An illuminating interview with Anthony Bloom is at the bottom of this post. Skip to it if you only have 22 minutes…
Countless sermons and Eastertide devotionals remind us of what Our Lord’s disciples must have felt this day.
Bewilderment. Loss. Fear. Disillusionment. Suffering of an existential variety.
The day before, Good Friday.
One of the Holy Trinity suffered and died for us.
Holy God, Holy Strong, Holy Immortal, Who was crucified for us, have mercy.
Christ rests in the tomb. Some days, it feels like maybe He stayed there — personal suffering blocking theological perspective. Illness of oneself or a loved one, poverty, bereavement, loss of employment, tenuous employment, tense work/family/household/school/church situations, mental illness.
There are actually no easy answers for suffering. Brother Lawrence in The Practice of the Presence of God says that we should accept illness, in particular, as God’s will for us, that we may learn to live under His will. My friend with chronic illness found this singularly unhelpful.
In God and Man, Met. Anthony Bloom says that as Christians, we must be ready to suffer. Indeed, he says that Christianity necessarily involves suffering. This is in stark contrast to what we usually think about religion. I remarked to a group of students recently that many people join different religions or ancient mysteries because they are promised happiness through religion — except, I said, by Met. Anthony.
At the bottom of this article, I am posting a video interview with Met. Anthony from CBC back in what looks like the 1980s. I’m a bit surprised to find this interview coming from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, but I’ll take it! Anyway, in the interview, Met. Anthony believes that our suffering can be truly transformative and redemptive in our lives — if we suffer with love.
Love is what makes all the difference for Met. Anthony, although he also believes that fortitude and endurance can make suffering good for us as well. This is in contrast to how most of us view our own sufferings and those of others today. It is, however, in keeping with the Eastern Orthodox tradition.
St Mark the Monk (or ‘Ascetic’ or ‘Solitary’) wrote in the early to mid-400s, at a time when Nestorian and Pelagian ideas were hot topics. He is the next author in The Philokalia after St John Cassian on whom I blogged fairly extensively in February. I find St Mark hard to grasp at times, and I do not always agree with him. But he is worth wrestling with.
Some thoughts from ‘On the Spiritual Law: Two Hundred Texts’ (trans. Palmer, Sherrard, Ware):
42. Afflictions bring blessing to man; self-esteem and sensual pleasure, evil.
43. He who suffers injustice escapes sin, finding help in proportion to his affliction.
65. To accept an affliction for God’s sake is a genuine act of holiness; for true love is tested by adversities.
66. Do not claim to have acquired virtue unless you have suffered affliction, for without affliction virtue has not been tested.
67. Consider the outcome of every involuntary affliction, and you will find it has been the destruction of sin.
Numbers 65-67 resonate particularly with the teaching of Met. Anthony. I believe that part of what we see in these verses is a redirection of the heart. What matters is not, ultimately, blame, or origin of suffering. What matters is not its intensity. What matters is our response to it. This is part of the arguments found in Cassian’s Conferences, in fact; their philosophical roots are Stoicism.
If suffering comes our way, it is best, ultimately, to respond with reality. I was going to say, ‘If suffering comes our way, do we blame God, or see how we can respond to suffering in faith and virtue?’ But, really, how many of us have reached such a state of purity of heart that such is even possible. The Psalms teach us to be real with God.
The Psalms also push through disappointment, anger, frustration, grief, etc., directed towards God and draw us up into joy and glory.
So, perhaps, we should certainly give God whatever true feelings we have in the moment. But maybe the reflective and meditative exercise on sufferings is to see how we can become more virtuous through them? Maybe we can use the things over which we have no control to better our lives and the lives of others in areas where we do have control?
There are no quick, easy answers to suffering. But I think Met. Anthony Bloom of Sourozh is onto something.
I’d certainly take his view on suffering over Joel Osteen any day.