Thursday, February 7, 2013
On Suffering in the Christian Life and How to Bear It
The Apostle writes that "with Christ I am nailed to the cross" (Gal 2:19), and further, "I bear the marks of the Lord Jesus in my body" (Gal 6:17). His life was one of continual suffering, all for the sake of Christ, because, in bearing the marks of the Lord in his body, he was branded with the mark of the Master, becoming a slave of Christ.
There is a saying - "The life of a monk is crucifixion". But to me, the life of a Christian is crucifixion. Our lives as Christians is a process of being nailed to our own cross with Christ, imitating Him as we climb our own Calvary. From our birth, we are sentenced to die. We walk the same road that others who have died before us walk, towards the same place of death, the same end. The difference for us is that we are to do it with joy - we are not to carry our crosses weeping and wailing, but with a glad heart. How is this even possible?
Of course, I do not know the answer. But I can explore it:
John Tauler, the famed Dominican mystic, once wrote of a "bitterness that is involved in a person's finding God - when a person first turns away from the world to God, but before he drives out all desires and pleasures. For it is necessary that everything a person possessed with desire must be driven out. This is at first very bitter and very hard. All things must become bitter for you to the degree that you found pleasure in them. This must always be the case and requires much discernment and well-directed zeal. To the degree that the pleasure was great, the myrrh becomes bitter, and it is a great bitterness indeed"1.
In many ways, this is the stage that I am at in my own life, or at least am very certain that I am at.
The key, I think, in all of it is to remember to carry our crosses with a gladsome heart, or to find the will of God in even the hardships and bitterness, as the Jesuit Walter Ciszek relates in his work He Leadeth Me. The "murderer of men, the devil," says St. Seraphim of Sarov, "strives to lead a man into despair"2. "True hope seeks the Kingdom of God alone and is convinced that everything earthly that is necessary for this transitory life will unfailingly be given"3.
St. Symeon the New Theologian tells us these words of encouragement, ones I have found more encouraging than many I have ever come across:
"Since you are a man, do service for others, and nourish them, and practice all things for their growth. Stand up to enemies and respond blow for blow! You know the enemies of whom I speak, armies of demons. When you have received a blow, strike without mercy, falling, get back up again, when arrows are sent, do not forebear to throw them back again at those who throw them, and at those who contrive these evils against you. But those who wound you with despair, may they be wounded by hope sent from you, and when they punch you with anger, and they are forced on you by rage, may their face be slapped by your meekness, may they be thrown out far from your house!"4
Though the cross is frightening at first, Christ promises that this yoke will not be one we cannot carry. In it, is the path of the Christian life. We are called to carry our crosses daily, to keep going, one step at a time.
As Meister Eckhart says, "Therefore, it is clear what the armor of God is: it is the cross of Christ. This is the armor of light (Romans 13:12). Light is an active quality of the heavens that has no contrary, and what is more, the different kinds of contrary colors are not are not contrary in light, but lose their opposition in the medium. And so every contrary and every hostile thing loses its evil and ill-nature in the soul that has been clothed with the armor of light, so that the soul no longer feels it, but rejoices and delights in suffering for the love of Christ"5.
1 - "Sermon III"
2 - Spiritual Instructions, 14
3 - ibid., 5
4 - "Hymn 41"
5 - "Sermon XLV"