We have no right to mutely point to the cross and let other people hang there alone. All humans must suffer, but all humans must also help each other bear that suffering.
Social media, for all its benefits, has made it all too easy to find a group of people who will take your lowest impulses and hoist them on high, praising and burnishing them until they look like something fine and heroic. As you form relationships in the group and come to know and trust your new friends, and as the group members reward each other for holding fast to its ideals, the thing that used to make you feel a little uneasy about yourself slowly becomes your identity, the thing that fills you with pride.
This is how alt-right groups function. This is how terrorist groups function. This is how abusively rigid traditionalist groups function. And this is how dissenting groups function. Dissent comes to feel normal, even heroic. The subject matter in each group is different, but the psychological dynamics are the same.
They say that God never answers “no” to a prayer. His only answers are “yes,” “not yet” or “something better.” I believe this, in theory, but in practice, “not yet” feels much worse than you would expect. You understand the justification for waiting: If we force events that are not ready, things may go terribly wrong, and who will be there to save you then?
But that does not make the pain any less. There is no escape. You still have to labor the long way.
Drive down the road on December 26 and beyond, and you’ll see a bunch of denuded Christmas trees kicked to the curb because their owners think Christmas is now over. They may have sung Christmas songs at their house, but they haven’t listened to the final verse.
And that final verse is vital. Take, for instance, one of my favorite Christmas songs: “Would I Were Nigh”:*
This is my favorite kind of Christmas carol: gentle, tender, and spare, with enough details to make the scene human, but also eliciting a sense of wonder.
You can see on the sheet music that the choir director wanted the singers to perform the first verse, to skip verses 3-5 for brevity, and to end with the final verse. And that final verse is there for a reason.
The first five verses express a subjunctive longing to have been present at the actual birth of Our Lord – to see “the oxen lie beside Him” – to watch Joseph keep “a watchful eye for danger” while the baby sleeps — to see the shepherds “lend ragged coats to hide Him.”
But the final verse is even more reflective: “Would I were there . . .” he says, “Yet everywhere, I too can beg His blessing; Then go my way, by night or day, safe through a world distressing.” And that one thought deftly rescues the entire song from any hint of fantasy or sentimentalism: we don’t have to daydream or wish, because no matter who, where, or when we are, the scene is real. The Incarnation of our Lord is present to us. The luminous child lights the way through every era.
I haven’t thrown out our Christmas tree. Our decorations are still up, and we’re still lighting our Advent wreath throughout the Octave of Christmas, singing Christmas songs instead of Advent ones. We’re still feasting, still pressing ourselves to treat each other with extra care and tenderness, because Christmas isn’t over. And yet I woke up in the middle of the night in distress, feeling like I missed the mark this year. Our Christmas was too busy, too secular, too focused on externals and not enough on the Christ Child. Somehow, I hadn’t seen Christmas through to its end.
Well, of course I hadn’t.
Just as with the folks who toss out their trees on December 26th, I make a mistake if I pin all my hopes for peace and joy and love on Christmas day, or really on any single day. If I do make this mistake, it’s because I haven’t listened to the song all the way through. I’m leaving off the final verse, and that one is vital.
The final verse, not only in the song but in anything that God is trying to tell us, says: “This story, your story, doesn’t end with death.” If we’re not getting everything we need in this world, if we don’t feel satisfied, if we feel adrift and alone and incomplete, if we feel that we’re always missing the mark, that’s because we haven’t gotten to the end of the song yet. We haven’t yet gotten to the final verse, which rescues all the others from fantasy.
The most accurate “final verse” we can sing is the one the Church teaches us: We wait in joyful hope, and that includes joyful hope for our own salvation through Christ’s efforts, not through our own. Don’t skip that verse.
The light of the Christ child is not meant be contained in a single day. It stretches from that night in Bethlehem to our present day, and it also stretches out ahead of us, into the future, as we wait for Him to come again and set all things right, in our own lives and in the “world distressing.”
So if this season feels all too distressing to you – if you are alone, or if you are suffering, or if bad memories seep through and make this time of year awful, or even if we ourselves are the cause of that distress — remember that we’re all still in that subjunctive phase.
There’s nothing wrong with us if we feel incomplete. We are incomplete. The final verse is yet to come. Oh, that final verse! It’s worth waiting for.
*from An Irish Carol Book (McLaughlin and Reilly) compiled by Fr. John Fennelly, arranged by Fr. Fennelley and J. Gerald Phillips, my sister’s choir director in college. I can’t find a recording anywhere, so here is the music (thanks to Sam Schmitt for hunting down and sharing the sheet music!)
A version of this essay first appeared in the National Catholic Register in 2015.
Yesterday, after the mass shooting at baptist church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, Lutheran pastor Hans Fiene wrote: When the Saints of First Baptist Church Were Murdered, God Was Answering Their Prayers.
I gave Fiene the benefit of the doubt. Authors often don’t choose their titles, and editors are always looking for clicks, so maybe he didn’t really mean what the title said.
I read it. He meant it. I’m not familiar enough with Lutheran theology to say whether he’s describing it accurately, but it sure isn’t Catholic theology, and he makes God sound like a psychopath.
First, let’s discuss what Fiene probably meant to say. He meant to say that God can bring good out of any evil; that good will always triumph over evil; that evildoers can kill the body, but not the soul; and that this world is fleeting, but salvation is eternal. He perhaps meant to say that suffering can be salvific, and that physical suffering is not the greatest evil that can be. All true, if perhaps not as comforting to the grieving as he seems to believe.
And he was responding to some awfully cruel and boneheaded comments from the Twitterverse. Snarky atheists are saying things like, “If prayers did anything, [the murdered victims] would still be alive.” They seem to believe that people of faith expect God to leap in like a Jedi and mow down evildoers on behalf of anyone who prays. They betray a complete failure to understand the much-abused divine gift of free will.
Unfortunately, so does Pastor Fiene. Let’s look at what he actually says, what it implies, and how wrong he is.
ERROR #1: The world is evil
When those saints of First Baptist Church were murdered yesterday, God wasn’t ignoring their prayers. He was answering them.
“Deliver us from evil.” Millions of Christians throughout the world pray these words every Sunday morning . . . we are asking God to deliver us out of this evil world and into his heavenly glory, where no violence, persecution, cruelty, or hatred will ever afflict us again.
This is gnosticism. In Genesis, it says, “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.” Although creation has been tarnished by original sin, the world is still good, and goodness and holiness can be achieved in this world, in this life. When we pray “deliver us from evil,” we are not asking God to hasten our deaths. We are asking Him to draw us closer to Him in this world so we can be with Him forever in the next.
If death were an answer to prayer, then murder, including abortion and euthanasia, would be the greatest act of charity.
ERROR #2: Everyone who calls himself “Christian” goes straight to Heaven
So the enemies of the gospel can pour out their murderous rage upon Christians, but all they can truly accomplish is placing us into the arms of our savior.
We certainly pray and hope that this is what happened. But we cannot assume that every human who finds himself inside a church is automatically heaven bound. The victims may very well all be saints and martyrs; but the murderer may also very well have shot someone mired in mortal sin. When we sentimentally and carelessly declare all dead people “saints,” we deprive them of what all the dead deserve from us: prayers for their souls.
ERROR #3, and the worst: Evil has a place in God’s will
Sometimes, God’s will is done by allowing temporal evil to be the means through which he delivers us from eternal evil.
We also pray in the Lord’s Prayer that God’s will be done. Sometimes, his will is done by allowing temporal evil to be the means through which he delivers us from eternal evil. Despite the best (or, more accurately, the worst) intentions of the wicked against his children, God hoists them on their own petard by using their wickedness to give those children his victory, even as the wicked often mock the prayers of their prey.
Pastor Fiene comes very close to saying that God wills evil. This idea is so outrageously false, even coming close to saying it is nearly blasphemy.
If God wills evil, He is not God.
God can bring good out of evil, and He does. God can use suffering to save us, and He does (if we let Him). But listen to me now.
When a man mows down a pregnant woman and her children, this is not God’s will. Not even sorta kinda God’s will, not even God’s-will-by-way-of-man’s-screw-ups, not even a little ugly streak hidden inside the much nicer and larger kind of God’s will that we like better.
God does not and cannot will evil to happen, not even so that good may come of it. God allows evil to happen, because He has given us actual free will. He accepts that evil is in the world because of original sin. But He is the only source of good, and He is the source of nothing but good. Evil cannot come from Him, and He cannot will evil to come about. This is who God is.
When horrible things happen, there is always a contingent of Christians — sometimes even of Catholics — who insist we must breathe shallowly, stretch our eyes open very wide, stare fixedly into the shiny distance, and declare all things good-fine-happy-triumphant-wonderful-terrific and joy-joy-joy-now-now-now. There is always a contingent who will say these things even to the faces of people who have just suffered immense, incomprehensible grief.
It is blasphemy. Christ wept when Lazarus died. Christ begged for his suffering to pass in Gethsemane. Christ cried out in agony and desolation on the Cross. Why? Because suffering is real. Death is horrible. It is not from God. He accepted and allowed and used all the evil and suffering that came into the world through sin, but it was not His will that there should be evil and suffering. He wept.
This is why we hoist a crucifix front and center in our churches, and not a risen Christ: Because this good, great, beautiful, lovable world is soaked with real suffering and real grief. The Christian thing to do is to weep with the ones who mourn, just as Christ did. Not to tell them that a tricksy, winking God somehow wills it, somehow doesn’t mind our blood being spilled, and it’s really all right their babies are riddled with bullet holes, because God, that bastard, willed it to happen.
The crucifix means salvation. The crucifix also means that an immortal God knows what it means to suffer, bleed, and die. It means that God, the source of all that is good, has been pierced for our sins, and that salvation flows from his hands, feet, and side to wash away sin. Only goodness flows from Him. He pours out Himself. He does not, cannot, pour out death.
If you think there’s no difference between what I said and what Pastor Fiene said, then the God you worship does not know pain and is not truly human. He is not, in short, Jesus.
We always ask why there has to be pain in the world, but how often do we ask why there is pleasure? The sleeping fly will wake with a start and buzz off to another day of his meaningless life, driven by impulses, unaware that he is even alive, until one day he suddenly dies.
But I wake up . . .
You check your calendar and realize there is yet another evening concert tonight. You . . .
(a) stride into the child’s room to make sure the concert apparel is clean and pressed, shoes are shined, and that the after-school snack you’re planning doesn’t include cheese, which can produce a phlegmy sound in the vocal cords. Oop, there’s just time to run out for flowers!
(b) sigh a little and adjust your schedule so everyone can get there on time. Maybe bring some work with you.
(c) barrel through the stages of grief as quickly as you can, then set to work figuring out why it’s definitely your husband’s turn to represent.
(d) contact your lawyer. This just isn’t right. This just isn’t right.
As your child leaves for school, you notice that his shoes are pretty beat up. You . . .
(a) are relieved, because it’s been nearly four months since his feet have been measured and fitted by your on-call orthopedist. Optimal brain function is only possible when the body is cared for from top to toe.
(b) dig out a spare pair that are not perfect, but they’ll get the kid through.
(c) hope the gas station sells flip flops.
(d) growl, “Well, we got plenty paper bags. Here’s a marker; draw yourself a swoosh.”
You are packing a lunch for your kid and you make sure it . . .
(a) includes a lean protein, two servings of veg and one of fruit (local, obvs), a grain (because kids will be kids!), and . . . let’s see, it’s Thursday, so that means the extra treat will be . . . cauliflower-based! Fun! Now, which mason jar conveys the most love?
(b) is reasonably balanced, won’t trigger anyone’s allergies, and may even get eaten.
(c) has some food in it, none of it used.
(d) is heavy enough to appear to contain food, for plausible deniability.
You are informed there will be three field trips next week, each one requiring a special lunch and extra snacks, early drop-off and late pick-up time, a sheaf of permission slips and release forms, and of course a check. And money for the gift shop. You . . .
(a) sprint to the phone to volunteer as chaperone. You always wanted to see how they sort industrial grit, and now you get to do it alongside a large group of middle schoolers! Win win!
(b) are just grateful someone else is organizing these things. It’s nice, really, that kids get to break out of the routine.
(c) shout, “FINE” and tear a check from the checkbook so violently that you accidentally clock the kid in the jaw, and when she stops crying, she admits that she didn’t want to go anyway because her best friends Braeydinn and Peyytun are being weird, so you decide to just skip it and get donuts together.
(d) take the kid by the hand and ask him if he really wants to go, grasping his hand tighter and tighter until he begs you to let go, I mean let him stay home and help you get caught up on laundry and really just be useful to you in any way you need, really.
You scroll ahead in your calendar to find out when the last day of school is, anyway. You . . .
(a) sit right down and write a thank-you note to the superintendent for all his hard work and wise and prudent choices over the year. Those guys just don’t get enough credit, you know? Six figure income, you say? That doesn’t seem like enough.
(b) sigh a little bit, but you have to be grateful there is such a thing as school. Some places don’t have school.
(c) massage your temples, breathe like your therapist wants you to breathe, and work toward a place of acceptance, by which you mean “only soft screaming.”
(d) decide that, as of this minute, you are homeschooling, dammit, and it is summer.
Come on, what do you want from my life? A+. You all get an A+. All right?
In The Lego Movie, the prophetic minifig Vitruvius spurs the hero on to greatness by feeding him a cliched line about being special. “I know it sounds like a cat poster,” Vitruvius admits, “But it’s true!”
Lately, I’m rediscovering the truth of a cat-posterish idea myself: change hurts. We all know this is true, yes? We’re all familiar with a whole panoply of phrases that express this idea linking progress and suffering: “No pain, no gain;” “You have to break some eggs to make an omelet;” “No guts, no glory;” “No cross, no crown,” and so on.
But the problem with living with a world in love with cat poster ideas is that it’s easy to click “like” or “up” or “favorite,” but somewhat harder to be the actual cat.
When we’re the cat — when we’re the one actually living through the suffering or pain, and enduring our circumstances beyond the quick freeze frame that captures our predicament — we often end up feeling dismayed, discouraged, even betrayed when we find ourselves genuinely suffering, and it genuinely hurts. We think we are prepared for the idea that change and progress only come through struggle and sweat, but maybe subconsciously we expect that struggle to look — well, photogenic.
There are many popular styles of romanticized pain: the gritty warrior with corded neck muscles squinting toward the coming battle; the elegantly wilting emo chick collapsing in a puddle of rosewater and mascara; the sepia-tinted mother with her chin held high against the world as her shabby chic children cling to her capable thighs; the robed faithful servant on his knees in anguish, just as muscular and splendid as the angel who comes to comfort him; the sleek long-distance runner powering through the rain, baring his perfect white teeth and lovin’ that burn.
These are all half truths about suffering and growth, pain and progress. Here’s the actual truth: growth and change usually cause suffering, and suffering is ugly. Really ugly, not poster ugly.
If someone you love actually betrays you, your tears aren’t going to wend their way down your cheek like so many liquid crystals; you’re going to cry until your skin is blotchy, your nose runs, your teeth ache, and your sinuses fill up with snot. Being a soldier is, from what I hear, less often about guts and glory, and more about boredom, rashes, diarrhea, and fear. The true action of change is less like sprouting glorious wings and more like dissolving into horrible, stinky soup. Just ask any former caterpillar.
So, what’s the solution? Well, first of all, if what I’ve said above isn’t true for you, then carry on! If you truly gain inspiration and strength and encouragement from a poster or a meme, then that is great. If it works, it works. Sometimes an attractive image is what helps us to embrace necessary change instead of shrinking away from it. Sometimes picturing ourselves as warriors instead of victims really does give us that extra oomph we need to push forward instead of giving up.
But if you find yourself suffering real pain, pain that just plain hurts instead of “hurts so good,” then don’t add to that pain because you feel like you’re somehow doing it wrong. You’re not a poster, you’re a person; and true suffering isn’t photogenic. So if you find yourself suffering and you feel stupid, or ugly, or confused, or exhausted, then realize that this is what true suffering looks like. Change hurts, and it’s not supposed to look nice. That’s what makes it painful! Don’t make yourself even more miserable than you have to be by expecting to be gorgeous in your misery. That’s a subtle and insidious temptation to despair.
Yes, some suffering is unavoidable. Yes, it’s usually necessary for growth and change. Yes, we are often at our best when we choose to be strong in the face of suffering. Yes, it’s often worthwhile, and there is often glory and joy on the other side.
But no, it’s not going to look good when you’re in the thick of it.
A Facebook friend posted this status:
Rule of thumb: Use NFP as often as you must forgo Sunday Mass.
His point was this: Just as we have to have serious reasons to miss Sunday Mass without sinning, we should have serious reasons to postpone pregnancy.
First, the obligatory clarification: When he said “use NFP,” he meant “use NFP to avoid pregnancy.” In fact, infertile couples trying to get pregnant may also “use NFP,” and even abstinent women use may “use NFP” to diagnose and treat a whole host of health issues.
That being said, the statement he made is technically true, but disastrously misleading. Here’s what I mean:
We have an obligation to go to Mass on Sundays unless there’s a serious reason not to do so. The catechism says:
2181 The Sunday Eucharist is the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice. For this reason the faithful are obliged to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation, unless excused for a serious reason (for example, illness, the care of infants) or dispensed by their own pastor.119 Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin.
We go because we are obligated to go; and we are obligated to go because it’s good for us to be there. Okay.
But some people believe that you must be at death’s door before you’d even consider foregoing Mass, and it never occurs to them that it’s selfish and wrong to drag your germy, spluttering, sneezing, infectious self into a building full of babies and old people. You shouldn’t skip Mass because you have a slight headache or you’re not in the mood; but you shouldn’t force yourself to go to Mass if your physical presence would be bad for other people. Some of your fellow parishioners are medically fragile, but, unlike you with your flu, they won’t be stronger next week. For their sake, out of respect for their desire to be at Mass, you need to consider staying home for now. If you make a decision in good faith to stay home, then you are not sinning by skipping Mass, even if you could physically survive the hour.
In the same way, choosing to forgo conception is not just about your personal willingness to suffer. You have to take other people’s legitimate needs into account. You may be willing to have another baby now, but is it just and fair to the rest of the people you’re responsible for? If one of your other kids in in crisis and needs attention badly, is there anything holy about deliberately becoming barely functional for several months? Can you ask your already-overburdened husband to unwillingly take up even more slack, and call that “being one flesh?” Or can you ask your already-exhausted wife to unwillingly do even more than she’s already doing, but somehow call it “generosity?”
Sometimes selfishness masquerades as piety. I’m not afraid to suffer! Well, that’s nice for you, but what about the suffering you’re causing to other people as you pat yourself on the back for your selfless heroism? You don’t live alone in a hermit’s cell. Your choices affect other people, and you’re not allowed to ignore them because it strokes your spiritual pride. You’re not entitled to be generous with other people’s lives. You can ask them to be adaptable (and oftentimes, that’s all that another baby requires: adaptability); but their lives are not yours to sacrifice.
So that’s the first complication to what seems like a tidy little aphorism. It’s true that we need a serious or just reason to postpone pregnancy or to skip Mass, but those reasons are not all about us.
The second problem is that the “Try harder! Suffer more! Lemme see you sweat!” approach has to do with how we perceive God, and goes beyond NFP. The “agony = holiness” approach assumes that God is only truly pleased when we’re in horrible pain all the time, and the only way to tell if we’re following God is if we’re falling apart. If life is tolerable, we must be doing something wrong.
This is, if anything, worse than the first problem. The first problem shows that we don’t have sufficient love for other people. The second problem shows we don’t have sufficient love for God.
The second problem, the “agony = holiness” approach, portrays God as barking, sadistic drill sergeant of a deity, hellbent on whipping us into shape by smacking us down the minute we blink like the sniveling, puling weaklings we are.
He doesn’t despise us. He’s not out to get us. He’s not itching to see us squirm between the screws of the torture device He calls “morality.” I understand that the 21st century is not chock full of Catholics who are too strict with themselves, but neither is it chock full of Catholics who truly look to Christ as the source of love and solace in our sorrow.
God is not a sadist. God doesn’t relish watching us torment ourselves. He sometimes lets us fall into suffering — and make no mistake, pregnancy, or going to Mass, can be a form of suffering! But when we do fall into dark times, He jumps down into that pit with us, to help us dig our way out, to help us become stronger, and to keep us company while we’re there. He doesn’t stand at the edge looking down, jeering and cheering as we writhe in pain below. He is the Lamb who was slain, not the drill sergeant who gets off on pain.
We must be willing to suffer, but we’re not required to seek suffering out. We’re not required to constantly ratchet up our own pain.
We are required to seek love out. We are required to constantly ratchet up our desire to see God in everyone and everything.
And guess what? Sometimes God looks like joy. Sometimes God looks like peace. Sometimes God looks like prudence. Sometimes God even looks like contentment.
So be obedient, pray often, and seek God and His love in obedience, rather than focusing on the rules themselves. If God is giving you a way to take care of yourself and take care of others, whether that’s making a spiritual communion while drinking tea at home, or whether that’s looking prayerfully at your family and thanking God for the size it is right now, then you are pleasing the Father who loves you.
Reassess your decisions as necessary. But don’t assume that the thing that appeals to you must automatically disappoint God. Obedience doesn’t always bring agony. Sometimes it brings relief. Be content to be loved.