My thoughts and reflections on my Catholic Faith, Fulton Sheen, the problem of suffering, and books

Monday, June 18, 2012

Suffering, and the Book of Job

Those of you who read this blog are probably sick and tired of the (semi-) frequent posts about suffering.
"After all," you may think, "'Hurt-ey,' (despite her name), seems to have it pretty easy.  Good health, a roof over her head, and now that she's graduated, no job.  She must have plenty of time to just kick back and have fun!"
While it's true that I've been spending too much time doing mindless things and procrastinating from job-hunting, that doesn't mean that the weeks since Graduation have been a bed of roses.  Frankly, I don't like being jobless; I hate the inactivity.  And, I've had plenty of other things to deal with that have not been fun or easy.

I guess you could say that I've had plenty of suffering in my own life, but I never really think of this or that daily struggle, or this or that latest pain caused by my mother's mental illness, as "suffering."  I never really think of those things at all: they just kind of crop up and I fail miserably in how I handle them.

Suffering is a part of everyone's life, so everyone--to some degree or other--has to face the question of suffering.  Some people face it head-on, in their own lives, and maybe it doesn't matter whether or not they're consciously aware that "I am suffering and I need to ask God to give me the grace to bear this cross n union with His."  Or maybe they do need to at least to get to the point--and I am a million miles away from this point--where they can take that pain and offer it up.  I don't know.  If I figure it out before I'm dead and in Purgatory, I'll let y'all know.  [I'm from Kentucky, which is the South, therefore I can say "y'all."]  ;)

When I think about "suffering," I tend to view it in a very far-off, distant, speculative light.  I'm generally dealing with it because I see my friends suffering and I don't know what to do, how to respond, what to say to them.

Sheen advises going for counsel to those who have suffered: "When one is looking for counsel, it is always well to seek out those who themselves have suffered.  There is much more wisdom acquired from patiently bearing suffering than there is from books.  No one is ever consoled by having a moral theology flung at their head."  [Guide to Contentment, quoted in the anthology From the Angel's Blackboard: the Best of Fulton J. Sheen: a Centennial Celebration, (Liguori, MO: Triumph Books, 1995), 95.]

That is why, when I needed advice in how to deal with the "problems" and "struggles" of daily life, I went to a man who has suffered very much, namely, Christendom's beloved History Professor, who fought cancer in 2011. Because he has suffered, I knew that his advice was not going to be vague theological or philosophical speculations or mere platitudes.  [I hate platitudes, no matter how true they are (and there is a degree of truth to them, because otherwise they would not have become platitudes, as that professor told me).]  I knew that his advice would be helpful because it would be practical, because he had lived this advice, because he had experienced suffering.

Some people's response to seeing other people suffer is to try to give "advice" or to offer quack solutions, to say, for instance, "You got cancer because you didn't eat the right diet, or because you weren't taking this-or-that dietary supplement."  People respond like this because they are trying to console themselves with the thought that it won't happen to them.  "When the evil of the fallen universe strikes someone close to you, it reminds you that it could happen to you, and people don't like this--it makes them uncomfortable."  So they try to put the blame on the person who is suffering: "If it's your fault, it won't happen to them."[1]

That was the attitude of Job's friends.  This professor told me that he had come to understand the point of Job a little more each year that he taught it, and he finally felt like he had "gotten it" the semester before he got cancer.  So I asked him for his thoughts on Job, and read the book myself before our conversation.

"Job was upright, pure, holy--and he gets nailed with ludicrous levels of suffering."  His 'friends' (aka 'Job's comforters') deal with his suffering by trying to rationalize it, to explain it away, to find a reason for it, to blame it on him.  "Elihu rebukes them for trying to find human logic in Job's suffering and for saying he deserves it.  It's not that he deserves it more than someone else.  The scary answer is the truth: that could be you.  The thing about suffering in this fallen universe is that every one of us has exposure to it: we could be Job at a moment's notice."[2]  "There is a randomness associated with suffering.  You can't (always) blame people when evil strikes them.  It doesn't mean it won't happen to you, because we live in a fallen universe and we can't control all the variables."[1]

The thing with suffering is that we will never fully grasp it.  The Book of Job "is profound in helping us come to terms with suffering, in helping us to see that there's no logic in human terms that can be perceived by us," because suffering "is a mystery of Providence."  And what we have to do with it, instead of trying to grasp it intellectually [note to self], is "to trust blindly that we're in the hands of a loving God Who knows more than we do and sees more than we do."  "God has a purpose that's veiled and hidden from us."[2]

Suffering cannot be explained away or rationalized.  Job "is a man out of time who's as righteous, holy, just, and pure as a man can be, and this is what Divine Providence ordained because somehow in God's loving vision that was how things should be."  Job doesn't need his sufferings explained away; he "needs comfort and consolation, and that's what his friends don't give him."[2]

That "comfort and consolation" is ultimately what someone needs when he's suffering.  Offer companionship, conversation, be there for the person who is suffering.[1]

Finally, the story of Job concludes with the restoration of his property: "And the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before.  . . .  And the Lord blessed the latter end of Job more than the beginning) (Job 42:10, 12, Douay-Rheims version,  Dr. McGuire summarized the point of Job as this: "If you're faithful, if you trust in God, if you stay true to your acceptance of His Providence, you're guaranteed this kind of Job-like restoration at the end."[2]

[1]Awesome History Professor, conversation with Hurt-ey, April 26, 2012.
[2]Awesome History Professor, conversation with Hurt-ey, April 13, 2012.

My final thoughts now that I've typed all that out and had a chance to think through it:

When I see my friends suffering, I should not offer pity (see my earlier post, "Compassion," for my explanation of the differences between "sympathy," "pity," and "compassion": (http://theological-librarian., or try to rationalize away their suffering, but instead I should listen to them, be there for them.  Now, this is me writing in a moment when I'm not having to deal with that, and I know that my brain will probably freeze and I won't be able to do anything, or I'll do the wrong thing, or I'll put my foot in my mouth.  But, I'll try...

Not to end this post on a selfish note or anything, but I still haven't figured out how to deal with suffering in my own life, how to not freak out when XYZ happens.  Because it's very easy to look at it objectively (although writing this blog post has been ridiculously hard), when it's in the life of someone else.  It's also easy to get overly mushy and sentimental because I see someone that I love suffering, but I don't how to help, yet I want to help, I want to take away his pain, because I love him.  Then let that "splinter from the Cross," (Sheen, "God and War") touch me in my own life, and...any thoughts of faith and hope and love, of "offering it up," of St. Paul's I "fill up those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ, in my flesh, for [H]is [B]ody, which is the Church"...any thoughts of those inspiring words flee, and I get frustrated, or angry, or dissolve into a puddle of tears.  I don't know.  If I ever figure it out, I'll let y'all know!

Trust, ultimately, is what I need in order to deal with suffering.  I need to be able to "trust blindly that I'm in the hands of a loving God" Who, more than my family, more than my professors, loves me unconditionally.  I need to trust that He knows what He's doing, that He's got me, that He's "there for" me more than any of my friends ever could be.

Now, it's easy for me to say and write all this now, 'cause I'm not going through anything particularly rough.  But when the next curveball hits, I guarantee you I will be either fuming mad or crying like a baby; it will take a miracle if I'm walking around saying through gritted teeth, "Okay, Lord, I'm trusting You right now, I'm trying, I'm trying, and You know I stink at trust, but I'm trying!"

"Suffering love alone can bring us to our senses and the real meaning of life"--Fulton Sheen

Yours in all things Theological,

1 comment:

  1. You are absolutely right. NO ONE has it easy, really. Everyone has some kind of nasty problem or other to deal with.
    Oh, Job's friends! I just love their "consolations." They're actually quite funny, from one point of view.
    At any rate, good luck! :( I'll be praying for you. I plan on going into Church tonight.