Monday, May 01, 2006

Called to... Suffer

I think that most of us would probably have to admit that, even with the joyous inbreaking of Easter grace and glory, life on earth is more or less a continual Lent. I find that while Easter brings hope and the courage to persevere, it doesn’t fix all the problems and pains of our lives. On the level of the liturgical year, it seems to work better: we fast and struggle all during Lent, and then, behold, when Easter arrives we can eat freely, wear bright-colored vestments, and sing hymns of glory instead of penitence. The dark sorrows of Good Friday are swallowed up in the bright rejoicing of Easter Sunday.

But daily life is not like that. If you are suffering from say, cancer, on Good Friday, it will most likely still be there on Easter Sunday. The same can be said for any illness or the pains of any injury, whether physical or emotional. If you are an alcoholic during the sorrowful days of Holy Week, you will most likely still be one on the joyful day of Easter. Similarly, all the rest of the daily problems, frustrations, worries, responsibilities and difficulties will remain, and they are there waiting for you after you clean up the dishes from Easter dinner. (Nature is indifferent to the liturgical year as well. This year it was warm and sunny on Good Friday, and cold and rainy on Easter Sunday.)

What are we to make of this? It’s a point I’ve made before: we’re still living in the “not yet” of earthly exile. We’re not yet in Paradise, not yet dancing about in glorified bodies. The grace of Easter is a foretaste, not a fulfillment, the promise but not the reward. Yet our sufferings in this life are not random, meaningless, or fruitless. They are not something we are supposed to flee while marking time as we ever-so-slowly move toward the end of our exile. Why? Because we are called to suffer.

This is spelled out for us in the First Letter of Peter. He describes himself as “a witness of the sufferings of Christ as well as a partaker in the glory that is to be revealed” (5:1). A witness does not necessarily mean an eye-witness, but one who testifies. The apostles are all witnesses of the Resurrection, though no one saw it happen. But they testify to it because of what the risen Lord revealed to them. Note also that the glory that St Peter speaks of is to be revealed; it is not yet revealed, that is, fully manifested. At the same time—and here is one of the paradoxes of Christianity—he calls himself a partaker of this yet-to-be-manifested glory.

But on to suffering. No one likes to suffer or to be punished, even when he deserves it. We rail and rebel against it. But the Apostle shuts us up. He says not that we ought to pride ourselves on bearing our deserved punishments patiently—there’s no credit in that—but that we should bear undeserved sufferings patiently. “If, when you do right and suffer for it you take it patiently, you have God’s approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps” (2:20-21). This life is perpetual Lent and not perpetual Easter because we are called to follow in the footsteps of Christ in his sufferings. This also silences those superficial Christians who say that since Christ suffered for us, we are not supposed to suffer. That obviously contradicts the word of God. He suffered not only to take away our sins, but to leave us an example to follow.

Again, the Apostle reminds us of another difficult duty: to bless those who curse or hate us. “Do not return evil for evil, or reviling for reviling; but on the contrary, bless, for to this you have been called…” (3:9). When he counsels us to firmly resist the devil, he reminds us that “the same experience of suffering is required of your brotherhood throughout the world” (5:9). Therefore suffering in this world is not merely inevitable, it is required. But it is not without end, and the Lord will show us that He is risen indeed: “After you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, establish, and strengthen you” (5:10).

So we see that the call to suffering is part of a double call, the other part being a call to “eternal glory in Christ.” You can’t choose one and reject the other. It’s all or nothing—though if you choose nothing instead of all, you’re going to suffer anyway, both here and hereafter, so you might as well accept and respond to the call to suffer in this life, keeping your heart set on the call to glory in the next.

We must realize that the primary mystery of this life is that of the Cross, and the primary mystery of the next life is the Resurrection. God in his mercy sweetens our exile with both the promise and the foretaste of future glory and joy—through the grace and beauty and love He allows us to experience even in this Valley of Tears. But let us not cling to the moments of joy and fear the times of suffering, for to suffering we have been called. If we accept and consider it precisely as a calling, one that will be fulfilled in the calling to everlasting life, we will count it all joy and become steadfast in our faith, as we await the full manifestation of God’s “precious and very great promises” (2Peter 1:4).