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During our Stay at Home self-quarantine I saw a meme on social media that said “This is the Lentiest Lent I ever Lented.” That saying often popped into my head through days of struggle when I was trying to maintain calm through changes in so many facets of life at one time: remote work environments, school lessons from home, increased hygiene and cleaning routines, distance from family and friends, and an inability to worship with all of you physically in our Basilica church. While the meme was about Lenten sacrifice, it implied that it was imposed, unwelcome and too severe.
In Holy Week I realized the saying grown for me from “This is the Lentiest Lent I event Lented” to “This is the Holiest Lent I ever Lented.” In this unprecedented time of global sacrifice and solidarity for the common good, we have stripped back the extras in our lives and focused on the fundamentals. I found that core to be family, friends and neighbors, the most vulnerable in our society, and spiritual communion with Jesus in His Lenten suffering (so much more significant than my own).
Leading up to Easter, I was able to virtually attend far more services than my previous schedule allowed. I was able to spend time in prayer and reflection, checking in on family and friends, sharing meals and household supplies with those who didn’t have enough, and sewing masks to offer safety and peace of mind to loved ones.
The greatest gift of this pandemic Lent and Holy Week was being accompanied. I felt the presence of all of you, and hope you felt the presence of our Basilica community. Most of all, I felt accompanied by God. Whenever I felt scared, overwhelmed, impatient, and weak, I found comfort in God and the death and resurrection of Christ.
Today Peter tells us “In this you rejoice, although now for a little while you may have to suffer through various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith…may prove to be for praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” May we all rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy!
With the Coronavirus wreaking havoc in our lives and our world, and causing untold pain and suffering, I was reminded of an essay a friend of mine sent me a few months ago entitled: “The Purpose of Suffering.” Now since I find “suffering” to be among the great mysteries of faith, I was interested in what the author had to say. Frankly and bluntly, I found most of what the author wrote to be pious pablum, but I was stunned when I came upon the sentence: “You can rest assured that God has some greater purpose in mind for you, and that His plan can only be accomplished in the school of affliction and suffering.” This is simply and patently absurd.
Now certainly good can come out of suffering. To suggest, however, that God causes suffering to create some good is simply wrong. We don’t know why suffering exists. It is a mystery of faith why some good and holy people experience pain and suffering in their lives. We can’t explain why innocent people sometimes suffer, or why people who do bad things sometimes don’t experience the consequences of their actions and at times even seem to live lives of ease and comfort. Given this, we need to be honest and admit that we just don’t know the reason suffering exists.
What we do know, though, is important. In the midst of pain and suffering we know and believe that God is with us and that God is offering us God’s good grace. Grace is who God is, and grace can be found, perhaps most especially, in the depths of pain and suffering. If we pray and are open to God, we can discover grace arising from the worst kind of pain, and from the great depths of terrible suffering. God doesn't cause suffering and pain, but God is there with us in the midst of suffering and pain.
In his book, Night, Eli Weisel told the story of witnessing the hanging of a young Dutch boy for collaborating with the Nazis. For more than an hour the child in the noose stayed there struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony. Weisel said; “And we had to look him full in the face. He was still alive when I passed in front of him. His tongue was red, his eyes not yet glazed. Behind me I heard a man asking ‘Where is God now?’ And I heard a voice within me answer him: ‘Where is He? Here He is—He is hanging here on this gallows….”
I think Weisel’s insight is important. While God does not cause and does not prevent our suffering, God is with us and for us in all of our pain and suffering. We need to remember this—most especially at this time—on this Easter day. Jesus’ resurrection reminds us that pain, suffering, trials, and even death, will not have the final word, God will. And God’s word is life—life in abundance. God abides with us always, wanting to share God’s life with us. And in our prayer—if we are open to it—we will find God gently enfolding us in God’s love and strengthening us with God’s grace.
Certainly suffering can reveal to us a greater purpose or provide a deeper insight. To suggest, though, that God causes suffering so that an individual can come to understand some greater purpose demeans God and suggests that God is capricious, and at times down right mean. I can’t believe in this kind of God. If people want to continue to suggest that God causes suffering for some noble purpose, I’d suggest that God sue for defamation of character.