Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ, Dear Friends, TODAY – we continue our reflections about the mysteries of the faith. It is a time for: What is the meaning of suffering?
Today, I would like to ask you for a moment of reflection, which will be the introduction to the answer to one of the most difficult questions – What is the meaning of suffering? This question bothers almost every person regardless of their religious affiliation; it even bothers the atheists.
We always ask ourselves this question, want to harmonize it with the justice of God and with His infinite love. As part of the introduction to the whole issue, I intend to stress here the two most frequently given answers.
The first one is: The suffering and evil that exist on earth, are used to discover happiness. What is the line of reasoning for those people who are trying to outline the matter this way? We would not understand the beauty of the day, they say, if we did not experience the darkness and horror of the night. We would not understand what human health really is if we did not experience the disease. We would not know the secret of life if we did not watch the ravages that bring death. Following this course of reasoning, some try to say: we would not know the secret of happiness if we could not experience misfortune.
They try to justify their position with the words of the Holy Bible. However, it is significant that in the biblical image of paradise there is only one gate leading man to taste suffering. People in paradise are happy, they only experience goodness and happiness, and the gate leading to the experience of suffering is the consumption of fruit from the tree of good and evil, or knowledge of good and evil. Man, picking the fruit of this tree, knows what evil is and only then discovers what he has lost. However, this answer is insufficient for a simple reason – the price we pay for this discovery is too great. The sea of suffering on earth is so huge that no happiness can balance it. No thinking person will satisfy this reasoning: to experience happiness, you must first be unhappy. Such an answer is absolutely insufficient and the Church does not give it.
The second answer, which has been extremely popular in the last two centuries, treats suffering as a path leading to the progress of humanity. A soldier suffers just to save the nation;
Scientists also suffer, sacrificing their lives for the sake of progress. The suffering of one man is to a degree, a step to others approaching happiness. At the expense of one unit, we can build the happiness of others. That is what Stalin and Hitler meant. Even in some Christian thinkers, there is a tendency to approach suffering like this, for example, Teilhard de Chardin, the French Jesuit priest, and even some saints. This approach comes to the fore in a picture of a soldier who will be truly happy despite his suffering when he sees the victory of his army. However, it must be clearly stated that this answer has nothing to do with the Gospel.
Christianity looks at suffering from the point of view of the suffering subject, and the good of future generations is insufficient to explain to him the meaning of his own suffering. In other words, one can never build the common good on the harm done to the individual. And all those systems that approach suffering in this way, believing that one can harm an individual to build a common good sooner or later will fail. The unhappiness of an individual cannot be the source of happiness of other people; the goal can never justify the means.
There is only one exception when this approach to suffering is possible and it harmonises with the Gospel; namely, when the individual’s suffering is a voluntary sacrifice made for the benefit of others. To the one who wants – no harm is happening. Man can devote himself voluntarily to suffer for the good of others. Let me give a specific example: An eighteen-year-old girl heard a conversation between her parents, which showed that her mother is pregnant with her future brother or sister.
The situation at home was so dramatic that there was virtually no space, literally in a physical sense, to welcome a new-born child. The daughter survived a nightmarish night. Early in the morning she left the house, and her parents found her letter on the table: ‘I am leaving the house forever, and I will not return. I will work and I will send half of my money every month to feed my little brother or sister when he or she is born’. She left, lived in a workers’ hotel, took a job, and worked. This story, which I once witnessed as a priest, was just such a voluntary sacrifice. How many weeks and months the girl survived, how much she missed home, and her family, for the smallest family member – only God and she knows, but to save the happiness of her family home, she could decide on such a sacrifice. She sacrificed herself of her own free will – so the possibility exists. Here we can see the sense of sacrifice and we must admire the heroism of this young girl. Following this line of reasoning, we consider the mystery of the death of Christ, who did the same, wanting to save us.
Nobody ever, in the name of the good of others, can do harm to another human being. Among other things, this is why the Holy Church stands as a ban on any experiments carried out on people. We must not inflict suffering, we must not make tests on a human even when we have allegedly lofty slogans before us: ‘We will destroy one, destroy one hundred, but save fifty million’. No one has the right to put a case like that. One cannot build the happiness of the community on the misfortune and harm of the individual.
We stand in the face of a great mystery. Maybe on another occasion I will ask a question about the suffering of animals. Does man have the right to conduct medical experiments on animals? Not only mankind suffers on the earth, but all nature is also suffering. In view of the ecological threat, one must realise that the dimension of the problem is very wide. We stand before the mystery and together we ask God to give us the light to understand as deeply as possible one of the most difficult problems of our existence. Next week, while hoping for your prayers, I will present the problem of suffering which is seen as a just punishment.
With love and prayers and asking for yours, Fr. Marcin