Friday, 11 March 2011

Novena of Grace of St. Francis Xavier (Day 8) Friday after Ash Wednesday 11th March 2011

Today is the 8th Day of the Novena of Grace and what areas have we covered so far? The thread through the last seven days has centred broadly on the call to holiness. This universal call demands that we draw lines. The boundary of holiness does not stop at the personal. It requires that we enlarge what is called the civilised public space for common existence—the space where mankind may flourish and civilisation may exist. Otherwise, we might sink into oblivion. But, in drawing the line for public engagement, we are at the same time drawing lines for sacred space. This space is sacramental in the sense that protecting this space shows our effort at allowing God to be God. The presence of sacred space indicates our respect for God’s sovereignty.

Second, holiness is linked to martyrdom. When we draw lines resisting compromise, we indicate a desire to be part of a great cloud of witnesses and that we on our part are willing to pay the price of witnessing, if necessary, with our blood. Accepting that we pay a price for holiness, we entered a reflexion that holiness is living truthfully and truth is defined not as a thing but rather a person Jesus Christ. Holiness consists of knowing Him, witnessing to Him and becoming Him who is the Truth. In trying to live the truth, holiness urges us to take responsibility for our decisions and actions instead of blaming others. Yesterday, I spoke on how the line of holiness that we draw must comes from a vision that extends beyond this world.

On Monday itself, we commemorated two martyrs of the early Church—Perpetua and Felicity. Today, we will revisit a topic which is close to their experience of martyrdom. For many of us, martyrdom would never be the price we pay. It is suffering. The embrace of an other-worldly vision will certainly involve suffering.

Suffering is a reality alien to so many of us. This sad state may be explained by the fact that we have trimmed our sails and settled into a more comfortable cruise called Christianity Lite.

In Christianity Lite, there is no place for suffering. Before you think that here I am advocating suffering, let me assure you that I am not. For example, I am not speaking of suffering arising from injustice as we heard in the first reading—strike the poor man with your fist. There is a difference between pain and suffering. Some pains are self-inflicted as when people make unreasonable demands on themselves, on others and on God. When our demands or expectations are not met, we experience pain. Furthermore, a dissolute life has consequences. But, this type of pain is not suffering because it can be managed—one’s expectations or changing one’s way of life.

Suffering, on the other hand, can only be embraced. Pain can be managed as in adjusting our unreasonable demands or it can be alleviated through medical means. However, we can only control pain up to a certain point. Beyond that, what? When one has taken all healthy precaution, one enters into the desert of suffering. Here in this desert, the only fitting companion is courage. Courage is no stranger to suffering because only with courage can suffering be embraced.

Why should we embrace suffering? Pain and especially suffering are not necessarily evil. If they were, then, they cannot fit into God’s plan of salvation. Instead, pain and therefore suffering is part of life after original sin. Take it at the level of the human cell. Its life may be described as a journey of pain and suffering. Why? Cells age and they die. A reason why there is a perception that existence or life is more “painful” is because this generation called “Body Beautiful” has unreasonably expected that bodies do not age or die. Or if you prefer a global outlook, take a look at the planets. We wonder where God is whenever a catastrophe befalls us, the recent being Christchurch where many lives have been lost and the latest, just two hours or so, a strong tsunami swept Sendai, Japan. Compare planet Earth with planet Mars. Mars is a dead planet, never mind the earthling obsessive search for water and life on the Red Planet. On Earth, the so-called presence of “suffering” is a sign of a living planet.

Thus, a good way to understand the presence of pain and suffering is this: The absence of God results in pain and suffering but pain and suffering are not proofs of God’s absence.

Thus, when Christ came to save us all, He did not come to liberate us from pain. He came to save us from eternal damnation and ultimate suffering is defined as the loss of eternal life. So, He who is sinless took upon Himself our suffering in order that we might gain eternal life. You can perhaps appreciate why not all suffering is evil.

According to John Paul II in his letter on suffering, he says that “Christ in bringing about human redemption through suffering has raised human suffering to the level of redemption”. It means that all of us that by virtue of sharing in Christ’s redemption, we also share in the world of suffering.

Human suffering, something which is beyond our control, is also a way out of our modern conundrum—the alienation created by our lonely existence. Do you remember that many of us were glued to the TV when we woke up on 26th December 2004? For some reasons, we were taken up by the sheer size of the catastrophe and the magnitude of the misery. But, a doctor took time off from his practice and he went there to serve those most afflicted. And there were many who did the same. Human suffering opens the way to human solidarity. Today, a solipsistic and solitary world is crying out for solidarity.

There on the Cross, Christ achieves the definitive solidarity that Man has longed for. As He stretched His arms on the Cross, He not only opened for us the road to salvation but He made it possible for humanity to stand in solidarity with one another. Therefore, our membership in the Body of Christ, through our suffering helps secure redemption. “In Christ, our suffering is not only human but also supernatural. It is human because, in suffering, we discover ourselves, our own humanity, dignity and mission. It is supernatural because it is rooted in the divine mystery of the Redemption of the world”.

In conclusion, let me rephrase what I said earlier that suffering is a reality alien to us. The truth is, suffering is not alien to us. We just do not want it.