Painting: Léon Bonnat, “Christ on the Cross”, c. 1874
Lenten penance is an opportunity to share in the passion of Christ
How can one see joy in suffering? How can someone be joyful in a trial, or fathom “the gift” of suffering? Why does our loving God send suffering our way either by natural disaster or personal loss? Isn’t suffering something to avoid at any cost? These are questions to consider as we enter the Lenten journey.
Indeed, Job suffered because he could find no answers to the question of suffering. The Psalmist felt overwhelmed and helpless and cried: “Save me, God, for the waters have reached my neck. I have sunk into the mire of the deep, where there is no foothold. I have gone down to the watery depths; the flood overwhelms me” (Ps. 69:1). Thomas Merton, in his book The Seven Storey Mountain, An Autobiography of Faith, gives a somewhat paradoxical answer to the question of suffering:
Indeed, the truth that many people never understand, until it is too late, is that the more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt. The one who does most to avoid suffering is, in the end, the one who suffers most: and his suffering comes to him from things so little and so trivial that one can say that it is no longer objective at all.
According to Merton, human beings cannot escape suffering. The Life of St. Neilos of Rossano, an early-11th-century Calabrian saint, founder of the Monastery of the Mother of God of Grottaferrata, explores the multiple dimensions of suffering, both personal and collective.
Between A.D. 973 and 975 a powerful earthquake struck Rossano, a small town in Calabria, Southern Italy, Neilos’s birthplace. The earthquake triggered massive landslides, causing the upper part of the town, along with the houses and chapels, to collapse and fall on the lower part, covering the houses and churches of Rossano in the rubble. According to the hagiographer who wrote the life of the saint and is believed to be a brother monk and an ingenious eyewitness of the events described in the Vita, nothing was spared in Rossano by the earthquake except for the city’s cathedral and the church of Saint Irene. The earthquake caused amazement and awe in those who witnessed it, as the city was displaced and completely transformed in appearance. But miracles happen even in disaster — not a single human or animal life was lost.
St. Neilos, who at the time was in the vicinity of Rossano leading a contemplative life with his brother monks, hearing of the disaster decided to enter his city in disguise (on the road he found an abandoned fox’s pelt and wrapped it around his head) and witness what had happened to his people. The saint traversed the whole city without anyone recognizing him and was headed to the church. The hagiographer explains: “He entered the church full of longing, and with tears of contrition to venerate the immaculate Mother of God, his guide and protector.” People of Rossano recognized the “great father” and were content that he was back. They came to him and threw themselves at his feet, astonished by his extraordinary visit and waited for the saint to alleviate their suffering.
According to the Vita, St. Neilos addressed the crowd with beneficial words, he edified them, and then dismissed them. He then remained in the church with his former teacher, advising him “to abandon the material world and save his soul.” St. Neilos used the natural calamity and suffering to teach people the monastic principle of abandoning material attachments — after all, material things could be swiped away in a blink of an eye – and instead to focus their energies on a higher spiritual life by pleasing God more. For the medieval saint, natural disasters were human-caused or self-inflicted sufferings, and the causes were sin and worldly attachments. This, in essence, is a synthesis of the medieval understanding of natural disaster and suffering which was considered to be out of the control of medieval men.
Moreover, for St. Neilos, earthquakes and landslides were God’s punishment or a sign of divine power to castigate people for sin — original and all other sins — or God’s warning so that people turn within, recognize their sins and repent. So, calamity and divine punishment went hand in hand.
That explains why during Rogation days people repeat the liturgical invocation: A peste, fame, et bello (from pestilence, famine and war) – Libera nos Domine (in response – deliver us Lord). It was common for the Church to encourage processions of communal penance for the affected population. So, the suffering community which was hit by natural disaster, besides repairing the material damages, needed to look within and remedy the spiritual “disaster,” which the natural calamities, like earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes or landslides, have laid open. As a consequence, to avoid disaster, it was necessary to make pledges to sin no more, repent and embark on a different path.
However, it is scientifically proven that in disaster and in suffering people are drawn more to God than alienated from Him. Natural disaster was not blamed on God but rather on people’s failure to please God and to resolve to sin no more. But natural disasters are not always acts of God to punish people. St. John Paul II in his 1984 Apostolic Letter Salvifici Dolorisanalyzing the story of Job concludes that suffering does not always equal punishment for sins. In the case of Job, St. John Paul II asserts it is “suffering without guilt.”
Thusly, God speaks in suffering and though suffering, in pain and through pain, or as C.S. Lewis puts it in The Problem of Pain, He “shouts in our pain: it (pain) is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” People in suffering or those nations who have suffered under dictatorships and dictators who have banned God and cruelly suppressed their people are most acutely aware of God’s presence. In fact, it is when people are stripped of self-sufficiency and vanity, when they feel helpless, that they realize how frail humans really are. And it is exactly in that moment of human weakness, in disaster and natural calamity, in suffering and in pain, that “God’s power is made perfect.” (2 Corinthians 12:9). It is in the torturous pain of disaster that one tastes God most profoundly and the Cross makes more sense. The theology of the Cross helps our understanding of human suffering and pain because God does not confine Himself to consoling those who are suffering, but He Himself experienced suffering. He could have easily chosen another road, but He chose suffering.
So, why does God send suffering our way? To make his people have a fresh look at the Cross — which is both suffering and redemptive — and revisit the problem of evil and suffering. God permits suffering but redeems us through Jesus Christ and the Cross. As St. John Paul II puts it in Salvifici Doloris: “Christ has also raised human suffering to the level of the Redemption. Thus, each man, in his suffering, can also become a sharer in the redemptive suffering of Christ.” So, humans become double sharers with God: in suffering and in redemption. This is the crux in preparing for our Lenten journey. Similar to suffering, Lenten fasting is an opportunity to share in the passion of Christ. Thus, Lent is not only a gloomy season, a time of suffering. Lent is also a journey, shared with Christ and His Church. It is a suffering shared with Christ in His Passion, and it is a wonderful gift.