Emmitsburg Council of Churches

Suffering Souls and Sanctity"

Father John J. Lombardi

One of the biggest questions in life is: If God is so loving why is there suffering?

Everyone, at some point in life asks this question and searches for an answer. As Catholic Christians, despite all the suffering and evil in the world-countless deaths by cancer, terrorists slaughtering innocent people, children starving to death-Catholics still believe there IS a redeeming reason for suffering. A meditation on "God and the Problem of Evil," by Dominican priest Fr. Paul Raftery, is very helpful, practical, and the following is a compilation.

Firstly, he analyses ancient "answers" to the theodicy (why evil/suffering) question, such as Manicheanism, which St. Augustine--fifth-century African philosopher and Catholic convert-- followed, which speculates there is an evil god who made creation, and therefore suffering is a direct result of people being embodied in the world. Augustine, though swayed for a while ("New Ageist" philosophies and some Eastern ones basically teach forms of this) kept searching and found the answer in Christianity. Augustine formed a solution to theodicy this classic way: "God, since He is the highest good, would in no way allow any evil in His works unless He were so omnipotent and so good that He could turn evil to good."

Basically we believe that God is not a "tyrant" who prevents creature's autonomy and freedom: He did not make us mechanistic robots, so He allows creativity and faulty choice rather than puppets mechanistically controlled on a string.

St. Thomas Aquinas, Italian Dominican-theologian in the 1200's, helps us understand God wants creation to operate in a free and creative manner: for instance the oak tree has its own powers of growth within it, and lightning electrical force to strike from the sky. Further, God is open to the possibility of His creatures "failing"--operating out of order, not as He designed. This is the "cost" of giving us free will, and God respects the sometimes drastic and dramatic results of free will--which are suffering and evil. Though God wants harmonic order He allows the lightning to strike the oak tree and break it, and even may tolerate or allow the damaged tree hitting a house or maiming a child. (This "allowance" is called "God's "passive will.")

The tree wouldn't be a tree without its vulnerability to lightning; lightning wouldn't be lightning without its striking, powerful effect: Fr. Raftery comments, "How tragic it would be for the Creator to interrupt His creatures every time one is the cause of some evil coming upon another! It is only illusion to imagine that it would be a better universe were God to do so. Why illusion? St. Thomas says, 'If evil were completely eliminated from things, they would not be governed by Divine Providence in accord with their nature (the normal activity of a thing would be suppressed while God prevented the evil); and this would be a greater defect than the particular defects eradicated.' The proper nature of a thing or creature would be repeatedly subverted as the Divine would be required to intervene again and again."

"So St. Thomas will say that God is always arranging for an evil to be at the service of some good. The decay of plants in the forests provide for the nourishment of new plants…the endurance of the saints and the shining light of their virtue arises through persecutions by the wicked. How true it is that "If evil were completely excluded from things, much good would be rendered impossible." Rather than protecting all creatures from evil God puts evil to work for perpetuating and enhancing the goodness of the universe as a whole and individual creatures within it."

"In point of fact it is very hard for us to bring out our love of God to the utmost except under suffering. It is very hard for us to exert our will to the utmost, except under opposition…If we could get across the room by using only 10 percent of our power, we should only bring out 10 percent of our power, if there were no opposition. That is a very important thing." The saints might say, "No pain, so spiritual gain." Yves Congar, a Dominican priest said: "It is in suffering that we are withdrawn from the the bright superficial film of existence, from the sway of time and mere things, and find ourselves in the presence of profounder truth."

Sometimes we think that God does not care about our suffering. To this mood in all of us, the French poet Paul Claudell responds, "Jesus did not come to do away with suffering or remove it; He came to fill it with His presence."

Think of Olympic athletes: They will not make the Olympics in Utah unless they train and strain-heroically and painfully. The same is true for us: we will not deepen our love for God and one another except when it costs something, when we go through the "spiritual training camp" of life and suffering wherein we prune away excess attachments, selfishness and pollyanna dreams, and excel to saintly love of the Cross which leads to Resurrection life. Some say: There is no Crown without the Cross.

Some great saints embraced heroic sufferings, knowing that "Trial is God's alchemy by which the dross is left in the crucible, the baser metals are transmuted and the character is enriched with gold." (Wm. Morley Punshon)…Whatever mental, physical or spiritual suffering you might have… After all, God allowed His own Son to suffer in this world; not to condone senseless suffering but show us He can teach us deeper lessons through suffering and that He understands and embraces our suffering.

ALWAYS REMEMBER!: "Now no chastening for the present seem to you to be joyous, but grievous; nevertheless, afterwards, it yields peaceable fruit…(Heb. 12:11). *Suffering and evil are a result not of God-a "flaw in His design"-but rather the result of people's misuse of freedom and, in particular, sin. We can, in a subtle way, "keep God hostage" when we blame it on Him--thinking He should prevent it, or we are not responsible for it. All these thoughts and feelings-ultimately--are "strategies" of the self to prevent purification or abandonment into God's Will. Suffering-and even evil-can polish our souls, in ways we could or would not do so otherwise. -"We know that all things work together for good for those who love God." (Rm. 8:28)…*don't waste your suffering-offer it up". This "traditional saying" means we should present a precious, costly experience-from stepping on a nail to dying from a disease-to God as a small way of imitating Jesus' sufferings. It is precious to God because we must suffer and undergo pain, and it is not something we would ordinarily do or choose.

CATECHISM QUOTE "All who die in God's grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven. The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect…" (CCC: #1030) .Let us see purgatory as a blessing (yet one more, final, way God sheds His mercy upon sinners); a grace (that we can still pray for the deceased and effect their journey).

QUOTE of THE WEEK: "I am not I nor You/ yet You are I in me. / And so my God/ I pay all homage sole to Thee." Angelus Silesius, Polish priest-convert.

Chaplain's prayer-intentions for Thursday:

  • That all peoples may come to realize and accept Jesus Christ as the One Savior of mankind.
  • For all peoples to cultivate more silence and simplicity in their lives, which will provide them spiritual, liberation and trust in God
  • For all Catholics and Christians to have deeper devotion to, and realization of the Most Blessed Trinity-the Three, Majestic, Divine, and Uncreated Persons of the Godhead

Read other Sermons by Father John J. Lombardi