Emmitsburg Council of Churches

Sufferings and Salvation

Father John J. Lombardi

"The Lord intends to dwell in the dark cloud" I Kg. 8:12.

Q. What is the question everyone asks?

A. Why is there so much evil and suffering in a world created by an all-good and loving God? This is called the "theodicy" question.

I once visited a hospital patient/parent; after many unsuccessful treatments left them with regret, despair and resentment, the person asked me with intense eyes, shaking body and tremulous voice: "Father, why doesn't God heal me? Can you say a prayer that will get me out of this? Why can't I get rid of these bad thoughts?"

I also conversed with a distraught pilgrim suffering physical damage from illness with many inconclusive tests. Her children and her spouse are afraid of the test results and she begins to question her Faith and her God.

A man asks me, "Father, am I sinning if I lost my Catholic faith in childhood and still have doubts? Where was God when the concentration camps of WWII were created? Where is God in all this messiness? Why doesn't he intervene?"

After twenty years of priesthood my job is never boring and sometimes hugely challenging as shown in these examples of the most stark theodicy questions I've ever seen faced in life.

The Answer to all of these questions is Faith, of course! We as humans we need to trust in God no matter how cloudy. Read and memorize (Rm. 8:25-35.) Further, Jesus Christ /God Himself mystically embraced the worst sufferings of life for all of us all in His dark night of passion. The term Solidarity-God-is-with-us-Emmanuel is the result of physical torture, rejection and an asphyxiating crucifixion.

Some perceive He is anesthetized to us but He not, he is right in the thick of His own suffering. So deep and serious is the Incarnation which is Christ's coming to earth, that Jesus assumed all our human nature.

In a human way that "unknowing" or incompleteness expressed the theodicy question, to God on the Cross: "My God why have You forsaken Me?"(Mk. 15:34).

Jesus, in a strange way, is with us in our unknowing and incompleteness and in exemplifying total surrender says: "Father, into your hands I commend my Spirit." (Luke 23:44). He shows us we cannot figure everything out, thus the Divine Mystery. He shows us that ultimately God is still in control and providentially guiding things even as they seem quixotic.

So, the three aspects of Theodicy are:

  1. Solidarity: God is with us in and thru our suffering.
  2. Identification: with the Mystery
  3. Surrender: we ultimately accept the mystery of life and God's Plan.

A friend recently came up with the term "healthy doubt" which translates that we Christians should be mature enough to admit we don't know it all but we can still be faithful and fervent with questions. So true and many saints were like this. A better term I think would be "healthy unknowing," "mystical unknowing," or simply, an old- fashioned Catholic mystery. Doubt implies negativity or ongoing skepticism while "unknowing" connotes a healthy wonder. The great English mystical, medieval treatise, "The Cloud of Unknowing," traces the mature soul's love and pursuit of God the Infinite Lord and not just as a pet rock we manipulate.

As Catholics, we need a healthy sense of unknowing, and a sense of mystery, to avoid extremes. For instance, "nihilism," on the one hand means there is no meaning or providence in life. The other extreme is "naivism," meaning we know all about life and its pre-programmed without any room for freedom.

We need examples like the lives of the saints to show us the way thru life because they went thru tremendous sufferings and darkness but still trusted and persevered. Like us, the saints were human, not all-knowing like God and even they had doubts. Mother Seton had doubts after her husbands' death and Mother Teresa in later life rarely felt God's presence but continued to do His work.

A female medical student from Calcutta told me she was literally thrown in a garbage dump as a baby and was picked up by Mother Teresa's nuns who nursed her back to health. She grew up, studied medicine and returns to Calcutta each summer to volunteer saving other babies also thrown away. That's triumph of the human soul energized and divinized by God.

I now think of the airline TWA, as an acronym to summarize a Catholic response to theodicy. The T stands for God Transcends our understanding-we cannot make a "thought-net" or idea large enough to grasp Him; He is a boundless, infinite Being. Theology tries to help us move toward Him. We need Faith both as a noun and verb. In faith, we learn and are stabilized in life amidst mystery. We also need Faith as a verb, active, alive and believing amidst uncertainties.

The W stands for Wonder - in feeling-like, Wow! God is alluringly mysterious while everything else is finite, familiar or even boring but never God. I want to love Him more.

The second way of wonder stands for what we think, i.e. God is far above and beyond my finite perception.

The A stands for Acceptance- of these divine Mysteries that we can't figure out and that's ok. It is also, Anticipation of future revelations of His infinitude, beauty, love and Divine Life. It is through some saints who see Him more clearly and give us hints of the Divine Majesty to come.

In the end, "Semper Fidelis" or always faith-full.

Read other reflections by Father John J. Lombardi