The Word Among Us

July 2009 Issue

You Are Not Alone

A new book teaches us about suffering and love.

By: Jill Boughton

Suffering is certainly a part of our human condition.

We see it all around us and hear about it on the nightly news, yet we are often surprised when we confront it ourselves. All this suffering can’t help raising questions about our loving God and his plan for us. Indeed, people have been writing on the mystery and meaning of suffering for millennia—from the Book of Job to the Church Fathers to the best-selling twentieth-century rabbi who wondered “why bad things happen to good people.”

Can there be anything left to say? Wondering yet willing to learn, I picked up Fr. Jude Winkler’s new book, I Cry to You, O Lord!

Reflecting on God’s Word. An experienced preacher, retreat master, and confessor, Fr. Winkler reflects on Scripture in a way that invites us to ponder our own experience of the mystery and meaning of suffering and to consider some practical responses. I found refreshing glimpses of the Holy Spirit in these scriptural reflections. Clearly, Fr. Jude is not offering exhaustive teachings on the meaning of particular passages. Instead, he disarms his readers with gentle suggestions: Perhaps this is one way we could reflect on this story. In a striking example, he juxtaposes the creation of Eve from Adam’s rib with the piercing of the Savior’s side by a lance.

Many of the author’s metaphors drew me into meditation. From St. Augustine, he talks about “swimming around” in the ocean of a mystery like suffering. He also compares God to “a parent who sees a child doing something that is self-destructive and dangerous. . . . God loves us but hates the sin that is slowly killing us. Might God be angry when we sin? Of course God is angry, but not at us. God is angry for us.”

Along the same lines, Fr. Winkler offers this thought-provoking reflection: “The goal of a good parent is not to make one’s children happy; it is to call them to be the most they can be.R#8221; Might God be doing this with us?

We’re in This Together. I Cry to You, O Lord! contains one overarching insight that I found particularly compelling: an emphasis on the communal dimension of suffering. Accepted in the right way, says Fr. Jude, suffering can unite us both with other Christians and with our heavenly Father.

He acknowledges that when we are in the midst of suffering, we naturally feel isolated—as if no one has ever undergone such a trial, as if we have to muscle through it alone, as if God is keeping his distance. But these are lies that increase our sense of alienation.

The truth is quite different. If we open ourselves up to God, suffering can bring us closer to others who share our human condition. This closeness may not bring answers to urgent questions like, “Why me? . . . Why is God allowing this?” But together we can find comfort, and the beginning of an answer to the more important question: “What would you have me do now, Lord?” We can be part of something bigger, something victorious: “When the church suffers and yet refuses to hate, it destroys the power of hate and evil.”

Even more striking, suffering can bring us into the heart of God the Father, who watched his beloved Son suffer. Fr. Winkler suggests that this is the power of the incident from Genesis 22, where Abraham is asked to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac. Like Abraham, our suffering and sacrifice can unite us to God. It can make Christ’s saving sacrifice present in our world again, in this time and place. So instead of asking, “What [evil] did I do to deserve this?” Fr. Winkler suggests we accent the question differently: “Why did God think so highly of me that he invited me to the dignity of the cross?”

When Suffering Comes. In the second, more practical half of the book, the author hints at several ways of responding to suffering, both our own and that of those around us. He reminds us what not to do when others suffer: Namely, we should refrain from offering pat answers and attempting to solve their problems. Often, the most compassionate approach, though perhaps the most difficult, is simply to share the sufferer’s helplessness.

Far more difficult, however, is receiving help when we ourselves are suffering. It takes grace and openness to realize that “asking for help is not a defeat; it is a ministry” that enables others to act charitably. May God help us to take hold of this truth in our own times of trial!

May he also help us to “offer it up” in the right spirit. Fr. Winkler rephrases this traditional advice as: “If I have to suffer, then I would like to suffer with love. If in any way my suffering can lighten the burden of this person or that situation, then let me carry my cross with love.” This approach recognizes that when we are trying to form new habits, love and generosity will take us much further than sheer willpower.

I came away from reading this book with a heightened awareness that in God’s plan, suffering can open me up to his love and the love of my brothers and sisters, instead of isolating me. I will try to keep this thought before me throughout the day. Perhaps then I can treat the daily challenges and sacrifices in my life as small ways to draw closer to the Lord of love who unites himself with you, his beloved children, as you suffer.

Jill Boughton lives in South Bend, Indiana.