith is in Christ sin is overcome. God promises to work all things together for good for those that love Him and because He is in control I have hope that He will bring good out of the evil and suffering in my life.

  6. I might need to add that the way I see it is that there are at least two aspects to God’s will. The first one is where He works all things together for good for those that love Him. This is God’s hidden will. It’s hidden in mystery. I don’t know God’s hidden will until it comes to pass or until He reveals it to me. This aspect of God’s will is God’s business alone. He alone is infinite in wisdom and knowledge and He knows what is best in each circumstance. The secret things belong to the Lord. Let me also be clear that I don’t believe God is the author or cause of evil but that He permits evil (for morally sufficient reasons). What Satan means for evil God means for good. I just trust God and because He is in control I have hope that He will turn it arround for good.

    The second aspect of God’s will is His revealed will. This is the will I try to follow. It is this:

    Love God above all else and love my neighbor and my enemies as myself. This is what Jesus gave us the example to do and it’s also what He taught us to do. He obviously had a Higher Power that He trusted and relied upon. He was the example of a holy and humble servant.

    Trust God

    Clean House

    Help Others

    Is what God’s will for me is today.

  7. Hi New Mystic,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I appreciate your respect for the mystery of divine things, and your faith in God’s wisdom and love.


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