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Posted June 22, 2007

Suffering Writ Large

I. “If we suffer, we must be willing to acknowledge the suffering.”

II. “If we wish to understand suffering, we must first understand God.”

Those two points are presented by Father Joseph J. Guido, a psychology professor at Dominican-run Providence College in Rhode Island, in an article in the college’s spring 2007 “Reflections on the Human Vocation.” The Dominican priest interrelates the thinking of the 14th-century St. Julian of Norwich and the contemporary Jewish psychologist Kenneth Pargament, applying it to the suffering – sometimes great suffering – people experience today.

Father Guido advises that “God waits to be found amidst the suffering.” However, the priest adds, God is not waiting to be found “in pious bromides that serve only to temper (suffering’s) symptoms but leave its cause undaunted.”

The writer suggests that we avoid “pious platitudes” when working with others who suffer as well, but not that we avoid words altogether.

Father Guido quotes Eastern Orthodox theologian David B. Hart, who has written that in the face of human suffering, “pious platitudes and words of comfort” can seem futile or banal. Father Guido says, “The fact and enormity of human suffering demand a measure of reverence and humility.”

Still, says Father Guido, “if we must speak cautiously of God amidst adversity we must nevertheless speak. Indeed, the alternative – not to speak – exacts an intolerable toll and betrays an imperative that is both deeply human and divine. … To live as human beings is to find and use words to confect meaning even in the most difficult of circumstances.”

Father Guido adds: “If this meaning is to be more than mere invention, it must inhere in some truth about God. The question then becomes, Where can we find God amidst suffering?”

Father Guido advises those who suffer to “be willing to acknowledge the suffering.” He says, “Little good can come from denying suffering, and certainly no good can come from our attempt to enlist God in our denial.”

But the writer next tells readers that to understand suffering, they must first understand God. Father Guido comments: “God is neither tame nor arbitrary, not simply understood or accommodating of our wishes, but also not mean, perverse or directly willing our suffering. His will is mysterious but also infinite in its compassion and love.”

What can happen is that in light of their suffering, people find they need to understand God anew or more deeply. On this point Father Guido turns to the thinking of Pargament, who, he notes, has spoken of overwhelming experiences of adversity that “threaten our customary ways of thinking about and relating to God.”

Father Guido writes: “In the face of such experience, Pargament says that the challenge is not to conserve meaning and significance but to allow for its transformation and so, in effect, to re-find God and the sacred.”

This, says Father Guido, isn’t easy; it calls for “the ability to weather transition,” and “fidelity becomes its pre-eminent virtue for, at times, staying the course of faith can take virtually all that we have to give.”

To know the meaning of suffering, we must:

1. “Draw close to God,” which “may well entail finding him anew,” says Father Guido.

2. “Let (God) draw near to us so that we can know his love of us and with it our redemption from suffering.”