About eighteen months ago I was diagnosed as having an illness which is serious but not mortal, and for the past year I have been taking medication for it, the side-effects of which have been an absolute bitch of an itch (it’s like having ants crawling through your veins) and chronic insomnia (in the morning I wish it was night, and in the night I wish it was morning). For a person who has otherwise had fifty-seven years of rude good health, it has been an education. Not that I have learned anything I didn’t already know, but now I know it for me (truth, as Kierkegaard said, is subjectivity). The trick, of course, is to remember it!
Like the infinite capacity we have of taking things for granted. We even take for granted that we take things for granted! As Job discovered, the recognition that anything can happen - and, as Job’s friends didn’t, that from this fact no conclusions can be drawn - is crucial to the life of faith. You know the phrase “with God all things are possible”? I now understand it to mean, not that God can do anything, but that nothing is necessary. Creation is grace.
Like the illusion that the future is in our hands. The old quip “What makes God laugh? Tell him your plans!” has taken on new meaning. The illusion also that my present should be otherwise than it is. Near the end of her short life - she died aged thirty-nine from lupus - Flannery O’Connor wrote: “I have never been anywhere in my life that wasn’t the place I was supposed to be - no matter how it looked at the time.” (Of course, while one can say this for oneself, one dare not speak for others.)
Like the temptations of suffering - to take mortality as a burden: the tendency to make ourselves central and to think that we are owed; the snares of self-pity and isolation (because in sickness one is company, two is a crowd); the snares also of bitterness and envy of the healthy; and the slippery slope of the manipulation of carers, particularly those closest to us.
Like the opportunities in suffering - to take mortality as a blessing: the realisation of our absolute dependence on God and the gift of contingency; the practice of the virtues of patience and perseverance; the possibilities of increased empathy and sensitivity to the pain of others - and the resolve to contribute to its relief; the relevance of the psalmist’s prayers of lament - and of prayerless prayer, because we are too distracted or exhausted to pray, i.e. the centrality of the intercession of the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:26-27).
Above all: how totally misconceived is the relentless search for explanation, and how utterly repugnant is the notion that there is a reason for suffering, that suffering is for something, let alone that it is sent, as a trial perhaps, or worse, as a punishment. I am more convinced than ever that theodicies are not only inherently futile essays, they are indeed potentially (how ironic!) evil projects, in intention justifications of God, in practice demonstrations of human pride, projects that satisfy our piety at the cost of both our moral sensibility and the moral integrity of God. The only theologically appropriate theodicy is the anti-theodicy of the cross - and at the cross one does not speak, one falls silent in wonder and praise.
Simone Weil wrote: “If I thought that God sent me suffering by an act of his will and for my good, I should think that I was something, and I should miss the chief use of suffering which is to teach me that I am nothing. It is therefore essential to avoid all such thoughts, but it is necessary to love God through the suffering.”