by Valerie Tarico
Passive acceptance or even glorification of suffering can be adaptive when people have no choice. As the much loved Serenity Prayer says, “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.” This attitude of embracing the inevitable is built into not only Christianity but also other religions, especially Buddhism. But passive acceptance ofavoidable suffering is another thing altogether, which is why the prayer continues, “. . . the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.”
By even her own words, Mother Teresa’s view of suffering made no distinction between avoidable and unavoidable suffering, and instead cultivated passive acceptance of both. As she put it, “There is something beautiful in seeing the poor accept their lot, to suffer it like Christ’s Passion. The world gains much from their suffering.”
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Dean Hansen responds:
Suffering is inevitable. But its inevitability does not convince me of its religious virtue, any more than a house fire convinces me we need more arsonists. But it does point to the Church’s blatant opportunism in regards to a handy convenient use policy.
People “lick” their wounds because wounds hurt, and because pain can be as intolerable as the bad metaphors that are often asked to carry the weight of human experience. There are more healing properties in a gob of spit than in a bucket of religious platitudes. The most agonizing injuries we endure are often unresponsive to the well-meaning cures and metaphysical vagaries inflicted on us by those who haven’t endured them themselves but who are sure, nonetheless, that they have the solution for our dilemma. If God wants scars, he must want wounds. If he wants wounds, he must enjoy inflicting injury. If the injuries don’t heal properly, it’s because people are more than casually reticent about the efficacy of appealing to the same source for a cure that either bestowed or was indifferent to the injury. What I will do with the wounds in my life is ask why a God who claims to love us unconditionally needs to test our capacity for suffering as an adjunct for bestowing an unearned grace that ostensibly accepts us as we are, wounds and all.
The Church constantly intones that, “Pope Benedict XVI, John Paul II, Mother Teresa, St. Francis, John of the Cross, Theresa of Lisieux, Teresa of Avila, and many others are models of Christianity.” And rather ghastly models at that, judging by the state of the church and the sclerotic heritage it has left in its wake. Compare Christ’s words, “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Mother Teresa spent her entire life living in the slums of Calcutta, working 18-20 hours a day for 70+ years in filthy surroundings in the hope of being an acceptable vessel for Christ’s “love,” and felt abandoned, forsaken, and bereft of faith in the end. Theresa of Lisieux was a neurotic personality who suffered from scrupulosity, a psychological disorder characterized by pathological guilt about moral or religious issues. Scrupulosity is personally distressing, objectively dysfunctional, and often accompanied by significant impairment in social functioning. It is typically conceptualized as a moral or religious form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. She scourged herself and fasted repeatedly as a result.
Saint Francis of Assisi engaged in severe self-inflicted penances which included vigils, fasts, frequent self-flagellations and the use of a hair shirt to increase his discomfort with the loathsome flesh. Thomas More, Catherine of Siena, and Ignatius of Loyola all engaged in similar acts of sadomasochism for the favor of their lord’s “easy” yoke. St. Teresa of Avila undertook severe mortification once it was suggested by friends that her supernatural ecstasies were of diabolical origin. (Certainly her cures were.) The seers of Fatima wore tight cords around their waists and abstained from drinking water on hot days. The Virgin Mary reportedly told them that God was pleased with their sacrifices and bodily penances. John Paul II, who himself was known to practice flagellation and other penitential practices like sleeping on a floor and fasting before important events, wrote an entire Apostolic Letter on the topic of suffering, specifically the salvific meaning of suffering: Salvifici Doloris. It is considered a major contribution to the theology of pain and suffering! And finally we have Vitamin B16—Joe “the Rat” Ratzinger who proclaims that, “pain, the very product of evil and sin, is used by God to negate evil and sin. By freely suffering the pains that went with his passion and death on the cross, Jesus fully reveals his love.”
Yep. That sounds like love with a generous dose of abundant living all right. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is Strength. War is Peace. Suffering is Joy.
“For my yoke is easy and my burden is light,” says Jesus. A reading of that passage should have forever dispelled the idea that you can earn your way to heaven through oppressive work and endless self sacrifice. But apparently, by the lights of the church triumphant, heaven is within reach only when you’re willing to strive against insurmountable odds until you drop dead from psychic and physical trauma and exhaustion. Saint Pio of Pietrelcina, a “saint” who received the stigmata, wrote in one of his letters:
Let us now consider what we must do to ensure that the Holy Spirit may dwell in our souls. It can all be summed up in mortification of the flesh with its vices and concupiscences, and in guarding against a selfish spirit. … The mortification must be constant and steady, not intermittent, and it must last for one’s whole life. Moreover, the perfect Christian must not be satisfied with a kind of mortification which merely appears to be severe. He must make sure that it hurts.
So much for the imitation of Christ and the Good News of the Gospel!
The catechism of the Catholic Church states: “The way of perfection passes by way of the Cross. There is no holiness without renunciation and spiritual battle. Spiritual progress entails the ascesis and mortification that gradually lead to living in the peace and joy of the Beatitudes.”
Pope Paul VI also stated:
The necessity of mortification of the flesh stands clearly revealed if we consider the fragility of our nature, in which, since Adam’s sin, flesh and spirit have contrasting desires. This exercise of bodily mortification—far removed from any form of stoicism— does not imply a condemnation of the flesh which the Son of God deigned to assume. On the contrary, mortification aims at the ‘liberation’ of man.
This is the Christianity that Paul condemned, and which Jesus excoriated:
When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.
Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: ”Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.” - Colossians 2:13-23
Is this ghoulish litany of sainthood supposed to impress outsiders with Catholicism’s rejection of the world and its elevated spiritual consciousness? Such a consciousness is based on nothing more than a perverse pathology of self-loathing. Origen had himself castrated in a sad and savage attempt to “purify” himself. It didn’t work. Augustine believed the source of evil was his genitals “Ecce unde” and ended up ditching his common law wife and her son Adeodatus to get the sexual monkey off his back. Then he spent the rest of his life in guilt and regret for abandoning her. Obviously, that too, did not work. Today if you self-mutilate to the point of causing yourself grievous bodily harm, you’re put under observation for 48 hours and pumped full of meds. That generally does work, making the rubber room unnecessary. At least you don’t have to chew your way through leather straps to greet the morning.
I have grown weary of those who say that suffering is somehow redemptive, that it carries with it a positive outcome. I do not deny that this is at times so. Those who suffer can sometimes emerge humbler, wiser, gentler. But there is nothing beneficial that comes from suffering that could have not been achieved far more effectively through a positive means. To the contrary, suffering leaves us broken and cynical, disbelieving and forlorn, miserable and depressed. – Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
Contrary to what you may have heard, the only sort of character suffering builds is the ability to suffer—a useful ability in a world where suffering is the routine nature of life but not a virtue that makes the world a better place. – Virginia Postrel