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June 17, 2013
Love and suffering: paradox of love
By Alice von Hildebrand *

By Alice von Hildebrand *

Dedicated to Lee and Margaret Matherne

There is one thing we all long for: to love and to be loved. There is one thing that we all dread: suffering. The title of this article should therefore puzzle its readers. It seems to imply some sort of contradiction. My purpose is to show that it is one of the many enlightening paradoxes of Christianity: on this earth, the two are deeply and inevitably linked.

Until it starts loving the human heart hibernates. This affective response (sanctioned by the will) is a response to the beauty of another person that has shaken our heart from its slumber. It is such a powerful “wake up call” that all of a sudden “all things are new.” He who has never loved has never truly lived.

The overwhelming joy that is linked to this awakening has two paradoxical effects. One of them is that the newborn lover gains the certitude that man has been made for immortality. (Wisdom 2: 23) It is inconceivable that what the lover experiences in truly loving should be evanescent; like a flower that blossoms, enchants us by its beauty … and soon fades and dies. We live in a transient world where things are born and die. The sunrise is followed by a sunset; the joy of a new birth is followed by the grief of death. This is why it is overwhelming indeed to gain the absolute, unshakeable certainty that what is experienced in loving victoriously conquers death. This has been beautifully expressed in one of Gabriel Marcel’s plays, “Le Mort de Demain,” in which the key character exclaims: “Toi, tu ne mourras pas.” (“Thou, thou shalt not die.”)

This overwhelming experience is mysteriously linked to another one: the moment we love, we discover a facet of suffering totally unknown to us until then. For falling in love reveals to us in a flash the fragility of man’s metaphysical situation. We have been given the grace of perceiving the beauty of one of God’s creatures, – each one of them a pale reflection of His infinite beauty – and suddenly we realize that, hard as we try,  we, “creatures of a day” (Plato,  Laws, XI, 923) cannot protect the loved one. Human life is so fragile that – to quote Pascal – “Une vapeur, une goutte d’eau suffit pour le tuer” (A vapor, a drop of water suffices to kill him). We gain a dolorous awareness that being as weak as we are, we cannot guard the loved one, hard as we try. We realize that this precious being is infinitely fragile. This is inevitably a source of profound suffering. The loved being whose beauty has wounded our heart is frailty itself, and we realize that, ardently as we wish to, we are ourselves too weak and too helpless to shelter him in this threatening and treacherous world where dangers are constantly lurking.

The famous poem of John Keats, “When I have fears lest I should cease to be” could be reformulated: “When I have fears lest Thou shouldst cease to be.” This inevitably brings another threatening thought into our minds: if the loved one were to die, would I longer wish to live? Why should I desire to remain in this world which has buried his remains? Once again, Gabriel Marcel – whose very special gift is his “intellectual sensitivity” (which shields him from the danger of heartless abstractionism) expressed this thought in these powerful words; “your death is my death.” I know people who tragically believe that by committing suicide, they will be re united with their loved one, thereby cutting themselves off from the hope of being reunited with him in eternity where all tears shall be dried.

Inevitably this awareness is the source of deep suffering. We all know mothers who live in a constant state of panic. This very panic can, in fact, hurt the very person whom she wishes to protect.

The secularist world in which we live offers an “ideal” solution called “life insurance”. All we need do is to sign a contract requesting our paying a monthly fee to gain the guarantee that whether we die or whether the loved one dies, there will be some financial compensation. This should give us a feeling of “security.” This is a huge and attractive lie.  A life insurance does not and cannot guarantee “life.” It only offers a pitiful (if useful) “financial compensation” – a sad substitute indeed.

The problem is so grave that it has arrested the attention of some great minds. Sixth centuries before Christ, Buddha’s great concern has been to eliminate suffering from human life, for it makes it both threatening and unbearable.  “He who has one hundred loves has one hundred sufferings” … all the way down to “he who has one love, has one suffering” with the inevitable consequence that he who does not love escapes from suffering. To let oneself be attached to anything is punished by pain and anguish. Once we are liberated from the burden of upsetting emotions, we are “free” and on our way to illumination. The soul then enjoys perfect “calm.” Be it mentioned that “calm” is radically different from what the Christians call peace. The first means that we are “concern” free. It is negative. Peace – as witnessed in the lives of saints – is a response to the overwhelming assurance that God is a God of love. This faith gives the believer a joyful peace – a response to God’s goodness – linked to an ardent desire to live in front of His loving gaze, embraced by His love.

St. Therese of Lisieux, while undergoing agonizing trials, wrote in her autobiography that, nevertheless in the very depth of her soul, she felt a deep peace. The tempest was only on the surface of her soul.

Another tempting way of escape is Stoicism. Animated by pride, the Stoic refuses to acknowledge that anything, whatever its nature, can upset him: he is above emotions typical of fragile and insecure people. He is the strong one, the unconquerable one. The price he has to pay, however, is to opt for a heart of stone while despising a heart of flesh. Like the God of Aristotle, nothing can conceivably shake him or affect him. But are either seasoned Buddhists or efficient Stoics ever fully alive? Dante might also have them mind when he wrote about the inner state of those men “che mai non fur vivi” (“wretches who never were alive,” Inferno, III, 64).

Indeed, those who have never loved have never woken up from a deadly slumber.

These two “philosophies” are at the antipodes of the blessed Christian solution, in which suffering is given a deep meaning.  Should this surprise us upon realizing that it is the only religion in which God’s love is so overwhelming that He sent his beloved Son to save his treacherous creatures from eternal damnation. Based on the stronghold of faith, the Christian has the firm certainly that God and our sweet mother Mary, do love our beloved one more and better than we possibly can. In eternity, we shall see that any authentic human love is, in fact, a partaking of the Divine Love for the loved one. To go through life in a state of panic because of our helplessness to protect those we love, is a grave lack of faith. The believer’s confidence in God’s love for the beloved should be the very “lining” of his soul. How many of us are tempted to forget that each human being, from the very moment of its conception, is confided to an individual guardian angel, who watches lovingly over him? This is, I believe, the only way of baptizing the suffering linked to the fear linked to human love: relate our love to Him Who is Love.

Death is inevitable but we know neither the day nor the hour, with the interesting difference that the “space” where our soul will leave our body is already there, waiting for us to come at a particular moment when God will cut short our days. Death is the moment when “space” and “time” meet. Within seconds, we shall leave this world and enter into the mystery of eternity.

How meaningful that Christ tells us repeatedly: “Watch and pray.”

However, the link between love and suffering is still deeper. The very moment that we fall in love we also become conscious that the sufferings of the loved one – whatever their nature – become our own.  It is inconceivable that when a loved one suffers, we “protect” ourselves from these sufferings, put on blinders so that his pains shall not disturb our inner calm. As mentioned above, suffering is indeed man’s arch fear.

When the loved one suffers, the lover wants to suffer with him. His sufferings are our sufferings; his pains are our pains; his death is our own death. This has, once again, been poignantly expressed by Gabriel Marcel.

As ever sin brings about its own punishment, one of the terrible curses of shutting one’s heart from loving from fear of being “wounded”, and discover how very weak and vulnerable we are, is to opt for a heart of stone instead of a heart of flesh. Once again this approach is the very antithesis of Christianity.

These mysterious paradoxes are the warp and woof of a religion based on God’s love for his creatures. The lover not only wants to suffer with the loved one; moreover, he would resent it if the latter concealed his sufferings – of whatever kind – to “shield” him from suffering. Understandable as it is, the lover should realize that the beloved wants to drink the chalice with the one who has conquered his heart.

This has been powerfully expressed by a relatively little known French poet: Jean de Rotrou: “L’ami qui souffre seul fait un injure a l’autre” ("He who chooses to suffer alone, offends his friend." Venceslas). This is a precious thought. There might, however, be one exception. Let us assume that the beloved is himself very ill, and that the news that the one is loved is also facing dreadful trials of whatever nature, would not give him “le coup de grace.” Then delay would be legitimate. The crucial thing is to know that the one we love wants to share our trials – that he is spiritually “there.”
One thing is certain: one can measure the depth of love by the willingness to suffer with the beloved.

The Gospels make it luminously clear: the flight of eleven of the apostles when Christ was arrested was a sad proof of how imperfect their love was. It is to the honor of the holy women that nothing, absolutely nothing, could have prevented them from following Christ to Golgotha. Could they help Him? No.

Their love was proven by the fact that they were there. We are told that Mary, His mother, was standing at the foot of the Cross.  That she, all pure, all holy, should share in his agonizing pains, must have been for the Savior Himself more agonizing that the nails in his hands and feet. He loved her above all creatures, from the very moment of His conception  and the sublimity of the bond uniting them is of such nature that we shall need to grow new organs to be able to fully appreciate its divine quality. 

I repeat: to see her suffer with him must have been possibly the most refined of all conceivable sufferings. He wanted to spare her, yet this was the price she had to pay for her “fiat” – her acceptance of becoming His mother was mysteriously linked to her full acceptance of the crucifixion that in the course of time, she would endure with him.

This should, once again, make it abundantly clear that on this earth, love and suffering are intimately bound.

But the climax of the depth of this bond is fully revealed in the words of Christ at the last supper. “There is no greater love than to give one’s life for one’s friends.”

At age five, I had a first inkling of this truth. I was deadly sick with double pneumonia at a time when antibiotics were unknown. Small as I was, I was conscious that I was close to death. I recall as clearly as it were yesterday, that my anxious mother bent over my little white wooden bed, and murmured; “Darling, how I wish I could suffer this for you.” I was so weak that I did not even open my eyes; I did not say “thank you” but, once again, I recall with incredible clarity that I said to myself: “Don’t ever forget this. This is true love.”

I have not forgotten.

This experience was duplicated when more than once friends came to me shattered by grief, having just learned that one of their children had a chronic disease which today, has no cure. They said to me sobbing: “How I wish I could take it from him.” This implies a consciousness of what an unfathomable gift that life is.

A society, like ours, which has opted for death is doomed; it has sealed its own demise. In his autobiography, G. K Chesterton writes the following words:  “Thus, among the juvenile verses I began to write about this time was one called ‘The Babe Unborn’ which imagined the uncreated creature crying out for existence and promising every virtue if he might only have the experience of life.” (p. 91) He also tells us that he was immensely grateful for existing, without knowing to whom his thanks should be addressed. At that time, he was a “young” unbeliever.

That murder has been legalized in our society (that is, to give a place to “other people’s murder”) means that it has dug its own grave.

Every dogma of the Catholic Church is a gem of divine love, but the resurrection of the body is nothing short of overwhelming. That the handful of dust to which our body will soon be reduced after death, will one day rise and be re united to the soul from which it has been possibly separated for thousands of years, is a token of the immensity of God‘s creative love. Adoration alone can respond adequately to the Creator’s infinite love.
In Catholicism, we find all the credentials required by a true religion: it gives meaning to suffering, defeats death, and unites truth, holiness, beauty and life.

Blessed are those who perceive the message and respond with a joyful self donation. This was done through the centuries by the saints.

Alice von Hildebrand is a lecturer and an author, whose works include: The Privilege of Being a Woman (2002) and The Soul of a Lion: The Life of Dietrich von Hildebrand (2000), a biography of her late husband. She was made a Dame Grand Cross of the Equestrian Order of St. Gregory by Pope Francis in 2013.
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July 31, 2014

Saint Ignatius of Loyola, Priest

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Mt 13:47-53

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