The Anthropology of Suffering

Suffering Isn’t Suffering Unless It Hurts. When I was a student my confessor was a Cistercian monk from Hungary name Fr Chris (I may have mentioned him before). One of the things he would frequently remind me of is that the one thing Christ promises His disciples is that we will suffer in this life. “And,” he would conclude, “suffering isn’t suffering if it doesn’t hurt.” Father’s counsel to me came to mind this morning as I thought about the current controversy taking shape between Metropolitan Jonah and the Orthodox Church in America on one side and the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople on the other side.

The importance of suffering in the spiritual life is often overlooked. Rather than tell people that suffering is simply part and parcel of our life in Christ we pass over the issue in silence. Sometimes instead of looking squarely at the truth we substitute what some have called moralistic therapeutic deism for a clear discussion and preaching on the anthropological non-negotiable elements of the Christian life: asceticism and a willingness to suffer the first stage of the spiritual, purification, on the road to illumination and eventual union (or theosis to use more traditional Orthodox terminology).

Asceticism and purification are not only necessary to our life in Christ, they necessarily require from the person a willingness to suffer. But this raises two questions: First, what is it that I mean when I say we will suffer? What, in other words, does it mean to suffer in Christ? And second, what does this have to do with the current controversy we see in the Church?

What It Means To Suffer . There are subgroups within the Orthodox Church for whom suffering plays a central role in how they understand the Christian life. For these individuals, the absence of suffering in a person’s is suspect—really Christians are in pain. This approach the spiritual life is, in my view, an aberration and reflects a mis-reading of monastic literature.

At its core it confuses suffering with sadism and masochism (and not infrequently there is a sexual component to these groups, but that is for another day). Sadism and masochism emphasizing as they do human pain are, I would argue, pseudo-forms of suffering. When, as often happens even in otherwise healthy persons and communities, they inform especially a our understand of asceticism and the three fold path of the spiritual life, they can lead to any number of aberrations in the spiritual life and the life of the community.

The problem here is this: Unlike suffering, sadism and masochism are psychologically and often behaviorally active. The sadist seeks to inflict pain; the masochist seeks out the infliction of pain on him. In both cases, pain is the object of the ego’s desire, a way of maintaining the illusion of one’s own power and control in the face of the mystery of being (and Being for that matter). Neither the sadist nor the masochist suffer, neither is passive in the face of the mystery of being (and Being) who bear up under the weight of this mystery, but actors who seek to impose their own ego onto the mystery and shape its expression according to their own desires.

Let me qualify what I said a moment ago about the passivity of suffering. Suffering in the spiritual is passive in the sense that I do not choose suffering, it is not the object of my decision as is, for example, the fact that I am writing this essay. I do not choose suffering, I do not move toward it either physically or psychologically. Suffering chooses me, suffering comes to me.

The passive character of suffering does not preclude activity on my part. While I may not, and indeed cannot, choose suffering, I can exercise my will bear suffering, to not flee from it. Again, suffering is not something I choose but it is something that, when it comes to me, I accept.

I will in my next post look (on Monday, 4/27/09) at what seems to me to be the dominate theme in American Religious Culture, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.

As always, your comments, questions and criticisms are not only welcome, they are actively sought.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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2 Responses to “The Anthropology of Suffering”

  1. Matthew Reed Says:

    <p>Bless, Father!  And thank you for your post.
    <p>This subject is captured very beautifully, I think, <span style="font-style: italic;">St. Innocent of Alaska</span>, in his pamphlet Indication of the Way Into the Kingdom of Heaven. Here is an excerpt:
    <p>"…it is necessary for a disciple and follower of Christ to take up his cross. The cross means the various difficulties and sorrows associated with a Christian life. Crosses may be external as well as internal. To take up your cross means to tolerate everything without complaining, regardless of how unpleasant things might become… Bear all with patience in the name of Jesus Christ. Do not consider yourself punished unjustly, but accept everything as your cross.
    <p>"To bear your cross means not only to accept patiently all difficulties that befall you but also to strive for spiritual perfection, as the Scriptures teach us. For example, we must do good to others: work for the prosperity of your parish, visit the sick and imprisoned, help the needy, collect money for the poor, and assist in spreading spiritual enlightenment. In other words, we must seek out tasks which will lead to the salvation and welfare of those around us and then, with perseverance and meekness, strive in that direction by our actions, words, prayer, and advice.
    <p>"…Blessed is he who carries his cross with prudence and humility, because God will never allow such a person to perish but will guide and strengthen him with His Holy Spirit."
    <p>My interpretation of what he is saying is that the passive side of taking up your cross is the acceptance of suffering; the active side is striving for spiritual perfection. (And in either case, doing everything with perseverance and meekness, with prudence and humility).
    <p>Hope this comment was helpful. In Christ,

  2. Fr Gregory Says:

    Thank you!  The quotes you include are indeed very helpful.
    In Christ,

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