I love discovering, when I travel, that people everywhere share the same universal questions. I spent last summer studying Spanish in Bogotá, Colombia, and found myself one weekend at an academic conference (done rather differently in Latin America). One evening, as many of the PhDs were dancing salsa by the poolside cantina, I ate dinner with a history professor from Argentina. In between bites of beef and yucca, I asked her what her biggest life question was. She answered: “Suffering.” Then she asked me mine. “Beauty.” Then she said she liked that question too.
I don’t have an answer for the problem of suffering. But I also don’t have an answer for the problem of beauty.
Why does God allow disease? Why also does He give us health?
Why are there natural disasters? Why also is each day crowned with a sunset?
Why does He allow us to hate one another, to use each other, to destroy even the best relationships we have? Why also have we been made to love, to listen, to be faithful even until death?
While writing his book on the problem of evil, in response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, David Bentley Hart said he had in mind a photograph from the Baltimore Sun. It was of a Yemeni girl from the lowest social caste, dressed in rags and dancing with a great smile across her face in the middle of the slums. “To me that was a heartbreaking picture… but it was also an image of something amazing and glorious: a child who can dance amid despair and desolation because her joy came with her into the world and prompts her to dance as if she were in the midst of paradise.”
What is this life of ours? All at once, we are torn apart by sorrows and made whole by gratitude. All at once, hidden fears fill our head, while deep down we protect a primordial optimism, a conviction that no matter how bad it gets, life should be better.
Suffering and beauty. Both are mysteries which go together. Both make us cry—a strange and interesting phenomenon. Both wound us (see Pope Benedict), and leave us searching for answers.
The most beautiful event in history was also the worst suffering. We call it Good Friday. Then, God did something very beautiful through suffering, to tell us that “love is strong as death… [that] many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it” (Song 8:7).
Yet the cross is no easy mystery. I still have the notebook from my first college theology class, when I had the beauty of “meeting” Jesus for the first time on Day 1. Right there in the side margin, Day 2, is written: “Why the cross?”
We who believe still ask that question. Why the cross then, and why now in our lives? And how can we endure it like Jesus?
Jesus’s words from the Last Supper help.
“I go to prepare a place for you” (Jn 14:2).
He refers to his Father’s house. Eternal life. We, who tried to keep him on earth so he might fix everything and make everything “okay,” are told instead of another place. I remember certain classmates in grade school who would come over to my house, but never invite me to theirs. Even back then I thought, “Really?!” Jesus, on the other hand, comes to our home to invite us back to his own!
Yet the promise doesn’t dissolve our grief. All the time, our hearts murmur within us, “I wish life wasn’t this way.” And Jesus says to us, “It’s not only this way.” So we live in hope, still waiting to see that land, while now we only see the cross.
Jesus’s words before his Ascension also help.
“I am with you always” (Mt 28:20).
The worst part of suffering is loneliness. Christ who prayed in his agony teaches us the same. Prayer may not miraculously cure us, but we know the name to call upon: if we feel hopeless, we know the name of hope; if we are blinded by depression, that name is our last light in this world; and the name is Jesus. And that name itself is a prayer. And nothing can take it away from us.
Regular friends help too, not necessarily by their advice, but their presence. As a wise and suffering friend once told me, “Tim, I’m telling you this not so you respond, but just so you know.” Point taken. I’ll shut up now…
If a friend is suffering, be with them! Listen to them. That’s it. Show small acts of love in whatever way fits the moment. Acts of love speak simply. They say, as a mother says to her crying child, “I know. I know. I know.” If we keep showing love, it will add up.
So the questions remain.
We are all part of a great mystery. Life is a process of finding God, not of fixing things. In time, we begin to see beyond this life, while still in this life. The process is painful, but possible.
Pray through your sorrows, and stay beside those who sorrow. That is something beautiful, simply stopping to ask how they are, even if we did that yesterday.
Image: Mirai Takahashi, Deep in the Autumn