Suffering, says my friend, John O’Donohue, burns up our illusions in the fires of their power to bring new life. This flower reminds me of the beauty of fire
When I see images of a forest fire, I am aware of the charred remains of too many sweet, gentle animals which were caught in its path or surrounded by its inevitability. And in life I see the same thing. We live in a good world. It was made good and beautiful. It was formed blue and green in a cosmos which is filled (so far as we can see the 3% we have explored) with planets whose atmospheres are hostile to the kind of life we are: soft, water-filled, temperature-sensitive and with skeletons on the inside instead of shells on the outside. Our bodies are vulnerable to the violence of nature just as our insides are vulnerable to the violences exacted upon us by the few but powerful people, whose own experience of abuse or neglect or both, have curdled them into charming abusers. They damage because of that deadly combination of charm and insecurity which collude to wage war like a cyclone moving from place to place, unable to be anything other than what it is. The daddy long legs is a spider with the world’s most concentrated and deadly venom, but it has no fangs. It is the combination which is the issue.
So we suffer – at the hands of nature and at the hands of humans -sometimes those to whom we choose to be closest.
And then we are forced to see the things we are meant to see, if the suffering is able to do its best work. If it does its worst work, it simply weakens and destroys rather than refining – or worse, makes us into that abuser. And we have seen both, if we have been paying attention.
Suffering is not only what we think of the situations in which we find ourselves. On the other hand, our Buddhist brethren are right that some of our suffering is exacted upon us by our own attachments to thoughts. And yet, if we get very quiet, turn out the lights and rest in God, our suffering can be a tool in which, and with which, we burn away the impurities of the gold of our souls. I do not wish suffering on anyone. And yet how can I pretend that I have not seen its valuable effects on so many whose suffering has made them better humans. As for those for whom suffering made them into twisted, inauthentic people, all we can do is what we do with poisonous snakes – notice their beauty – those bright colors, and pray that people steer clear; whether in the Garden of Eden or the gardens of our lives.
What if we walk with Jesus as he suffers rather than simply going to church to be spectators of an old story? What if we were to make space in our days as we head towards Holy Week? What if we were to go to bed early and rise early to light a candle and be with the God who can use our suffering to show us what illusions needs to be burned out of us – and – more important – show us how beautiful is that which has been left behind in the wake for the fires. Yes innocents within us will be consumed by the fire like chipmunks hiding in rock walls during the storm of a forest blaze, but when the fire is done, there is all this chemical change: new light, new carbon, new decaying death-food – new water pathways.
And in that new space, with illusions burned away, there is space for truth.
Pontius Pilate will soon as his great question. He is a hero of mine for asking it. “What is truth?” Jesus responds with silence – no speeches, no dialogues, no debate. Instead Jesus shows us with his body. Jesus shows us truth. Something is revealed in the suffering: that God never abandons us and that beyond the suffering, new life is possible. We will never see it from our pain-places, but we will when the pain is over and all that is left is truth.