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The Suffering

Each week includes Scripture reading, guided questions, application points and moments of reflection to delve into the heart of suffering, ask the hard questions, and lean into the Man of Sorrows himself, knowing he is already acquainted with our grief.

The Suffering

I, like you, have heard the clichés: that life is a gift and suffering is inherent to human life, that it provides regrettable though indispensable opportunities to build our souls, that the greatest works of art transmute sorrow, grief, misery and anguish into something greater, nobler and higher. Yet none of these platitudes or hackneyed phrases or truisms offers much comfort, solace, relief or succor in our moments of unbearable loss or agonizing pain.

When I think of the kinds of departmental and interdisciplinary classes that would most help my students as they enter adulthood, a course that wrestled with suffering strikes me as ideal. But in addition to approaching the topic from an artistic, literary, philosophical and theological lens, such a course or course cluster should look at the topic from the perspective of law, public policy and sociology.

Understanding justice can help you think more critically about the scope and limits of your responsibility to care for those who are less fortunate than yourself. Understanding different justice viewpoints can help you to make sense of many current social and political issues, such as debates about reforming the health care system, caring for uninsured Americans, and rationing health care. Knowledge about the social and economic forces that drive risk for disease and suffering can help you enlarge your vision of individual power and responsibility.

2. The theme of suffering - precisely under the aspect of this salvific meaning - seems to fit profoundly into the context of the Holy Year of the Redemption as an extraordinary Jubilee of the Church. And this circumstance too clearly favours the attention it deserves during this period. Independently of this fact, it is a universal theme that accompanies man at every point on earth: in a certain sense it co-exists with him in the world, and thus demands to be constantly reconsidered. Even though Paul, in the Letter to the Romans, wrote that "the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now"(3), even though man knows and is close to the sufferings of the animal world, nevertheless what we express by the word "suffering" seems to be particularly essential to the nature of man. It is as deep as man himself, precisely because it manifests in its own way that depth which is proper to man, and in its own way surpasses it. Suffering seems to belong to man's transcendence: it is one of those points in which man is in a certain sense "destined" to go beyond himself, and he is called to this in a mysterious way.

3. The theme of suffering in a special way demands to be faced in the context of the Holy Year of the Redemption, and this is so, in the first place, because the Redemption was accomplished through the Cross of Christ, that is, through his suffering. And at the same time, during the Holy Year of the Redemption we recall the truth expressed in the Encyclical Redemptor Hominis: in Christ "every man becomes the way for the Church"(4). It can be said that man in a special fashion becomes the way for the Church when suffering enters his life. This happens, as we know, at different moments in life, it takes place in different ways, it assumes different dimensions; nevertheless, in whatever form, suffering seems to be, and is, almost inseparable from man's earthly existence.

Assuming then that throughout his earthly life man walks in one manner or another on the long path of suffering, it is precisely on this path that the Church at all times - and perhaps especially during the Holy Year of the Redemption - should meet man. Born of the mystery of Redemption in the Cross of Christ, the Church has to try to meet man in a special way on the path of his suffering. In this meeting man "becomes the way for the Church", and this way is one of the most important ones.

5. Even though in its subjective dimension, as a personal fact contained within man's concrete and unrepeatable interior, suffering seems almost inexpressible and not transferable, perhaps at the same time nothing else requires as much as does suffering, in its "objective reality", to be dealt with, meditated upon, and conceived as an explicit problem; and that therefore basic questions be asked about it and the answers sought. It is evident that it is not a question here merely of giving a description of suffering. There are other criteria which go beyond the sphere of description, and which we must introduce when we wish to penetrate the world of human suffering.

Medicine, as the science and also the art of healing, discovers in the vast field of human sufferings the best known area, the one identified with greater precision and relatively more counterbalanced by the methods of "reaction" (that is, the methods of therapy). Nonetheless, this is only one area. The field of human suffering is much wider, more varied, and multi-dimensional. Man suffers in different ways, ways not always considered by medicine, not even in its most advanced specializations. Suffering is something which is still wider than sickness, more complex and at the same time still more deeply rooted in humanity itself. A certain idea of this problem comes to us from the distinction between physical suffering and moral suffering. This distinction is based upon the double dimension of the human being and indicates the bodily and spiritual element as the immediate or direct subject of suffering. Insofar as the words "suffering" and "pain", can, up to a certain degree, be used as synonyms, physical suffering is present when "the body is hurting" in some way, whereas moral suffering is "pain of the soul". In fact, it is a question of pain of a spiritual nature, and not only of the "psychological" dimension of pain which accompanies both moral and physical suffering The vastness and the many forms of moral suffering are certainly no less in number than the forms of physical suffering. But at the same time, moral suffering seems as it were less identified and less reachable by therapy.

6. Sacred Scripture is a great book about suffering. Let us quote from the books of the Old Testament a few examples of situations which bear the signs of suffering, and above all moral suffering: the danger of death(5), the death of one's own children(6) and, especially, the death of the firstborn and only son(7); and then too: the lack of offspring(8), nostalgia for the homeland(9), persecution and hostility of the environment(10), mockery and scorn of the one who suffers(11), loneliness and abandonment(12); and again: the remorse of conscience(13), the difficulty of understanding why the wicked prosper and the just suffer(14), the unfaithfulness and ingratitude of friends and neighbours(15); and finally: the misfortunes of one's own nation(16).

In treating the human person as a psychological and physical "whole", the Old Testament often links "moral" sufferings with the pain of specific parts of the body: the bones(17), kidneys(18), liver(19), viscera(20), heart(21). In fact one cannot deny that moral sufferings have a "physical" or somatic element, and that they are often reflected in the state of the entire organism.

7. As we see from the examples quoted, we find in Sacred Scripture an extensive list of variously painful situations for man. This varied list certainly does not exhaust all that has been said and constantly repeated on the theme of suffering by the book of the history of man (this is rather an "unwritten book"), and even more by the book of the history of humanity, read through the history of every human individual.

It can be said that man suffers whenever he experiences any kind of evil. In the vocabulary of the Old Testament, suffering and evil are identified with each other. In fact, that vocabulary did not have a specific word to indicate "suffering". Thus it defined as " evil" everything that was suffering(22). Only the Greek language, and together with it the New Testament (and the Greek translations of the Old Testament), use the verb * = "I am affected by .... I experience a feeling, I suffer"; and, thanks to this verb, suffering is no longer directly identifiable with (objective) evil, but expresses a situation in which man experiences evil and in doing so becomes the subject of suffering. Suffering has indeed both a subjective and a passive character (from "patior"). Even when man brings suffering on himself, when he is its cause, this suffering remains something passive in its metaphysical essence.

This does not however mean that suffering in the psychological sense is not marked by a specific "activity". This is in fact that multiple and subjectively differentiated "activity" of pain, sadness, disappointment, discouragement or even despair, according to the intensity of the suffering subject and his or her specific sensitivity. In the midst of what constitutes the psychological form of suffering there is always an experience of evil, which causes the individual to suffer.

8. In itself human suffering constitutes as it were a specific "world" which exists together with man, which appears in him and passes, and sometimes does not pass, but which consolidates itself and becomes deeply rooted in him. This world of suffering, divided into many, very many subjects, exists as it were "in dispersion". Every individual, through personal suffering, constitutes not only a small part of that a world", but at the same time" that world" is present in him as a finite and unrepeatable entity. Parallel with this, however, is the interhuman and social dimension. The world of suffering possesses as it were its own solidarity. People who suffer become similar to one another through the analogy of their situation, the trial of their destiny, or through their need for understanding and care, and perhaps above all through the persistent question of the meaning of suffering. Thus, although the world of suffering exists "in dispersion", at the same time it contains within itself a. singular challenge to communion and solidarity. We shall also try to follow this appeal in the present reflection. 041b061a72


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