Sep 21, 2011
In the fictionalized stage play, “Amadeus,” the British writer Peter Shaffer puts an intractable question in the mouth of Antonio Salieri, Mozart’s older and senior colleague at the imperial court: how can an all-good and loving God bestow the gift of genius to a foul-mouthed buffoon like Mozart, while giving a devout Catholic like Salieri only enough talent to recognize his mediocrity? So embittered is Salieri by his perceived injustice, that in the play, this patron saint of mediocrity renounces God and vows to destroy Mozart. (In real life, Salieri did try to help Mozart, if somewhat reluctantly.)
Who of us is not perplexed by the mystery of suffering? Whether physical, mental, emotional or spiritual, suffering does violence to the person and to groups of persons. It comes from ourselves, from the malice of others, from places, events, and unfulfilled expectations. In the aftermath of disaster, parents sob over their innocent dead children; faith is shaken. How did Rose Kennedy sustain the tragic deaths of four children and still hold on to her sanity and her faith? The year 2011 has presented to us one unnerving challenge after the other and from every imaginable source.
Why are good people weighed down by injustice? To whom shall we go for answers? For consolation? Not even music can calm our spirits beyond the moment. Who of us dares to give facile answers to its universal and ubiquitous presence? Reality itself gives the unwelcome but truthful response: when everything has been done to remove suffering, and it persists, a person either deals with it or suffers more intensely from fighting it. Grave suffering re-arranges the whole of one’s life, whether through natural catastrophe, illness, or loss of a loved one. Maturity begins with accepting the fact that struggle is an integral part of life, but with it comes the invitation to grow in compassion, wisdom and love. Questions about suffering inevitably lead to questions about God. Where is God in it all? A powerful and all-loving God would not permit suffering to happen. Therefore, God must be a sadist or an impotent entity. Such inescapable questions haunt persons of faith and those of no faith because they affect us at the very core of daily living. And yet we do sense a ray of light in the darkness that holds meaning for us. Stories with happy endings are not just for children.
Despite setbacks and “in the face of despair,” Christian hope “is possible only in the light of redemption . . . in the coming of absolute love that identifies itself with suffering and with the sufferers of the world” (Walter Kasper, “The God of Jesus Christ,” 161-62). Jesus suffers in solidarity with us: “The Incarnation of God’s solidarity with the poor in every form has a catastrophic logic; if he takes it seriously, it will bring him to the cross” (Hans Urs von Balthasar, “The Glory of the Lord” VII:138). Yet, Jesus was not a passive victim. He did not seek out suffering for its own sake. He was weighed down with suffering, from the obtuseness of friends and the malice of his enemies, from fatigue, distress and loneliness, and from a shameful death. In human terms, his life was an appalling failure. The quest of humanity that suffers and dies is the quest of the God-Man who also suffers, dies, has compassion on us, and who is raised on high in Resurrection glory by his Father (Kasper, 161). In the end, by enduring death, he trampled on death and triumphed over the grave.
A skeptical culture questions the fact that Jesus is the world’s redemptive hope. On September 14, why does the Catholic Church celebrate this scandal as a triumph? If the cross leads to diminishment and loss, in what way can an instrument of Roman torture be considered a triumph and the tree of life? What is the significance of Jesus’ suffering?
He had no form and no comeliness that we should link to him. He had no beauty that we should desire him (Is 53:2). Is this so? What shall we ponder in this reflection even as the remainder of this topic unfolds in the next few weeks? We have no place to run except to the Lord. Let us pour out our complaints and show him all our troubles. We ask that our heavy hearts be lifted in the conviction that we are being saved every day in the power of God.