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Gregory HillisFebruary 05, 2024
A painting of Julian of Norwich by Stephen Reid, 1912. (Wikimedia Commons)

“Since you have given Greg a share in your own passion,
help him to find hope in suffering,
for you are Lord forever and ever.”

These were words I didn’t expect to hear from my priest, certainly not words I expected to hear while lying in a hospital bed. Only two days before, I had felt fine as I gave out candy at Halloween—and ate candy that my kids procured from our neighbors. Now I was in the hospital receiving the Sacrament of Anointing, having been diagnosed with cancer of the bile ducts shortly after I came to the emergency room complaining of sudden pain in my right chest and shoulder.

It is jarring to sit in a fluorescent-lit room and be told you have cancer. I instantly ceased being a healthy middle-aged person who had never really suffered to being someone whose entire existence was now identified and threatened by a disease we all fear. But it was similarly jarring to hear a priest pray that I might “find hope in suffering,” like having cancer was something I could or should acknowledge as a good thing.

As a cancer patient, I’m more interested in a God who sympathizes with my sufferings, not from a distance, but who can accompany me as one who intimately knows what it means to suffer.

As a theology professor, I have gone through the arguments about theodicy in the classroom, the question of how we can reconcile the reality of a God who is love and who is omnipotent with the existence of evil and suffering among God’s creation. But I have done so in a necessarily dispassionate manner, as someone who hasn’t actually experienced much in the way of genuine suffering.

The cancer diagnosis changed that. Two days after I had been admitted to the hospital for various tests and scans to determine the extent of the disease, my 12-year-old asked me a question that showed he was trying to wrestle with the reality of suffering himself, the suffering of having a father with a potentially terminal diagnosis: “Is it okay for me to be angry at God about this?” Anger in these circumstances is a normal response, an entirely appropriate response, and I told him so. His dad had cancer and he had a sense that God was somehow to blame.

Asking why of God

This is a refrain I have heard frequently as a professor of theology. When I taught an introductory theology course at my previous institution, I would have students write spiritual autobiographies that outlined how they came to believe what they did about God and why. Many, probably most, of my students no longer practiced the religion in which they had been raised, and while the reasons for their non-affiliation were complex, how my students portrayed God was consistent. To their minds, and I think this conception of God is widespread, God causes everything—or at least allows bad things to occur. So when bad things happen to us or others, God is to blame.

It’s no wonder they were angry and disillusioned.

Her experience of the profundity of God’s love led Julian to ask God the question that has plagued humanity for centuries: If God is love and loves us so deeply, then why do evil and suffering exist?

Divine love

A friend asked if he could bring anything to me at the hospital from my office, and I asked him to bring my copy of Julian of Norwich’s Showings. Julian, a 14th-century mystic who lived as an anchoress in solitude in Norwich, England, is one of my favorite figures, and her book—sometimes called Revelations of Divine Love—is one I’ve read repeatedly. Although I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time, I knew there was something in her book that I needed to read.

In this book, Julian recounts 16 mystical revelations she received on May 13, 1373, while sick in bed with what others thought was a mortal illness. After contemplating the meaning of these revelations over a 15-year period, Julian recorded in detail the meaning of what she saw.

As she explained in the final pages of Showings, the revelations were entirely about divine love. As God responded when asked about the meaning of what she saw, “Know it well, love was his meaning. Who reveals it to you? Love. What did he reveal to you? Love. Why does he reveal it to you? For love.”

Throughout the book, Julian expounds on the experiences she had of God’s tender and all-encompassing love for us. God’s love for us is so “high, surpassing, [and] immeasurable” that we cannot comprehend it. And yet this love for us is so intimate that Julian equates it with the love of a mother for her child, and famously calls God “our Mother in nature, our Mother in grace.”

But this experience of the profundity of God’s love led Julian to ask God the question that has plagued humanity for centuries: If God is love and loves us so deeply, then why do evil and suffering exist?

Julian received two responses to her question, the first being that God will perform a deed on the last day of the world by which God “will make all things well.” At another point, Jesus tells her, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” Precisely what this means is much debated, but Julian appears to understand by this phrase that God will ultimately overcome all evil, all sin and all suffering in such a way that humanity can and will experience the profound love of God.

It is clear that Julian took great comfort in these words. Indeed, she wrote that God uttered them because “God wishes us to be enclosed in rest and in peace.”

I will admit there is something comforting about the notion that God will ultimately make all things right, but it was not this that compelled me to ask for Julian of Norwich’s book in the hospital. For all the comfort that this idea brings, it doesn’t take into account those of us who are suffering now. What about those who, like me, have a potentially terminal diagnosis and are undergoing grueling treatment? What about those suffering in mind, body and spirit, whether it be through illness, oppression, poverty, war or the seemingly countless other ways people suffer? What is God doing now?

The power of the cross

Julian provides another response that I find more compelling, both in terms of what it tells me about God and what it tells me about how God relates to my suffering. Julian’s first few revelations, her first few mystical experiences, are of Jesus suffering on the cross. Julian occasionally goes into graphic detail as she watches Jesus die. She describes seeing blood streaming down Jesus’ head, “hot and flowing freely and copiously,” as well as seeing Jesus receive so many blows from the scourging that “everything seemed to be blood.” She recounts watching his skin wilt and change color as it took upon itself “a shriveled image of death,” about seeing the nail wounds expand and grow wide because of the weight of Jesus’ body, and about the ways in which his skin was scraped and broken into fragments by his wounds.

Julian intends her graphic account of Christ’s suffering to underline the depth of God’s love for us. She learned through these early revelations that God “is our clothing, who wraps and unfolds us for love, embraces us and shelters us, surrounds us for his life, which is so tender that he may never desert us.” God’s love is so profound that there is simply no way for us to comprehend it. It is so great that God refused to stand aloof from our suffering, watching it dispassionately from a distance. Instead, God became human and suffered, and in so doing, “he saw and he sorrowed for every [person’s] sorrow, desolation and anguish.”

And here is the kicker: Although he rose again and can no longer suffer, Julian still writes, “he suffers with us” even now when we suffer.

If we come to understand that God suffers alongside us as one who truly knows what it means to suffer, our anger morphs into love and our suffering mysteriously becomes a means of transformation.

Suffering and transcendence

There are strands within Catholicism that focus primary attention on the transcendence of God, God’s unchangeability and otherness. Even when celebrating the Eucharist, the focus is on the divinity of Jesus, such that the humility of the Incarnation seems sometimes to be forgotten as an inconvenient truth.

Divine transcendence is absolutely central to Christian theology, but it is central to our belief, particularly in light of the Incarnation. For it is when we understand the otherness of God that we can comprehend the depth of love on display in the person of Jesus Christ. Only when we affirm God’s impassibility—the idea that God cannot, in God’s divinity, experience suffering—can we have some comprehension of what it means to affirm that God experienced suffering in the person of Jesus Christ.

For understandable reasons, theologians have wanted to put all kinds of qualifiers on the idea of God’s suffering in Jesus. St. Cyril of Alexandria, for example, stated that, in Jesus Christ, God “suffered impassibly”; that is, without really suffering. I have to admit that I’m not all that interested in those qualifiers these days, and neither was Julian of Norwich. As a cancer patient, I’m more interested in a God who sympathizes with my sufferings, not from a distance, but who can accompany me as one who intimately knows what it means to suffer. I take most comfort right now in a God who suffered profoundly in Jesus Christ and, in some mysterious way, now suffers alongside me and alongside all who suffer.

In his memoir, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer, the poet Christian Wiman wrote about coming to faith in the wake of a cancer diagnosis. There he wrote:

I am a Christian because of that moment on the cross when Jesus, drinking the very dregs of human bitterness, cries out, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? (I know, I know: he was quoting the Psalms, and who quotes a poem when being tortured. The words aren’t the point. The point is that he felt human destitution to its absolute degree; the point is that God is with us, not beyond us, in suffering.)

This makes all kinds of sense to me in my current context. I may not have a theologically satisfying answer to why suffering occurs (in fact, I’ve yet to encounter a truly satisfying answer), but the Incarnation teaches us that God enters into our suffering and accompanies us as a parent accompanies and suffers alongside a suffering child. And it is this message that I communicated to my 12-year-old.

Anger with God in the face of suffering makes sense if we think of God as the cause of that suffering or if we perceive God to look upon our suffering with a kindly, but impotent, benevolence. But if we come to understand that God suffers alongside us as one who truly knows what it means to suffer, our anger morphs into love and our suffering mysteriously becomes a means of transformation.

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