Sunday, April 29, 2007

Thoughts on Evil 5

Thoughts on Evil 5

In this post I should like to dwell on the mystery of suffering. I am basing these thoughts on an article I wrote in June 1991 and which appeared in Reality magazine of that date. I had been exploring this topic with my 6th form religion class at the time and had sent in a short article as a result of our deliberations. I should like to share with you some of the thoughts I had then and which were published in that little “religious” magazine.

I stated that we could look at suffering in two ways. Firstly, we might regard it as a remote problem which leaves the mind boggled and affronts our humanity. Say, for instance we dwell upon the suffering of the poor people of Iraq who have to undergo massive suffering – countless Iraqis killed and maimed daily which we can view so readily on our TV screens and in our newspapers. However, this is a remote problem for us, but it certainly does affront our humanity. We feel compassion for these poor unfortunates. On the other hand we can also look on suffering as a mystery through which we struggle here and now in our everyday lives. Our response to the long and painful illness of a friend, the death of a loved one, the breakdown of a marriage, or being made redundant, all belong to this second way of viewing suffering – that is, suffering as a mystery to be lived. In this latter aspect there are no easy answers, rather hard won wisdom, or if we are believers, the very test of our faith.

Having lived through, and reflected upon, with the help of others, whatever suffering we experience in our lives, we can come up with some points of illumination, certainly not clear and cut answers which miss the point altogether. What we gain at this level of reflection on lived experience can help us to put global suffering into context.

We must, when talking about suffering, guard against simplistic and trite answers. For example, suffering is sent by a rather cruel God to test the strength of our faith. Such answers, Christians say, give people a false image of God: a rather tyrannical figure who likes to torture his creatures. All we can do is search for insights – there are no full and complete answers.

Some Points of Illumination: (I) When we look at life we see a cycle: growth, decay, death, new life, growth again and so on and so forth. Growth does not and cannot occur without pain. To grow into a mature human being requires much sacrifice and consequent pain. What rose bush will grow properly without pruning? What child will grow without correction? What race will be won without training? What exam will be passed without the toil of study?

(II) What if no pain? How about the existence of love and care in the world? How would these exist if there were no suffering, no pain, and no death? People get sick and go to hospital. Families, nurses and doctors care. Where would the caring professions be (priests, doctors, nurses, social workers, teachers) if there were no suffering? Would there be caring and loving in the most perfect of perfect worlds in which no suffering existed? In our relationships we support one another in our weaknesses and sickness. A couple’s love for each other grows through the joys and sufferings which life metes out to them “for better or worse.”

(III) Another point of illumination is the importance of perspective. When we look at things from close quarters we see neither pattern nor design. If we stand very close to a painting we see nothing but brush strokes. It is only upon standing back and viewing it from a distance that we see the overall picture. Likewise when we endure suffering, we may not appreciate what good or benefit may result from it, later, in our lives. A personal injury may lead us to appreciate the value of our health and to take up beneficial bodily exercise. Like the hiker who has reached a vantage point on the mountain we can view our difficult ascent. We realise that all the twists and turns eventually lead to a destination – to some good. In traditional terminology a Christian would call this the providence of God, He who brings good from every evil.

(IV) The Dark Night of the Soul: Suffering is a dark mystery which is very difficult to fathom. I quoted the French theologian Eugène Joly in a previous post to the effect that a mystery is not a wall off which we bang our heads. Rather it is an ocean into which we plunge. I love this metaphor for suffering. We just have to go through it as best we can and to learn to endure “the slings and arrows” of our own personal “outrageous fortune.” In this deep sense there is wisdom in the motto of the RAF – “Per ardua ad astra!” St John of the Cross endured his own personal mental and spiritual torment which eventually served to make him a stronger and better human being. In the darkest night a candle of hope can always be lit. There is light at the end of every tunnel. It is often said that the darkest moment is the one before the dawn. Is it any wonder that when dealing with the mystery of the co-existence of Good and Evil philosophers, poets, theologians, mystics, saints and Jesus Christ himself reached for the contrasting imagery of Night and Day? One could do a marvellous survey of the Bible in terms of these images – as indeed one could do a wonderful study of Shakespeare’s plays using the exact same images.

(V) The Importance of Polar Opposites: Many scholars from antiquity right up to recent times have adverted to the essential tension of polar opposites. They would point out simply and succinctly that one cannot have one without the other. We would not know what the day is, were it not that we experience the night and vice versa. Likewise with respect to good and evil – we should not know one without the other.

Above I have placed a photograph I took of my mother with her nurses in St Mary's Phoenix Park. The caring professions exist because there is illness (by definition evil) in the world.

To be continued

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