Akron, OH. Every year more than 2,800,000 people die in the United States. The social distancing necessary to slow the pandemic and protect the most vulnerable is causing many of these millions to die alone. How are we to react when death comes? Of course, the dying of any religion may have faith that they will awaken in a better place. Many religions also understand suffering to be laden with the potential for spiritual awakening through a reduction of worldly attachments. But Christianity has a unique understanding of suffering that offers a particular kind of solace.
In Christianity suffering magnifies love and makes possible a closer communion with God. This is something that makes even devout Christians uncomfortable because suffering, especially suffering caused by pain, can be so debilitating and pitiless that it is hard to see how it can ever have a positive aspect. My own very moderate ailments have had me groaning in pain without any discernable spiritual benefits. Suffering is rightfully avoided by any sane person. Nevertheless, the Christian experience is dependent upon suffering. In John’s Gospel the crucifixion of Christ is described as God’s sacrifice made for love of the world, and the early Christians occasionally used the word agape to describe this sacrificial love that is so intertwined with suffering.
The self-giving sacrificial love of Christ stands in sharp contrast to the ideals of the ancient world and the acclaimed death of Socrates, who, like a stoic or sage of the East, calmly accepts his fate. It is also different than the obligation, shared by all religions, to identify even with those who may be our enemies because of a commonality we all share that is the basis for the Golden Rule and is sometimes called compassion or loving-kindness. Christ cherishes life and is not stoic when he prays, “if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.” More disturbing are the words he repeats on the cross from Psalm 22, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Christ knows the depths of despair but accepts his fate. In the gospels he often speaks to his disciples of the suffering and death that await him. His fraught acceptance of his fate and his passion are essential to the drama of agape. Because agape, in its highest usage, is more intimate and intertwined with suffering, it achieves a greater intensity than ordinary benevolence. It is a kind of love that can only be known within a relationship weighted by contingency and loss. Through agape there is catharsis, redemption, and spiritual union. The letter to the Hebrews describes Christ’s suffering and submission to God as making Christ perfect:
During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation.
The way of Christ is not a detached spirituality. It is emotionally charged and affected by the joys, sorrows, and relationships that are central to every life. The author and Episcopalian priest Cynthia Bourgeault argues that Christ’s path to the divine is very different from the inward focus of most other religious traditions:
To rise requires energy, in the spiritual realm as well as the physical one. And thus, the vast majority of the world’s spiritual technologies work on some variation of the principle of “conservation of energy.” Within each person there is seen to reside a sacred energy of being (sometimes known as chi, or pranna, the life force).
In these traditions, inner energy must be concentrated through prayer, meditation, and fasting to sustain contact with the divine. Bourgeault believes this approach is effective in some respects; however, the renunciation it calls for involves holding oneself apart from others so as not to distract from the ultimate goal of being one with God. The self-giving life of Christ, on the other hand, is directed towards others. Bourgeault calls this “a more reckless and extravagant path, which is attained not through storing up that energy or concentrating the life force but through giving it all away.” Closest communion with God may not be through meditative awareness but rather through moments of greatest vulnerability when love becomes most real. Suffering and surrender can infuse the worldly with the spiritual.
John of the Cross believed that it was at the moment of Christ’s utter forsakenness, annihilated in soul, without comfort or relief, that he did his greatest work by uniting humanity with God. Perhaps inspired by John of the Cross, the theologian Jurgen Moltmann writes:
God is not more glorious than he is in the humiliation (of the cross). God is not more glorious than he is in this self-surrender. God is not more powerful than he is in this helplessness. God is not more divine than he is in this humanity.
Moltmann argues that God cannot be unaffected and impassive because the fullness of God requires infinite love, which in turn requires an openness to happiness and to sorrow. An impassive God who cannot suffer also cannot love and is poorer than humans who can suffer, love, and die. Through both creation and the cross, God’s self-emptying love is manifest. God joins in the suffering and the forsakenness of humanity through the suffering of Jesus, and Moltmann believes that humanity may join the divine relationship, in part, through the suffering every person must endure. “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” the old spiritual asks, and the unspoken response of the slaves was “Yes, we know Christ’s suffering and share in it.”
Agape can also be seen at work in the life of the apostle Paul, who was persecuted and “made a spectacle,” yet knew boundless joy. Paul believed the Kingdom and the promise of the Beatitudes may be known in this life when we act like Christ with self-giving love, but the state of being blessed and closer to God is not one of easy grace. It is a paradoxical happiness where sorrow is transformed into joy, which is possible because everyone who suffers can also become a sharer in the redemptive suffering of Christ. Participation in Christ’s passion is union with Christ, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” Despite persecution and calamity (“we are being slaughtered like sheep”), Paul exclaims, “nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
A different but insightful description of communion with God through agape and suffering comes from the Victorian author Oscar Wilde, who believed that a person who can look at the loveliness of the world and share its sorrow “is in immediate contact with divine things.” Wilde came to believe, while in prison for homosexual behavior, that the secret to life is suffering: “It is what is hidden behind everything.” Suffering and separation are necessary steps towards spiritual union that can come about like the separation and reunion described by the parable of the prodigal son: “The moment the prodigal son fell on his knees and wept, he made his having wasted his substance with harlots, his swine– herding and hungering for the husks they ate, beautiful and holy moments in his life.”
The Church’s highest calling, according to Wilde, is the mystical presentation of Christ’s passion, which transforms the ugliness of sin into the beauty of our collective sorrow. Wilde describes the passion of Christ as the most perfect artistic expression that joins all of suffering humanity:
He sought to become eyes to the blind, ears to the deaf, and a cry in the lips of those whose tongues had been tied. His desire was to be to the myriads who had found no utterance a very trumpet through which they might call to heaven.
For Wilde, Christ is the “Man of Sorrows” prophesied by Isaiah, upon whom “the Lord has laid the iniquity of us all,” but the significance of shared suffering cannot be explained abstractly. An idea alone is of no value, Wilde says, “till it becomes incarnate and made an image.” And like a work of art, Christ does not teach anything, “but by being brought into his presence one becomes something.” All who come into contact with the personality of Christ and know his passion, Wilde concludes, “in some way find that the ugliness of their sin is taken away and the beauty of their sorrow revealed to them.”
John of the Cross writes that we are joined with God during the night of the soul on the threshold of death because at the moment we surrender our lives we are not alone. God’s outpouring love responds to our desolation and shares in our suffering. The presence of human fellow-sufferers and their lonesome cries during this time of pandemic bears witness to God’s participation in our suffering. Our hearts ache with the dying, whom we love, and we are joined in their collective beauty.