metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh

On facing suffering

An address given in the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford
1 February 1969

It is about facing suffering that I am going to speak, not on suffering considered from a philosophical point of view in its connection with evil, but on facing a fact which is suffering. I will draw in what I wish to say some of the experience I have gained in the course of years in a variety of situations, where I have had to face other people’s suffering attentively, continuously. I have been in hospital work, in civil time and in the war for something like fourteen years. I have had to face another kind of suffering during the war not only doing war surgery, but meeting face to face other soldiers who suffered, and then I have had to face suffering, other’s people suffering, as a priest. Each of us also has a certain experience of suffering he can derive from his own life.

The first thing I wish to insist on, is that to draw experience from other people’s suffering is both legitimate, and slightly ambiguous. It is legitimate because if you are connected with people through affection, friendship, if they mean a great deal to you as companions at arms, if you are profoundly moved by the fact that they have entrusted into your hands their body, their integrity, their future, their life and their death, there is a degree of understanding which is rooted in compassion which we can acquire. But compassion is not suffering, and enduring the pain of the other in the way in which he endures it. Compassion is suffering together in a more complex and yet in a different way. Compassion, if you have experience in pain yourself, make you draw from what you know of it, and yet you know the pain of your neighbour imaginatively and not physically. On the other hand compassion seizes more than the physical pain, it seizes also the moral distress of the other, it meets the total man whose suffering you are facing. So that you see that if I draw some experience from what I have seen I will be very inadequate, but I will also draw some conclusions from what sufferers have said, from the witness of people who had a right to speak of their own suffering and speak of the way in which suffering can be faced.

Let us now dwell a moment on this facing suffering. There is a difference between being passively, timidly, rebelliously submitted to suffering, and facing it. It is not everyone who suffers, who faces suffering. Very often we run away from it, and it persues us like the hound of heaven. Facing begins not only at the moment when we gather our courage and a accept to look at things; it is possible only if there is a background to facing, because otherwise we may face suffering for a moment and then be destroyed by the fear, the anguish, the purposelessness of what we are enduring. In order to face suffering one must have a daring and a manly attitude to life. If we start with the assumption that life must be easy, that suffering must be absent from it, that what matters is that I should continue to live and that I should receive from life all the enjoyment it can give, to face suffering is extremely difficult. It may be a momentary act of courage, it can not be continued attitude to life. May I say that a background that could help us a great deal in facing suffering could be defined in the words which I often heard in my childhood, “Your life matters nothing, neither does your death; what matters is what you life for, and what you are prepared to die for”. If I live for something, if I am prepared to die for something, if there are for me values greater than I, issues that are more important than what happens to me, I have a background and I can face suffering.

You may say that this a heroic attitude. No, it isn’t. It is the attitude that each of us has with a regard to a limited number of commitments or relationships. We easily are prepared to face and ensure suffering for one person, with someone or because of some reason, while we discard suffering, or rather we refuse it, when it is offered us for another person of for another reasons. This shows that even at the lowest ebb of our ability we possess the capacity to face suffering it we only connect it with values that we are prepared to serve, or with people who matter enough for us to forget ourselves. And at this point, whether we think of God or whether we think of other people, one of the decisive words is love, not duty, not courage. Duty appears in a moment when love grows weak. A mother who spends a night with a sick child does not feel that she is fulfilling a duty. She could not do otherwise. A hired nurse is on duty. The same is true when we give our life by living or by dying for something which is deeper in us, more important for us, than what confronts us.

Suffering is not always evil. A physician will know, a nurse will know, experienced patients will know, that suffering is a time, a warning which is given us that something has gone wrong. And if it wasn’t there, we would come to a tragic situation without warning. A physician will know, when he starts his studies, will be warned that if a patient is in pain he should do nothing to alleviate the pain before he has discovered the cause of it, because once the pain is gone he has no clues left at times any more; and that applies also to moral suffering. It is useless to remove pain by soothing drugs or by the “opium of the people” or by minor forms of opium that consists of fooling people away from the sense of their suffering, making them forget for a short time. We must be prepared to help them discover the cause of he suffering and make them face it.

You may say that in medical situations, things are simple because after a comparatively short while the physician discovers the cause of the suffering and then can alleviate it. Yes, but there is another side to it. Haven’t you noticed how easily we are afraid of suffering and isn’t the fear of suffering a great reason, a more important reason for us to suffer, than the objective suffering we are enduring? If we do not learn to face suffering when it comes our way, as long as we can, to the utmost, we will gradually be capable of enduring suffering less and less until we can endure practically nothing. The thought of suffering, the fear that it may reappear will make us take drugs or measures. And then we will have defeated ourselves. You know very well how often people resort to aspirin or any other drug because they begin to feel something is going wrong. At times nothing would have gone wrong at all, it would not have developed beyond this vague feeling, but if you lower your capacity to resist suffering a moment will come when you will be able to endure none. And then as I said you will be defeated completely because without any suffering you will be in anguish, for the simple reason that suffering may occur. How often people spend a long life 70, 80, 90 years in the fear of death. They might have spared all of their lives minus one day free of fear if they had only waited for death to come anywhere near. Isn’t it the same with a variety of suffering we anticipate and against which we try to fight, successfully at times as far as our bodies are concerned, but increasing our ability to be in anguish? And yet facing things is a lot more ore possible than we imagine. I remember the case of a boy of nine, who was ill with a painful and incurable disease. In a sort of conversational way, somebody said to him, “My poor boy, are you in great pain today?” The boy was a great deal deeper than the one who was asking the question and he said, “No, it’s endurable because I have learnt not to suffer today either yesterday’s pain or tomorrow’s”. Isn’t that a very important factor in facing pain? Very often we find pain unendurable not because at this particular moment we cannot endure it but because at this particular moment the comparatively endurable pain becomes intensified by the memory of all we have endured and the thought that it will last and never cease. How often people give way in their resistance, in their courageous facing of pain because of what they anticipate. What I said a couple of days ago about living in the present could be a great help to us if we learnt to suffer every moment the moment’s pain instead of anticipating all the future — an eternity of pain, endless pain, an ever increasing pain. We can almost say here what I already quoted to you, concerning death, “Death and I have nothing to do: if death is there, I am no longer there; if I am dead, death isn’t there”. If I live in the present moment, past and future are not there. When I will be in that point of space and time which I call the future, the present moment which I am enduring now will n longer be there. Why should I live the sum total of an imaginary future, collected in a very acute and difficult present?

And then in facing pain, purposefulness plays a great role. And purpose can be found on very different level: we can find courage, for instance, to face pain when we truly want to do something, when it matters to us; then, we forget all sorts of things, and we do what matters more to us than the pain itself, than our comfort, even our consolation. Also, we continuously face pain in minors ways, in the form of discomforts, when we truly wish to achieve something. I’m not speaking of great examples like the Stoics, but all that we call in the spiritual life, “asceticism” means “training” – and training obviously means compelling myself to go to the last of my ability, of the possible, and to compel myself to discard certain things and to do other things. A runner must discard momentary laziness, he must discard tiredness and bring himself to a determined point, because unless he does that consistently he will not progress either in breathing or in muscles. This applies to all forms of life. We continuously, without knowing it, are in a sort of ascetical training situation. It becomes a problem when pain comes into it, either moral or physical; but then, we must weight up several things — am I prepared to give way to anything that comes my way? Am I prepared to be defeated? Haven’t I got enough sense of my own dignity to face it?

I do not mean to say that we can build a true inner life, vigorous and full-blooded, on pride – but on the sense of one’s dignity, yes. And there are moments when even anticipated pain is defeated by this sense of indignity. I remember when during the liberation of Paris I had to cross a completely empty bridge. The only trouble was that there was a machine-gun at the other side. That was indeed why the place was empty. But I had to cross it. And I remember that I sat on all four behind the corner and thought, “What am I going to do? I can crawl, and I can walk,” — and then, all of a sudden, I saw the indignity of crawling along the empty bridge with all the sky above me, with all the city around me, with nothing but this ridiculous object that might not shoot at all! It was not an act of courage that prompted me to walk, I simply felt ashamed of myself, of the ridicule it would represent to crawl on my tummy for 500 yards while nothing was happening to me. I think that in many cases if we faced ourselves and thought, “Am I not being really ridiculous?”, we would say, “Yes, I am, because I am afraid of what perhaps will not happen and I am not facing it”.

Now there are other situations in which ‘facing’ has a much deeper meaning and significance. I am leaving aside now the purposefulness that I mentioned before, the desire which I may have to do something which overrules my fear or my inner anguish, or my physical handicaps, including acute pain. I am thinking now of the inter-relation of suffering, both physical and moral, and our situation in the world of man.

Jean Danielou, a Jesuit who teaches patristics in the Catholic institute in Paris, said in one of his books that suffering is the only meeting-point between good and evil, and that this meeting is decisive either for the destruction of good or for the redemption of evil. That much is approximately what he said. What I will say now, he never said. That is, it is my responsibility, and the way I would elaborate on the subject. Let us take, for an example of evil, human cruelty, violence.

Human cruelty always expresses itself as a cut, as a hurt inflicted to a human soul or a human body. This is the place where evil and good, or innocence, meet. There is a tormenter and a victim. What is the situation that is created? It may create a situation of hatred. The victim may turn round on the tormentor with hatred and try, if is within his ability, to transform him into a victim, or else to reduce the whole situation to a tension of hatreds and a balance, or a broken balance, of force, of power. But this is no solution, either concerning the evil or concerning the suffering, because if you turn the tables and become the tormentor and the aggressor, evil has only increased by double, and suffering has only changed camps. From your point of view it makes a great deal of difference, but objectively it does not. Hatred has increased, so has suffering – to no purpose, without any creative result, because it is not by being beaten violently that you unlearn beating others. You simply learn that you must grow stronger.

But take another situation; and this is a concrete human being (whom I mentioned yesterday on the Clarendon steps — and I apologise to those who have already heard it). A man is taken to a concentration camp during the war. I meet him after the war, and in the conversation he says that he has brought back from the concentration camp, where he spent four years, is anguish. I try to find out what he means, whether he has lost his faith, or whether despair has been stronger than him, and his reply is, “No, but as long as I was in the concentration camp, I felt I had the right and power to intercede for those people who inflicted such suffering on us, because at every moment I was suffering, and at every moment I had this divine power to forgive. Now, I am no longer suffering, and yet these people who have inflicted so much moral anguish and physical pain on us stand before God. One day, they will stand before His final judgment, and when I pray for them, I feel that I can no longer pray with certainty because I do not suffer any more. There is no evidence that I can bring to God that my prayer is sincere, and that it stems out of depth”. Well, here is a man who did meet suffering, and who did face suffering in a creative way, but in a creative way because the way he faced the suffering was strong enough to undo the evil, although it did not undo the pain. One of our bishops who died in one of the Stalin purges said, “Remember always that it is a privilege for a Christian to die a martyr, because nobody but a martyr shall be able at the day of judgment to take his stand before the judgment-seat of God in defence of his persecutors, and say, ‘In Thy name, and following Thy example, I have forgiven them. Thou hast no claim against these men any more’ ”.This is a completely creative way of facing suffering, a way which is creative both on the level of the sufferer and on the level of evil which is not identical with the suffering.

And as we are these days concerned with the discovery of God which is presented to us in life, within human relationships, within the outer circumstances of our life, I would like to tell you shortly of another case — that of a woman who was my contemporary and who died with a cancer of the breast. She was a woman of extremely simple and straightforward faith when she discovered that she had an acute cancer that would kill her within a comparatively short time, and that there ways of attempting treatment, but probably no way of succeeding. She attempted the treatment because she felt that God has created both the drug and the physician, as Ecclesiastious puts it, and that it was legitimate for her to attempt it. The treatment was of no help, and gradually she began to die out with sores, then with deep wounds, and in the end with not only her breast, but the bones of her chest destroyed so that one could see parts of her lung. Now, in all this process, this woman with an incredible simplicity of faith and an incredible courage born of the simplicity, said, “I will not accept any drugs to calm my pain as long as I can endure it,” — and she did endure. One night, actually in the early hours of her morning, she called her husband and said. “You can now give me whatever you want to free me from pain. I was lying in my bed, and all of a sudden, I saw Christ, and now I have peace within me. And it now no longer matters to me whether I live or whether I die”. At that moment, she felt that she could face either death or life equally, and she had received from pain, and not only physical pain because she was then in her early forties and had two children and she had a husband and she loved life; she had received from the total anguish all it could give. She had accepted it, and now she had met life eternal in Him Who is Life Eternal, and it did not matter any more what way life eternal would express itself — in healing or in dying.

As I said yesterday, I am giving you examples that are far beyond our experience, and obviously far beyond the faith and the courage and the depth which most of us have, but they show us what can be a human soul and a human body, what can be a man or a woman of flesh and blood when simplicity and conviction are there — and don’t tell me that they could probably do it because they were insensitive to pain.

Now. The last point which I wanted to make was this. One of the element of moral anguish in pain is at times the sense that I suffer and God does not care, God is outside it all, He sits there as an umpire, judging whether I suffer well, prepared to give me the crown of martyrdom when I have endure more than I can reasonably be expected to endure… This is not so. It is not so on two levels. You probably know from whatever experience of life you have how incredibly difficult, how agonizingly painful it is to endure the suffering and the despair of a person whom you love more than you love yourself, or as much as you love yourself, or simply with all the power of love you possess. And we must remember that this is God’s situation with regards to us. We mean enough to Him to have willed us into existence in order that we should be his companions of eternity. And I dare say, looking at ourselves and others, few of us would wish his neighbour to be his companion for eternity. Also the value He attaches to us is all the life and all the death of the only begotten Son of God. That is what we mean to Him.

And when we speak of divine compassion, we have a measure to this compassion. It is not the moral pain which we perceive, it is more than this because we do not die of it — He did. And also, the solidarity there is between Him and us is not simply a solidarity of sympathy, it is a greater solidarity. He has become man and accepted all our limitations. Yes, more than this, He has become man and has accepted to partake in the ONLY tragedy of mankind, the loss of God, the fact that we have lost God and therefore we die because we have no life eternal, therefore we have made our world monstrous because we have no key of harmony. And in the words of Christ, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” we must see what it truly means, the moment when He accepted to identify himself so completely with us that the experience of total, killing, murderous godlessness was His, and He died because He shared our godlessness — the absence of God.

If that is true, then we can understand that His suffering upon the cross, his death, cannot be measured by the degree of pain He had and the fact that He died, but by the fact that He could not go through the anguish of the garden of Gethsemane, and through the horror of Holy Week otherwise than having put on, having identified himself with, our own godlessness, our own dereliction. This is again the measure of the divine solidarity, and this, I think, should show us that whatever our suffering, His is greater than ours, in us, because of us, and through us. And if that is true, then we can face up to a great deal more than we do.

So, let us simply face up to life with all the courage and all the determination we can afford, more than the determination we can afford, with all the surrender we can learn. Let us accept minor suffering and greater suffering to the utmost we can bear, in order to unlearn that slavish fear of anguish and of pain which destroy us. Let us receive from anguish, receive from pain, or participation in what is the anguish in the garden of Gethsemane and the disclosure of what it stands for, let us receive out of pain and out of death all that there is in it, and then we will see that we can be truly, in this world, the People of God. That is, the presence of the Redeeming Christ, Who in suffering establishes final total solidarity with us, and who in death carries it to the fullness, and Who, through suffering and within the suffering, like the men I mentioned, acquires truly divine power to undo evil, to overcome evil, to forgive and to make the Kingdom of God real — for a moment, perhaps, and at the same time, forever.

I am aware that I have treated this subject from a few and disjointed angles. Take what I have said, think it out; confront it with pain as you know it, with life and struggle as you know it, experiment in courage and in faith, and then you will discover a great deal which I do not know. And share it with others because we need our mutual support to be able to face up to the total tragedy of mankind as well as our own. Now, I would like to ask God’s blessing upon you, and let us say the Lord’s Prayer a last time together.

Listen to audio: no Watch video: no