Letters to Peregrinus #40 - On Suffering

“The Pieta” (1876), William Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905)[i]
Dear Peregrinus (Monday, 7:30 PM):

It is Tara Ludwig who writes to you today, Peregrinus, she of the Faber Institute, long-standing student and friend of Fr. Richard Ganz, a man you yourself know and love well. Perhaps you are wondering why it is not he who writes to you now, as is his monthly habit in your long and profound correspondence.

It is with sadness, Peregrinus, that I must tell you that on June 4th Fr. Ganz suffered a shocking accident, a fall of such magnitude as to fracture his neck, back, and skull, as well as a host of other bones, and to cause bleeding in his brain. Take comfort, Peregrinus, that though his rehabilitation has been demanding, our beloved friend is up to the task; God has given him great courage and his resolve is strong. Additionally, his team of doctors has assured us that Fr. Ganz will suffer no permanent physical or cognitive damage. This is a remarkable and inexplicable grace for one who has already survived the impossible.

Perhaps the most glorious miracle in Fr. Ganz’s ongoing recovery— and there have been many—has been the colossal outpouring of love from his circle of family and friends, who have gone to astonishing lengths to facilitate his healing. When I say “love” Peregrinus, understand that I do not mean something merely sentimental, the cutesy “Get well”-card-with-hearts-and-puppies kind of love; rather, I speak of the kind of love that stands guard in front of a person as an onslaught of terror and tragedy comes their way and says, “you shall not pass.”[ii]  The  love I have seen in those who love Fr. Ganz is fierce, protective, and unrelenting in its insistence that though this accident may have mangled his body, we will not let it wreck his spirit.

What a gift it is to be loved in such a way. And I find myself wondering, Peregrinus, if Fr. Ganz knew before his accident that he had won this kind of love from his community, or if it was something he could not possibly have known in its fullness until after the accident, when he saw the love being called into action. I cannot know what God was up to in the private heart and mind of our friend Fr. Ganz, but I do wonder if somewhere in this was an answer to a silent prayer; if Fr. Ganz needed to live to experience the love that is his, to know that it is real and powerful beyond all measure.

Please understand, Peregrinus, that I do not intend to suggest that God answers prayers by pushing people down stairwells. His ways are never so crass. I only mean to express that our friend’s plight has caused me to reflect on the spirit of suffering, and to wonder what it is that God gets up to in a person when they are in pain. My intent in my letter is not to propose why God allows suffering; this topic has been debated in depth by scholars far more educated than I, and such a task is not one this humble pilgrim wishes to undertake. (Besides, I have personally found that asking “why” questions about God is a path that is rarely satisfying or fruitful; it is usually more helpful to spend time praying about who God is, and how He behaves in relationship with those He loves.) What I do hope you will explore with me in our correspondence, Peregrinus, is my best thinking about the sacred ways su!ering can transform a person, and how God has imbued su!ering with the power to make us deeper, wiser, more beautiful, and more human.

I do not know a single person on this earth who has been spared the reality of suffering. It seems to me that it is a certainty of the human experience, a shared burden that binds us all. We get banged up, broken by our time here. Even Christ, God Himself who deigned to walk this planet in our human shoes, did not escape unscathed, and suffered terrible physical and emotional anguish in His lifetime. No, it is impossible to be immune to suffering[iii], and yet it strikes me, Peregrinus, that for all our practice, suffering is something we don’t know how to do very well.

I wonder if this is due to the fact that most of the conversations happening in our society about suffering are solely concerned with how to avoid it. As a culture we do not place a lot of import on how to suffer well or with dignity; we focus on how to make the pain stop, always valuing that which maximizes our pleasure and minimizes our discomfort. Now, I am only human, and I agree that pleasure is preferable, and discomfort is not my friend- hence why my achy bones sit atop a massage chair as I write this; but I worry, Peregrinus, when our culture so reviles suffering that it tricks us into thinking that it is the enemy. Pain is not the enemy; other things are. Our cultural obsession with suffering-avoidance has trained us to miss the spiritual meaning, beauty, and grace that we can find within it, and robbed us of one of the most precious, universal connections that we have with other human beings.

Cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker, most famous for his work The Denial of Death, proposes a concept called “the vital lie[iv]” in which we might imagine the whole of reality as a round pie. Each of us carves out a “slice” of the reality pie for ourselves that we are willing and able to handle: the vital lie. Becker contends that this mode of lying to ourselves is both necessary to our survival while also being at the root of many of the world’s evils. Let me describe it another way Peregrinus: If I began my day by admitting that when my husband drives o! to work he might never make it there alive, or that at any moment I might lose the baby I’m carrying, or that the day I bring my children to the library could also be the day that a gunman decides to murder everyone there, I could not function. I would be crippled by the horror of all these possibilities. Therefore, it is necessary to my survival that I tell myself the vital lie and carry on as if such scenarios are impossible, though I know intellectually that they all could, and do, happen. This is why an accident as sudden and shocking as Fr. Ganz’s fall rattles us to the core; it destroys our semblance of security by exposing the vital lie for what it is: an illusion.

There are two ways we can react when our vital lie has been unmasked, Peregrinus. The first is that we can, out of fear and dread, do our best to ignore or deny the painful new reality that has been revealed to us, thereby maintaining our “slice of pie” at a level we can comfortably manage. This is certainly the option that our culture advocates, because it will cause us to suffer less[v]. The sooner we are snuggled back up in our vital lie, the sooner we can forget our existential discomfort and return to pleasure-seeking.

The second choice when our vital lie has been exposed is to bear the growing pains as we expand our slice of pie to incorporate the new reality.  This commitment to extending our net of awareness is not easy to do, nor is it comfortable. It hurts. And yet I am sure that it is a discipline God asks of us because without it we deny what is real and numb ourselves to the fullness of the human experience. Can we allow it to be real that today bombs are falling and killing families in the Middle East? Can we allow it to be real that, as is depicted in a photo currently circulating in the world news, a migrant child and her father drowned in each other’s arms while fleeing for safety? Nobody wants these things to be true or real, but they are. If we are willing to fully receive this, oh, how our hearts will su!er with love.

I wonder, Peregrinus, if one of the most essential ways God gives meaning to suffering is by using it as an instrument of connection between human beings. The willingness to live in a posture of broken-heartedness gives us an enormous capacity for love and empathy that cannot exist if we categorically reject suffering. Mother Teresa has famously quoted, “May God break my heart so completely that the whole world falls in”[vi]. My sense of what Mother Teresa is expressing here is a long understanding within the Christian tradition that our suffering becomes a prayer when we unite it to the suffering of others. We can offer our own wounds to God with the intention that they be given as a tribute to those around the world who su!er with us. There may be nothing immediate or tangible that I can do for a mother in Africa who has watched her child slowly die of starvation. But I can pray for her, cry for her, and unite my own heartaches and sorrows as a mother to hers, divinely binding us together through our suffering. Perhaps this tenuous connection doesn’t sound like much, Peregrinus, but somehow I believe that it matters. I do not think I could go on in this world if I didn’t.

My parents, who are unabashed hippie revelers, (and as they will undoubtedly be reading this, let me also emphasize that they are incredibly loving and kind people) are often perplexed by my profoundly Catholic habit of “taking on” suffering, an approach they perceive to be martyr-ish and gloomy. This is a common misinterpretation of the Christian life, so let me clarify that there is nothing noble in pursuing suffering or seeking out pain in order to bear it piously. Pain is painful, and no one would, or should, choose suffering as the principal means by which they come to spiritual growth. No matter how many blessings may arise as a result of Fr. Ganz’s accident I doubt he will say afterward, “wow, how fabulous that I broke my neck and almost died. Let’s do that again.” If he does, I will assume his brain bleed has left him a bit nutty. More what I mean, Peregrinus, is that while it is certainly reasonable and responsible to prevent suffering when it can be avoided, it cannot always be, and an over-preoccupation with pain-avoidance can cause us to miss the small mercies that are present when a community helps a person to suffer well.

As suffering is such a universal element of the human experience, one might expect that our society would be highly adept at talking about it and supporting those who are hurting. I have unfortunately found that this is often far from the truth. Rather, what I have noticed is that because we so villainize suffering people usually feel embarrassed, guilty, and ashamed when they are in pain. Instead of viewing pain as a unifying human experience, we are more inclined to treat it as a character defect, as if one who suffers is somehow weak or flawed. Such blame places the responsibility of alleviating the suffering solely in the hands of the sufferer. We express this in our language when we say things like, “buck up”, “grin and bear it”, “don’t be so thin-skinned” or, my Grandmother’s favorite, “put your big-girl panties on.” Pain is something we are taught to hide, or at least, to bear with a brave face, because our suffering is terribly uncomfortable and inconvenient for other people. We are so very afraid of asking others to take on the burden of loving us when we are hurting.

Note that concealing suffering is something adults do. Small children, they who are so fresh from God, are much more skilled than us at saying, “I hurt”. They have not yet been inundated with cultural messages telling them that su!ering is shameful. Small children are completely unselfconscious about asking for and receiving love and care when they are hurting. My son Cirocco, who recently turned 5 (and is very proud of it) often comes to me demanding a Band-Aid. When I ask where the wound is, he will sometimes say, “oh no, Mom. This is an invisible boo-boo.” I love this. It is his beautiful, innocent way of understanding that we sometimes suffer in places that cannot be seen. And he recognizes that the attention and care of one who loves him will somehow soothe his pain. What wisdom in this small boy to know that we need others to minister to our seen and unseen wounds. Yet alas, Peregrinus, it is so difficult for us big people to ask for help when we are suffering. The world instills in us the belief that we should not ever need help, and if we do need help, we should at least have the decency to be ashamed about it.

This fallacy is one that Jesus did not buy into. Scripture and Church tradition offer us numerous examples of Christ asking for help, as when he asks the disciples to stay awake and pray with Him at the garden in Gethsemane[vii]. Jesus also models for us how to accept help, such as when Mary weeps while anointing and kissing his feet[viii], or when Veronica tenderly wipes the blood and sweat from His face with her veil[ix]. How many of us could let another kiss our feet, or allow a stranger to caress our face without squirming? And yet none of these accounts portray Jesus as remotely sheepish, apologetic, or self-conscious in His need. Rather we see that He accepts help by receiving it as a gift of God’s love coming straight through the heart of the giver; He is thankful, vulnerable, and unashamed. Christ, who humbled Himself to be our servant, likewise humbled Himself to allow us to serve Him. What a profound courtesy God extends to humanity in offering us this depth of relationship with His Son, where we can be both giver and receiver, lover and beloved.

It is easy for us to get caught in a discourse of power dynamics when we talk about givers and receivers of help because in the human realm this usually implies some sort of inequitable relationship. We are accustomed to thinking of the person in the “helper” role as empowered, while the “helpee” is seen to be weaker. Let us remember, though, that no one who has walked this earth has ever been mightier than Jesus Christ, who was God Himself. His power did not prevent Him from needing or accepting help, suggesting that strength and vulnerability are not as mutually exclusive as we often believe. If this is true, then perhaps receiving help is not indicative of our character or power status at all, but rather a reflection of an inner capacity to receive the love of God.

One might assume that being loved by God is something that we could all do quite easily. However, I have noticed Peregrinus, in my own life and in my work at the Faber Institute, that receiving love is frequently a monumental task for human beings. Our hearts are sometimes not big enough to receive the love that is being offered to us, and therefore we may not even realize it is there. So often in spiritual direction I encounter someone who is praying for a grace that has already been given; they do not recognize what has been given them because they don’t know how to receive it. They may say something like, “I keep trying and trying and I just have nothing left to give”. And truly, when we only know how to operate in the mode of “doing”, we will inevitably burn out. Rarely does it occur to us when we reach this state that perhaps we are not being asked to give more but being invited to receive more- more love, more mercy, more kindness, more grace, not only from the ones we love but most fundamentally from God Himself.

Growing our ability to receive love requires courage. It can be so frightening, disarming, to be loved well, and yet it is a universal yearning of the human heart. And I believe one of the highest consolations that God offers us in our suffering, Peregrinus, is that when we have been wounded our inner landscape can change to let more love in. Our most profound suffering can force us to lower our defenses, such that we are able to lay down our armor and let ourselves abundantly receive the love that is ours in a more childlike and unshielded way. There is a path, there in our suffering, that leads us straight into God’s arms.

So this is how I know when I have suffered a thing well, Peregrinus: I am more fully human, more deeply connected to other human beings, and more free to receive the love of Christ because I have suffered it.

And now I have poured out my own heart to you, sharing all that I understand about suffering, and my best thinking about the ways that it matters in our journey here. Pray, Peregrinus, for our friend Fr. Rick Ganz, remembering how one whose body is wrecked suffers inwardly and outwardly as a result of such a trauma. Pray that he will find the gift in this, and please do send him a letter of encouragement, as I know your words will be a blessing to him. And finally, Peregrinus, let us together give thanks to God for the small mercies of love and kindness that somehow, impossibly, carry us through our darkest hours.

Your Friend in Christ,

Tara Ludwig
[i] While researching paintings of “Our Lady of Sorrows”, I was dismayed that the majority of images depicted Mary with a serene, even smiling, face. This is not what I know suffering to look or feel like at all. The reason I chose this painting to illustrate my letter is the agony that is so painfully clear in Mary’s face, the real grittiness and brutality of her loss, which is not hidden or softened for the comfort of the viewer. I learned, upon researching the painting, that the artist Bouguereau painted it in memorial of his son Georges who died at 16. Bouguereau’s own sorrow and rage is so evident to me here; this is what suffering really feels like.

[ii] This is of course a nod to Gandalf the Grey facing down the mighty Balrog in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Though it is perhaps one of the most lampooned scenes in the film (my own husband upon seeing the movie for the first time commented, “'You Shallot Pass?' What does that mean?") I have always loved the tremendous power of those words. To me it invokes a mother fiercely guarding her children, or Christ standing tall before us, saying, “evil may not have this one.”

[iii] Though I would argue that perhaps the most profound purpose of a Christian life is to diminish and alleviate the suffering of others. That is another essay entirely, as here I am mainly concerned with our personal experience of suffering.

[iv] I am unsure if this concept is original to Ernest Becker, or if it is the amalgamation of the works and ideas of others. However, since it is Becker’s work around “The Vital Lie” that I am most familiar with, it is he whom I have referenced here.

[v] At least, they are likely to experience less suffering in the short term. I have observed that reality has a way of catching up with everyone, even those who prefer to live comfortably in the fantasy of the vital lie. It is a difficult illusion to maintain for an entire lifetime. So though the su!ering and fear may be repressed for even say, thirty years, eventually it is likely to break through in a way that unravels a person.

[vi] Though I move quickly onto other things in the text I pray that the reader will pause at the beauty of this quote. I am drawn to people who allow their hearts to be broken over and over by relationship, by love, by art, music, and nature, thereby allowing more and more of the human experience—and of God–to fully penetrate them.

[vii] Matthew 26:36-38 [viii] Luke 7:36-50

[ix] http://www.vatican.va/news_services/liturgy/2005/via_crucis/en/statio n_06.html

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