The Word of God came to heal our suffering—if we’re open to it.

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It is never easy to talk about suffering. We prefer to talk about pleasant things. But we cannot ignore what is in front of us. Here in New Mexico, where I serve as the archbishop of Santa Fe, we are faced with poverty, drug and alcohol addiction, and violent crime. Sadly, many children go to bed hungry and do not receive the help they deserve. We are last among the 50 states in childhood outcomes and development. We also see domestic suffering: divorce, domestic violence and abuse, unemployment or underemployment, separation and broken homes. And we see personal suffering, physical and mental suffering that burdens the heart and wearies the soul.

In the church there is great suffering from the abuse crisis. It is present first and foremost in her members who have been abused, in the families and parishioners of the abused and of the perpetrators themselves, the vast majority of whom have been abused themselves. (This is no excuse, but it is a challenging fact.) We are also mindful of the suffering our world endures: hunger, poverty, bigotry, persecution, inequality, forced migration, refugees, religious oppression and human trafficking. There is the added suffering that comes from our seeming lack of concern for our common home and the effects of climate change.

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One of the first times in my adult life that I recall pondering suffering was at St. Mary’s Medical Center in San Francisco, founded by the Sisters of Mercy in 1857. I met an elderly man who told me he had reached the “Metal Age” of his life—silver in his hair, gold in his mouth and lead in his bottom. He was suffering from dropsy and heart failure. There was also a middle-aged woman who I think had every malady under the sun. When we met, she was angry with God. But she taught me an important lesson as she then came to a closer relationship with God than ever before. Why? How did suffering bring her closer? I will never fully know, but I hope to touch on some of the answers.

From the Christian perspective, pain can be redemptive, a means to a salvific end—not something to be desired but when experienced, something that can lead to good.

The awful grace of God

The answers center on Jesus Christ, who is the healing Word of God. They are suggested by a quote from the ancient Greek dramatist Aeschylus, which Robert F. Kennedy quoted when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated: “Even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until in our despair, against our will, comes wisdom, by the awful grace of God.”

When I worked with youth groups, we had what were called MC Wilderness retreats into remote areas. On those hikes we would find ourselves out at the beach at night, awed as we looked at the moon and the stars over the ocean. In those moments, John’s prologue came to mind: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.” What is so captivating in this passage is that God and the Word are one in the Holy Spirit: a peaceful, harmonious, loving relationship inherent in the Trinity, in whose image we are created.

It is a powerful testimony to God’s plan from the beginning. We human beings are made in that image and are called to reflect God and to live fully, to live holy lives, to live in peace. Yet, when I reverse my gaze and look back from the heavens at the earth around me, beauty is on the surface, but all the suffering of life is present as well. It is this suffering that Christ came to heal. Just as all things were created in the beginning through and with and for the Logos, the Word of God, so that same Word became one of us in the incarnation to heal us. As we pray in the breviary, this second creation was even more wondrous than the first.

Allow me to offer a word about this suffering Jesus came to heal. A nuance we must not forget, despite what society would have us think, is that pain and suffering are not the enemy. We spend billions each year on avoiding pain through pharmaceuticals or self-medicating through alcohol and drugs. Instead of aspirin for a headache or Pepto-Bismol for our stomach ache, we may need to let our body speak to us and say, drink less or eat healthier.

When I look at the earth around me, beauty is on the surface, but all the suffering of life is present as well. It is this suffering that Christ came to heal.

Nights of suffering, remembered with love

Pain is an important element for our survival because it is the way our body communicates. It worsens if we fail to listen, to learn what our body tells us as we exert ourselves, as we push ourselves, as we age and ache and face life’s final journey. You may remember the famous book by Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled. The first three words say it all: “Life is difficult.” We develop neuroses to avoid that basic truth, but if we accept it, then all kinds of growth and deep inner peace can follow. That is the point of Rainer Maria Rilke’s 10th elegy, which speaks of how we squander our pain when actually it is a life-giving gift. He writes:

That of the clear-struck keys of the heart,
not one may fail to sound because of a loose,
doubtful or broken string!

That my streaming countenance may make me more resplendent,
That my humble weeping change into blossoms.
Oh, how will you then, nights of suffering, be remembered with love.
Why did I not kneel more fervently, disconsolate sisters,
more bendingly kneel to receive you,
more loosely surrender myself to your loosened hair?
How we squander our hours of pain,
gazing beyond them to judge the end of their duration.
They are only our winter’s foliage, our somber evergreen,
one of the seasons of our interior year,—not only season,
but place, settlement, camp, soil and dwelling.

From the Christian perspective, pain can be redemptive, a means to a salvific end—not something to be desired but when experienced, something that can lead to good.

We are created in the image of God, and so we are called to be in relationships. Sin is what breaks down and destroys those relationships. Grace, the love of God, binds them up.

Healing broken relationships

Another fundamental point that I have been pondering is that the heart of all pain is relational. We are created in the image of God, and so we are called to be in relationships. Sin is what breaks down and destroys those relationships. Grace, the love of God, binds them up. All suffering affects our relationships, even if seemingly private. Toothaches make it hard to say “I love you” to someone.

A hard part of sickness is isolation. Elderly people in assisted living are often not afraid of dying but of dying alone. A baby in a crib cries not just because it is hungry or needs a diaper change but because it feels a sense of separation and abandonment, resulting in a cry that pierces to the heavens. This is the pain Jesus gets to: He keeps bringing us back to healthy relationships, and that is how he heals, by relating to us and giving us grace to relate to him and to one another.

Such grace abounds in the sacraments, which draw us into fuller and deeper communion with the mystery of God and the mystery of Christ’s body, the church. It is true to say that Jesus can heal our pain by his teachings and preaching and even through miracles. But we need to realize that the essence of this mystery is our relationship with Christ through baptism, where we become one with Christ in his suffering, death and resurrection. This unity with Christ brings new life as it heals the pain of our broken relationships with God, others and ourselves.

Baptism can be terribly underestimated in our lives. And yet it is the place where we are made sharers in the mystery of God and one with Christ in his paschal mystery.

‘How the light gets in’

Baptism can be terribly underestimated in our lives. And yet it is the place where we are made sharers in the mystery of God and one with Christ in his paschal mystery. It does not mean that we will never suffer or experience pain. It does mean that we will have Christ as our companion who redeems the pain. The Scottish philosopher and theologian John Macmurray wisely observed something like this: “Phony religion: What you worry about will never happen. Real religion: What you worry about probably will happen. But it is nothing to worry about!”

Scripture confirms this. In Matthew we read: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light” (Mt 13:28-39). And again: “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” (Mt 6:25). We are one with the Word, Jesus Christ, who is a healing and effective word: Isaiah foretold this in Chapter 55: “So shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; It shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it” (55:11).

Suffering paves a path for Christ to get to us, to touch our hearts. A song by Leonard Cohen, “Anthem,” speaks to this point:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

Can this be what the woman I met at St. Mary’s Medical Center was experiencing? Suffering opened a crack in her world where she was used to being in control, a world in which she was the architect of her future. Eventually, she realized her own helplessness, her inadequacies, her need for God. Christ was able to get through and heal her heart. There was a space for him to get to her, through the crack opened up by suffering with her.

The Scottish philosopher and theologian John Macmurray wisely observed something like this: “Phony religion: What you worry about will never happen. Real religion: What you worry about probably will happen. But it is nothing to worry about!”

Our illusions of control

Once we encounter this Christ who wants to abide in us, healing begins and we can embrace new life. We are no longer in charge: Christ is there for us. Iain Matthew talks about this in his 1995 book on St. John of the Cross’s spirituality, The Impact of God. He tells the story of a plane crash in a jungle. You desperately are searching for help, trying to get out, forging a path, cutting the underbrush, doing everything you can do to survive. Then you hear the faint sound of a helicopter. Everything changes! Now, your role is to stop, clear a space for the helicopter to land, wait and be open. It involves surrendering control, taking a back seat, so to speak, to God.

This is not easy for us: We are too often so pleased with ourselves. I recall watching a woman and her young daughter who was determined to be very independent. She ordered a hot chocolate herself and brought it back to the table herself, holding the hot cup right in front of her. She then put the cup on the table, which was above her head. The mother quietly moved the cup in a bit so it would not spill on her daughter. The little girl got up on her seat, again with the mother inconspicuously moving the chair in a bit so her daughter would not fall. Then the little girl took a sip of the hot chocolate, leaving a white mustache on her upper lip; she smacked her lips and said, “Ah, that’s good!” The point of this little parable is that the mother brought her to the cafe, paid for the hot chocolate and assisted in the process throughout. We are like that little girl. We think we are doing it all when in fact God is there all the while, giving us what we need to succeed.

The healing Word of Christ is at once shelter and food, security and challenge, intimate and shared, possessed and given away.

‘Go now and heal’

Lent can also help us to celebrate this whole mystery of Christ’s healing presence in our lives. We contemplate the transitus domini: Christ’s giving over of himself for our salvation, our healing. Through the incarnation, Christ became one of us. Picking up on Leonard’s Cohen’s image, Christ entered our little time of history through the opening, the crack, made possible by Mary’s “yes,” which we celebrate in the Annunciation.

The passion of Christ is an invitation to abide in him and be healed. We encounter this most clearly in the Eucharist, where we come together to celebrate this healing, this ultimate reality of our salvation. We hear the healing Word of God proclaimed and preached, and then we are called to go practice it in our daily lives. The dismissal of the priest or deacon at the end of Mass begins with “Go.” Go now and heal, just as you have been healed by Christ, the Word of God. The healing Word of Christ is at once shelter and food, security and challenge, intimate and shared, possessed and given away. To be healed is to be missioned for healing, in the spirit of Henri Nouwen, to become “wounded healers.”

I recall a touching story of a sister of the Society of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the group that Rose Philippine Duchesne brought to the United States in the early 1800s. This sister had said to her spiritual director that she was disturbed by symptoms having to do with her memory. (We would call it Alzheimer’s today.) She described the symptoms and how difficult they were for her because she had a doctorate in chemistry, had written books on the subject and was widely respected. She saw that she was losing everything she held dear: an acute mind, a good memory, the respect of the community and the ability to care for herself. She continued her spiritual direction over the next few months and eventually told her director that she now saw what was happening. God was taking everything away from her, all that was not really hers, until in the end, all that would be left for her was God.

We must see that the healing Word of God in our suffering is about an elderly man in the hospital, going through the metal age of his life, with a smile on his face. It is about a middle-aged woman drawing ever closer to Christ in the midst of constant sickness. Or about a child gently guarded in the task of life by a loving parent. And it is about letting go of the things that are not God, to in the end find only God. It is about being invited into the intimacy of the heart of Christ, abiding in the Father. It is about realizing that when we are open to it, suffering has the power to purge us and cleanse us so that in the end, all that is left is God.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Maria Alderson
1 month ago

I've read innumerable books and articles and columns about God and suffering. This is the best piece ever. Thank you Bishop Wester.

Maria Alderson
1 month ago

Time to read it again.

Michael Bindner
4 weeks 1 day ago

We have to share that the Passion is about God identifying with us and the pains of life and sin rather than making us identify with Him in the face of an angry God.

Penance during Lent is to help the comfortable relate to the sufferings of those for whom life is a struggle already. It is mot for us to relate to God, but to each other.

Michael Bindner
4 weeks 1 day ago

Penance during Lent is to help the comfortable relate to the sufferings of those for whom life is a struggle already. It is mot for us to relate to God, but to each other.

Michael Bindner
4 weeks 1 day ago

One other point. For some people, medication is absolutely necessary for mental health reasons. These meds are not an escape. They are restorative. Please distinguish these from the abuse of opioid and other such addictions.

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