Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Salvifici Doloris - Part 2

II THE WORLD OF HUMAN SUFFERING 5. Even though in its subjective dimension, as a personal fact contained within man's concrete and unrepeatable interior, suffering seems almost inexpressible and not transferable, perhaps at the same time nothing else requires as much as does suffering, in its "objective reality", to be dealt with, meditated upon, and conceived as an explicit problem; and that therefore basic questions be asked about it and the answers sought. It is evident that it is not a question here merely of giving a description of suffering. There are other criteria which go beyond the sphere of description, and which we must introduce when we wish to penetrate the world of human suffering.
Pain, because it is so intrinsically personal, and in a certain sense, incommunicable, therefore has about it a sense of "unreality," especially when considered from the obsessively objective perspective of modern science. Yet in another sense it is more real than (almost) anything else, precisely because it does penetrate to the heart of what it means to be a person.
Medicine, as the science and also the art of healing, discovers in the vast field of human sufferings the best known area, the one identified with greater precision and relatively more counterbalanced by the methods of "reaction" (that is, the methods of therapy). Nonetheless, this is only one area. The field of human suffering is much wider, more varied, and multi-dimensional. Man suffers in different ways, ways not always considered by medicine, not even in its most advanced specializations. Suffering is something which is still wider than sickness, more complex and at the same time still more deeply rooted in humanity itself. A certain idea of this problem comes to us from the distinction between physical suffering and moral suffering. This distinction is based upon the double dimension of the human being and indicates the bodily and spiritual element as the immediate or direct subject of suffering. Insofar as the words "suffering" and "pain", can, up to a certain degree, be used as synonyms, physical suffering is present when "the body is hurting" in some way, whereas moral suffering is "pain of the soul". In fact, it is a question of pain of a spiritual nature, and not only of the "psychological" dimension of pain which accompanies both moral and physical suffering The vastness and the many forms of moral suffering are certainly no less in number than the forms of physical suffering. But at the same time, moral suffering seems as it were less identified and less reachable by therapy.
Human suffering may be embodied in the physical, but it also transcends it. Physicians can heal the body. Psychologists can even help heal the soul to some degree. Yet the root of suffering always remains outside the reach of medicine.
6. Sacred Scripture is a great book about suffering. Let us quote from the books of the Old Testament a few examples of situations which bear the signs of suffering, and above all moral suffering: the danger of death(5), the death of one's own children(6) and, especially, the death of the firstborn and only son(7); and then too: the lack of offspring(8), nostalgia for the homeland(9), persecution and hostility of the environment(10), mockery and scorn of the one who suffers(11), loneliness and abandonment(12); and again: the remorse of conscience(13), the difficulty of understanding why the wicked prosper and the just suffer(14), the unfaithfulness and ingratitude of friends and neighbours(15); and finally: the misfortunes of one's own nation(16). In treating the human person as a psychological and physical "whole", the Old Testament often links "moral" sufferings with the pain of specific parts of the body: the bones(17), kidneys(18), liver(19), viscera(20), heart(21). In fact one cannot deny that moral sufferings have a "physical" or somatic element, and that they are often reflected in the state of the entire organism.
In contrast to some understandings, the Christian view of the human person maintains that he is both revealed by and yet is more than his body. This "more than" is not independent of the body, but is the source of its meaning. Indeed, one formula calls the soul the "form" of the body. This means that mental or spiritual suffering is closely connected with physical suffering, sometimes to the point of bringing it into being where it would not otherwise exist.
7. As we see from the examples quoted, we find in Sacred Scripture an extensive list of variously painful situations for man. This varied list certainly does not exhaust all that has been said and constantly repeated on the theme of suffering by the book of the history of man (this is rather an "unwritten book"), and even more by the book of the history of humanity, read through the history of every human individual. It can be said that man suffers whenever he experiences any kind of evil. In the vocabulary of the Old Testament, suffering and evil are identified with each other. In fact, that vocabulary did not have a specific word to indicate "suffering". Thus it defined as " evil" everything that was suffering(22). Only the Greek language, and together with it the New Testament (and the Greek translations of the Old Testament), use the verb * = "I am affected by .... I experience a feeling, I suffer"; and, thanks to this verb, suffering is no longer directly identifiable with (objective) evil, but expresses a situation in which man experiences evil and in doing so becomes the subject of suffering. Suffering has indeed both a subjective and a passive character (from "patior"). Even when man brings suffering on himself, when he is its cause, this suffering remains something passive in its metaphysical essence.
Even that suffering which man causes for himself makes him, not only one who inflicts suffering, but one who is the victim of suffering. This victimhood finds its culmination on the Cross, when Christ became both Priest and Victim, the instrument of our salvation.
This does not however mean that suffering in the psychological sense is not marked by a specific "activity". This is in fact that multiple and subjectively differentiated "activity" of pain, sadness, disappointment, discouragement or even despair, according to the intensity of the suffering subject and his or her specific sensitivity. In the midst of what constitutes the psychological form of suffering there is always an experience of evil, which causes the individual to suffer.
The "activity" of suffering is interior, and common to all, yet it is also different for each person because of our many and varied constitutions.
Thus the reality of suffering prompts the question about the essence of evil: what is evil? This questions seems, in a certain sense, inseparable from the theme of suffering. The Christian response to it is different, for example, from the one given by certain cultural and religious traditions which hold that existence is an evil from which one needs to be liberated. Christianity proclaims the essential good of existence and the good of that which exists, acknowledges the goodness of the Creator and proclaims the good of creatures. Man suffers on account of evil, which is a certain lack, limitation or distortion of good. We could say that man suffers because of a good in which he does not share, from which in a certain sense he is cut off, or of which he has deprived himself. He particularly suffers when he a ought"—in the normal order of things—to have a share in this good and does not have it.
Unlike Buddhism, for example, Christianity does not hold that suffering is exclusively the result of egotistical desire. Rather, it holds that there are real goods which are justly to be desired, and deprivation or distortion of these goods (like food, freedom, and love) is the cause of suffering.
Thus, in the Christian view, the reality of suffering is explained through evil, which always, in some way, refers to a good.
This distortion or privation of good is what we mean by evil. The idea is familiar enough: he evil of gluttony is a distortion of the proper desire for food. And the greater the good that is being distorted, the greater an evil it is.
8. In itself human suffering constitutes as it were a specific "world" which exists together with man, which appears in him and passes, and sometimes does not pass, but which consolidates itself and becomes deeply rooted in him. This world of suffering, divided into many, very many subjects, exists as it were "in dispersion". Every individual, through personal suffering, constitutes not only a small part of that a world", but at the same time" that world" is present in him as a finite and unrepeatable entity. Parallel with this, however, is the interhuman and social dimension. The world of suffering possesses as it were its own solidarity. People who suffer become similar to one another through the analogy of their situation, the trial of their destiny, or through their need for understanding and care, and perhaps above all through the persistent question of the meaning of suffering. Thus, although the world of suffering exists "in dispersion", at the same time it contains within itself a. singular challenge to communion and solidarity. We shall also try to follow this appeal in the present reflection.
Human suffering can be the cause of isolation from others because of its unrepeatable interiority. Yet when entered into with love, it can be a way of joining one's interior life to others. The Cross stands as God's entrance into solidarity with us where we are most fragile. And because of the Cross, we can join ourselves in solidarity with His weakness, which is greater than any human strength.
Considering the world of suffering in its personal and at the same time collective meaning, one cannot fail to notice the fact that this world, at some periods of time and in some eras of human existence, as it were becomes particularly concentrated. This happens, for example, in cases of natural disasters, epidemica, catastrophes, upheavals and various social scourges: one thinks, for example, of a bad harvest and connected with it - or with various other causes - the scourge of famine. One thinks, finally, of war. I speak of this in a particular way. I speak of the last two World Wars, the second of which brought with it a much greater harvest of death and a much heavier burden of human sufferings. The second half of our century, in its turn, brings with it—as though in proportion to the mistakes and transgressions of our contemporary civilization—such a horrible threat of nuclear war that we cannot think of this period except in terms of an incomparable accumulation of sufferings, even to the possible self-destruction of humanity. In this way, that world of suffering which in brief has its subject in each human being, seems in our age to be transformed—perhaps more than at any other moment—into a special "world": the world which as never before has been transformed by progress through man's work and, at the same time, is as never before in danger because of man's mistakes and offences.
Human suffering has always been a reality, and yet in particular times and places it reaches greater dimensions. And with modern advances in technology, the threat of war to create suffering on a mass scale is greater than ever before.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Salvifici Doloris

One of the most neglected writings of John Paul II - unjustly, if understandably - is his apostolic letter Salvifici Doloris, or On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering . No one likes to suffer. Most of us don't even like to talk about suffering. Yet John Paul II, following the Apostle Paul and the entire Catholic Tradition, maintains that it is precisely in suffering that Christ displayed his solidarity with humanity, and in which we can grow in solidarity with Christ, who is our life. This is the first of a series in which I will read and reflect upon Salvifici Doloris. Though I do hope that you enjoy it, the series is mostly an exercise for myself to become more acquainted with the Man of Sorrows.


Venerable Brothers in the Episcopate and dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
1. Declaring the power of salvific suffering, the Apostle Paul says: "In my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church"(1). These words seem to be found at the end of the long road that winds through the suffering which forms part of the history of man and which is illuminated by the Word of God. These words have as it were the value of a final discovery, which is accompanied by joy. For this reason Saint Paul writes: "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake"(2). The joy comes from the discovery of the meaning of suffering, and this discovery, even if it is most personally shared in by Paul of Tarsus who wrote these words, is at the same time valid for others. The Apostle shares his own discovery and rejoices in it because of all those whom it can help—just as it helped him—to understand the salvific meaning of suffering.
How strange it sounds. Joy at suffering? Even granting that Christ's suffering is the means of our salvation, why would Paul rejoice in his own suffering? Because in suffering for the sake of others, for the sake of the Church, Paul found himself united ever more closely with Christ.
2. The theme of suffering - precisely under the aspect of this salvific meaning - seems to fit profoundly into the context of the Holy Year of the Redemption as an extraordinary Jubilee of the Church. And this circumstance too clearly favours the attention it deserves during this period. Independently of this fact, it is a universal theme that accompanies man at every point on earth: in a certain sense it co-exists with him in the world, and thus demands to be constantly reconsidered. Even though Paul, in the Letter to the Romans, wrote that "the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now"(3), even though man knows and is close to the sufferings of the animal world, nevertheless what we express by the word "suffering" seems to be particularly essential to the nature of man. It is as deep as man himself, precisely because it manifests in its own way that depth which is proper to man, and in its own way surpasses it. Suffering seems to belong to man's transcendence: it is one of those points in which man is in a certain sense "destined" to go beyond himself, and he is called to this in a mysterious way.
Yes, the whole creation has been groaning in travail. And now it has brought forth the firstborn from the dead. But the travail continues, because He is the firstborn of many brothers and sisters. And this travail is not just general, but particularly human, and yet more than human. Within our temporal world it is a revelation of eternity.
3. The theme of suffering in a special way demands to be faced in the context of the Holy Year of the Redemption, and this is so, in the first place, because the Redemption was accomplished through the Cross of Christ, that is, through his suffering. And at the same time, during the Holy Year of the Redemption we recall the truth expressed in the Encyclical Redemptor Hominis: in Christ "every man becomes the way for the Church"(4). It can be said that man in a special fashion becomes the way for the Church when suffering enters his life. This happens, as we know, at different moments in life, it takes place in different ways, it assumes different dimensions; nevertheless, in whatever form, suffering seems to be, and is, almost inseparable from man's earthly existence. Assuming then that throughout his earthly life man walks in one manner or another on the long path of suffering, it is precisely on this path that the Church at all times - and perhaps especially during the Holy Year of the Redemption - should meet man. Born of the mystery of Redemption in the Cross of Christ, the Church has to try to meet man in a special way on the path of his suffering. In this meeting man "becomes the way for the Church", and this way is one of the most important ones.
Because of the Incarnation, man has been endowed with an even greater dignity than that of a creature made in the image of God. We have been been granted the eternal eikon of the Father in human flesh, that we might participate in the divine nature. Because our eikon is human flesh, each individual man becomes a "way for the Church": a way to perceive Christ. And it is especially so in those who suffer. "For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in."
4. This is the origin also of the present reflection, precisely in the Year of the Redemption: a meditation on suffering. Human suffering evokes compassion; it also evokes respect, and in its own way it intimidates. For in suffering is contained the greatness of a specific mystery. This special respect for every form of human suffering must be set at the beginning of what will be expressed here later by the deepest need of the heart, and also by the deep imperative of faith. About the theme of suffering these two reasons seem to draw particularly close to each other and to become one: the need of the heart commands us to overcome fear, and the imperative of faith—formulated, for example, in the words of Saint Paul quoted at the beginning—provides the content, in the name of which and by virtue of which we dare to touch what appears in every man so intangible: for man, in his suffering, remains an intangible mystery.
Suffering must evoke compassion - the co-suffering of love. This is the message of the Cross. Here we can enter the mystery of what it means to be human, and a child of God.

Sunday, November 19, 2006


I find it amusing (in a sad sort of way) that many of those who react most negatively to any idea of Ecclesial or Marian mediation have no trouble at all interposing a father/husband as ultimate mediator between God daughter/wife. Take for instance, the horror of some Christians at the idea of Elsie Dinsmore choosing to obey God rather than her father.

This leads me to suspect that it isn't mediation as such that is problematic for this particular group, but mediation between God and men (males). This becomes even more problematic if the one mediating happens to be personified as feminine (the Church) or actually be female (Mary).

Hmm. You'd almost think that I'd been reading one of those "radical feminists." Well, maybe, if St. Theresa Benedicta of the Cross (aka Edith Stein) counts as a radical feminist.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Acting Theologically

In considering the question of women's ordination, I've been struck by the inadequacy of most justifications for both the pro and anti ordination positions. It seems that most of the "pro" arguments make the mistake of assuming that an exclusively male priesthood is intrinsically unjust, while most of the "anti" arguments make the mistake of assuming that bride/bridegroom/etc. metaphors necessarily imply their literal embodiment. (Yes, the incarnational principle applies, but it doesn't necessarily mean that little boys should be dressed up like brides for their first communion because they are the "bride of Christ.") However, while mulling all this over, I came upon a thought which I'd never seen articulated elsewhere before: a theology of acting. (Perhaps because I haven't been looking in the right places.)

In this case, I do mean acting in the sense of stage acting rather than the broader sense of taking action.

I think it may not be entirely coincidental that the technical name for the priest's actions in administering the sacraments is acting in persona Christi, or "in the person of Christ." Persona doesn't just mean "person" in the modern sense. It also means "mask" &mdash a mask of the sort that one wears in a play. The priest, therefore is "acting" as Christ.

For a young man to act the part of Joan of Arc would be quite jarring. Why? Because though sex does not determine identity, identity does include one's sex. To watch the young man act the part of Joan of Arc, necessarily involves the audience in actively reconstructing his identity as Joan, whereas watching a young woman act the part does not.

But, someone might say, what of Shakespeare and Greek Tragedy (in which the actual mask was used)? These stages had only one sex on stage, and yet they acted both sexes. After all, it was a young man who originally played Juliet.

Certainly, this is true. My suggestion, though, is that we probably shouldn't be looking to imitate the practices of Greek and Shakespearean acting, especially since they both seem to have had this practice largely as a result of cultural misogyny.

But it would seem that introducing women's ordination would have to presume at least some degree of cultural misandrony. Of course, maybe I'm wrong. :-)