James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you." And he said to them, "What is it you want me to do for you?" And they said to him, "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory." But Jesus said to them, "You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?" They replied, "We are able." Then Jesus said to them, "The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared." When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, "You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many." Mark 10:35-45
You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?
Suffering, if you survive it, if you crawl out from under it, can teach compassion, promote solidarity, expand consciousness. Suffering intensifies the thirst for justice and strengthens you for service. How can you be truly happy if others are suffering? If you are strong, you’re honor bound to protect the weak and your self-sacrifice places you in continual jeopardy and danger. Even the slightest mote of conscience can turn care free ignorance into uncomfortable awareness and empathic suffering. When he said “All Life is Suffering,” the Buddha wasn’t kidding.
Following Jesus presupposes this embrace of suffering in service of compassion. The “Suffering Servant” passages of Isaiah inspired the very core of how Jesus lived in the world.
But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.... Out of his anguish he shall see light; he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge. The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. Isaiah 53:5, 11
Some extraordinary human beings turn suffering to triumph and even find compassion for their torturers (Meditation One). A mark of spiritual maturity is the ability to embrace “without numbness” the suffering of God (Meditation Two). This kind of love has its cost (Meditation Three).
Padre Pio said, “The most Beautiful Creed is the one we pronounce in our hour of darkness.” I hope this week's prompts offer some grounding for that creed when the time comes.
Ever inching toward that ground, -Suzanne
Meditation One (introit) suffering and compassion When Josephine Bakhita (1869-1947) was nine years old, Arab slave traders kidnapped her from her village in the Darfur region of Sudan.Josephine eventually became a Roman Catholic nun and was canonized in 2000. Describing one scene of many horrors of her life as a slave, Josephine Bakhita writes, One day I unwittingly made a mistake that incensed the master's son. He became furious, snatched me violently from my hiding place, and began to strike me ferociously with the lash and his feet. Finally he left me half dead, completely unconscious. Some slaves carried me away and lay me on a straw mat, where I remained for over a month. A woman skilled in this cruel art [tattooing] came to the general's house...our mistress stood behind us, whip in hand. The woman had a dish of white flour, a dish of salt and a razor... When she had made her patterns; the woman took the razor and made incisions along the lines. Salt was poured into each of the wounds... My face was spared, but 6 patterns were designed on my breasts, and 60 more on my belly and arms. I thought I would die, especially when salt was poured in the wounds...it was by a miracle of God I didn't die. God had destined me for better things.
If I were to meet the slave-traders who kidnapped me and even those who tortured me, I would kneel and kiss their hands, for if that did not happen, I would not be a Christian and Religious today… The Lord has loved me so much: we must love everyone… we must be compassionate!
Judas dips his bread into the cup, Russian Icon, 1497 detail
"Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?" -Mark 10:38
And going a little farther, he fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him.And he said, "Abba, Father, all things are possible to thee; remove this cup from me; yet not what I will, but what thou wilt." -Mark14:35-36 Jesus said to Peter, "Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup which the Father has given me? -John 18:11
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. -Romans 6:3-4
*Christians and Pagans
People turn to God when they’re in need, plead for help, contentment, and for bread, for rescue from their sickness, guilt, and death. They all do so, both Christian and pagan.
People turn to God in God’s own need, and find God poor, degraded, without roof or bread, see God devoured by sin, weakness, and death. Christians stand with God to share God’s pain.
God turns to all people in their need, nourishes body and soul with God’s own bread, takes up the cross for Christians and pagans, both, and in forgiving both, is slain.
-Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945 (written July, 1944) A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (eds GB Kelly and FB Nelson (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1990), p. 549.
Unknown Illustrator of Petrus Comestor's Bible Historiale, 1372
Meal at Bethany: Mary anoints Jesus with costly ointment of pure nard. Jesus said, "Let her alone, let her keep it for the day of my burial." -John 12:7
Meditation Two (insight) inconsolability
“Inconsolability” is a concept that Heinrich Boll endeavored to introduce into the discussion of aesthetics. Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) expressed the basic idea in his well-known poem “Christians and Pagans”* and did so with great Protestant simplicity. It is not hopelessness or despair or consolation in the sense of a present or future abolition of suffering but, in the first instance, a holding firmly onto agony against every possibility of escaping into numbness. “Christians stand with God in God's suffering.” From the initial situation of seeking help from God (“pleading for help, praying for fortune and bread”) that is common to pagans and Christians and which Bonhoeffer would have called “the religion of those not come of age,” the way of discipleship leads to “being dragged into the messianic suffering of God in Jesus Christ” in which human beings share in God's impotence. “This is the very reversal of everything the religious person expects from God. Humans are called to share in God's suffering, to suffer with God the godlessness of the world.”
-Dorothee Soelle The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance, p.151-2
Meditation Three (integration)
Addressed to Peter who wants to build booths on the Mount of Transfiguration:
Come down, (from the mount) to labour in the earth; in the earth to serve, to be despised, and crucified in the earth. The Life came down, that He might be slain; the Bread came down, that He might hunger; the Way came down, that life might be wearied in the way; the Fountain came down, that He might thirst; and do you refuse to labour?
-Augustine 354-430 Sermon 28
If it were given to a man to see virtue's reward in the next world, he would occupy his intellect, memory and will in nothing but good works, careless of danger or fatigue.
-Catherine of Genoa 1447-1510
Let us not love by words alone, but let us love until it hurts.
-Mother Teresa of Calcutta 1910-1997
The Last Word
When it is all over you will not regret having suffered; rather you will regret having suffered so little, and suffered that little so badly.
-Sebastian Valfre 1629-1710
The Alchemy of Suffering
To be engaged with the world is to suffer. Even after the painful trauma of birth is over, a little child suffers the pains of the digestive system learning to manage itself, first teeth breaking slowly through the gums, the panic as mother incomprehensibly leaves the room even for a moment. In the best of economic and social circumstances, there is always sickness, tragedy, death, unexplainable twists of fate, love-sickness, home-sickness, hurtful disagreements, mental illness, the death of loved ones. Add poverty, war, natural disasters, political oppression, and brutality and you have life. How can I bear this suffering?
Christians, who ritually embrace the suffering of Christ and the world in worship can nevertheless devolve into Why did God do this to me? Why isn't God answering my prayers? during a bout of suffering as if God is a personal necromancer and prayer a magical incantation.
By concentrating on the exclusively personal in this way I can avoid the questions pertaining to both theodicy and personal responsibility as a human being. If I wallow in Why did God do this to me? I don't have to worry about someone half 'way around the world, or even down the street, for that matter.
But the moment my suffering meets your suffering, the moment our eyes meet, an alchemical change takes place. I am in you and you are in me. Suffering makes us one. I help bear your suffering and you help bear mine. Learning to suffer with you, I learn empathy for others I don't know. Suffering opens my soul to love.
And when my suffering and your suffering meet God's suffering, we become one in that suffering, incarnate in the world, bearing this suffering with the Holy Unknowable. Christian practice helps me to trust living in the incomprehensible vortex of the cross. My suffering, your suffering, God's suffering, bringing forth new life. And new love. How can I bear this joy?
What does love look like? It has the hands to help others. It has the feet to hasten to the poor and needy. It has eyes to see misery and want. It has the ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of men. That is what love looks like.
-St. Augustine of Hippo 354-430
Oh, my Lord! How true it is that whoever works for you is paid in troubles! And what a precious price to those who love you if we understand its value.
-Teresa of Avila 1515-1582
The purest suffering bears and carries in its train the purest understanding.