Fr. Richard Rohr, Reflection: The Most Essential Thing, Sunday, October 28, 2018
The most powerful, most needed, and most essential teaching is always Love. Love is our foundation and our destiny. It is where we come from and where we’re headed. As St. Paul famously says, “So faith, hope, and love remain, but the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13).
My hope, whenever I speak or write, is to help clear away the impediments to receiving, allowing, trusting, and participating in a foundational Love. God’s love is planted inside each of us as the Holy Spirit who, according to Jesus, “will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you” (John 14:26).
Love is who you are. When you don’t live according to love, you are outside of being. You’re basically not real or true to yourself. When you love, you are acting according to your deepest being, your deepest truth. You are operating according to your dignity. For a simple description of the kind of love I am talking about, let’s just use the word outflowing. This will become clearer as we proceed.
All I can do is remind you of what you already know deep within your True Self and invite you to live connected to this Source. John the Evangelist writes, “God is love, and whoever remains in love, remains in God and God in them” (1 John 4:16). The Judeo-Christian creation story says that we were created in the very “image and likeness” of God—who sets the highest bar for this kind of outflowing love (Genesis 1:26-27). Out of the Trinity’s generative and infinitely flowing relationship, all of creation takes form, mirroring its Creator in its deepest identity.
We have heard this phrase so often that we don’t get the existential shock of what “created in the image and likeness of God” is saying about us. If this is true, then our family of origin is divine. It is saying that we were created by a loving God to also be love in the world. Our core is original blessing, not original sin. Our starting point is “very good” (Genesis 1:31). If the beginning is right, the rest is made considerably easier, because we know and can trust the clear direction of our life’s tangent.
We must all overcome the illusion of separateness. It is the primary task of religion to communicate not worthiness but union, to reconnect people to their original identity “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). The Bible calls the state of separateness “sin.” God’s job description is to draw us back into primal and intimate relationship. “My dear people, we are already children of God; what we will be in the future has not yet been fully revealed, and all I do know is that we shall be like God” (1 John 3:2).
Henceforth, all our moral behavior is simply “the imitation of God.” First observe what God is doing all the time and everywhere, and then do the same thing (Ephesians 5:1). And what does God do? God does what God is: Love. God does not love you if and when you change. God loves you so that you can change!
The genius of Jesus’ ministry is that he reveals that God uses tragedy, suffering, pain, betrayal, and death itself (all of which are normally inevitable), not to punish us but, in fact, to bring us to God and to our True Self, which are frequently a simultaneous discovery. (Sunday)
The mystery of the cross has the power to teach us that our suffering is not our own and my life is not about “me” but we are actually living inside of a larger force field of life and death. One moves from “me” to “us” inside of this field of deep inner experience. (Monday) One moves from “me” to “us” inside of this field of deep inner experience. This is the gateway to compassion, and thus redemption. When I can see and accept my suffering as a common participation with Jesus and all humanity, I am somehow “saved” and I become “whole in him” (see Colossians 2:9–10). I fully admit this is often hard to do when we are still in the midst of our suffering, and we just want to be delivered from it.
More than anything else, conversion is a reconstituted sense of the self. As Paul stated, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).
Rather than going into hiding, Etty Hillesum spent her last weeks of freedom supporting people who were facing deportation to Auschwitz. In her diaries she wrote:
I am not afraid to look suffering straight in the eyes. And at the end of each day, there was always the feeling: I love people so much. Never any bitterness about what was done to them, but always love for those who knew how to bear so much although nothing had prepared them for such burdens. 
We should be willing to act as a balm for all wounds. 
. . . [A]ll we can manage these days and also all that really matters: that we safeguard that little piece of You, God, in ourselves. And perhaps in others as well. Alas, there doesn’t seem to be much You Yourself can do about our circumstances, about our lives. Neither do I hold You responsible. You cannot help us, but we must help You and defend Your dwelling place inside us to the last. 
Ultimately, we have just one moral duty: to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves, more and more peace, and to reflect it toward others. And the more peace there is in us, the more peace there will also be in our troubled world. 
Although it is true that there is no refuge from suffering; it’s also true that suffering has no refuge from love that permeates it through and through and through and through and through. Love protects us from nothing, even as it unexplainably sustains us in all things. —James Finley (Tuesday)
We can see Etty Hillesum’s work to find this kind of acceptance in letters she wrote from the Westerbork transit camp: “This is something people refuse to admit to themselves: at a given point you can no longer do, but can only be and accept. ”
Such peace allowed Hillesum to serve and love her fellow humans, even when, as she wrote, they “don’t give you much occasion to love them.” She discovered “there is no causal connection between people’s behavior and the love you feel for them. Love for one’s fellow man is like an elemental glow that sustains you.”
She also said: “people suffer most through their fear of suffering”
We can learn to sink the taproot of our heart into that invincible love and draw out from it resources of courage, patience, and tenderness to touch the hurting places with love, so they might dissolve in love until only love is left. This is Christ’s presence in the world. —James Finley (Wednesday)
I learned to see, feel, accept, and find my way through the long-term internalized effects of the trauma I had to endure in my childhood and adolescence. It was in this process that I came upon what I call the axial moment in which our most intimate experience of who we are turns, as on a hidden axis of love, down through the pain into a qualitatively richer, more vulnerable place. It is in the midst of this turning that we discover the qualitatively richer, more vulnerable place is actually the abyss-like, loving presence of God, welling up and giving itself in and as the intimate interiority of our healing journey. When we risk sharing what hurts the most in the presence of someone who will not invade us or abandon us, we unexpectedly come upon within ourselves what Jesus called the pearl of great price: the invincible preciousness of our self in our fragility.
In the act of admitting what we are so afraid to admit—especially if admitting means admitting it in our body, where we feel it in painful waves—in that scary moment of feeling and sharing what we thought would destroy us, we unexpectedly come upon within ourselves this invincible love that sustains us unexplainably in the midst of the painful situation we are in.
As we learn to trust in this paradoxical way God sustains us in our suffering, we are learning to sink the taproot of our heart in God, who protects us from nothing even as God so unexplainably sustains us in all things. As this transformative process continues, we find within and beyond ourselves resources of courage, patience, and tenderness to touch the hurting places with love, so they might dissolve in love until only love is left.
Our practice is to become present to that infinite flow of compassion and love and bring it to bear in a tender-hearted and sincere manner in our very presence to the painful situation. We do this knowing that God is sustaining and guiding us all in unexplainable ways that are not dependent on how the painful situation might turn out. —James Finley (Thursday)
In general, you can lead people on the spiritual journey as far as you have gone. Transformed people transform people. When you can be healed yourself and not just talk about healing, you are, as Henri Nouwen said, a “wounded healer.” (Friday)
Deep communion and compassion are formed much more by shared pain than by shared pleasure. Jesus told Peter, “You must be ground like wheat, and once you have recovered, then you can turn and help the brothers” (see Luke 22:31-32). In general, you can lead people on the spiritual journey as far as you have gone. Transformed people transform people. When you can be healed yourself and not just talk about healing, you are, as Henri Nouwen said, a “wounded healer”—which is probably the only kind of healer!
James Finley shares insights drawn from Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ work with the dying:
Those who come to acceptance in death don’t look up at you from their deathbeds to say how happy they are in the ways we typically speak of happiness. For those who come to acceptance in death pass beyond the dualism of happiness and sadness as emotional states that depend on conditions that are conducive to happiness. Those who come to acceptance in death have about them a certain transparent childlike quality, an uncanny peace. It’s a peace not of this world. For in accepting their seemingly unacceptable situation, they are transformed in ways that leave us feeling strangely touched and privileged to be in their presence. Being in their presence can open up in us a deep sense of how invincibly precious we are in the midst of our fragility.
This experience of being with those who have come to an acceptance in death can help us renew our ongoing efforts to learn from God how to die to the last traces of clinging to anything less or other than God’s sustaining love. For insofar as we learn from God how to die to all that is less than or other than God’s love as our sole security and identity, it just might be possible that when the moment of our death finally comes, nothing will happen. For in some deep, unexplainable way we will have already crossed over into the deathless love of God. 
We can see Etty Hillesum’s work to find this kind of acceptance in letters she wrote from the Westerbork transit camp:
This is something people refuse to admit to themselves: at a given point you can no longer do, but can only be and accept. 
There are no dead ends in this spiritual life. Nothing is above or beyond redemption. Everything can be used for transformation.
After all, on the cross, God took the worst thing, the “killing of God,” and made it into the best thing—the redemption of the world! If we gaze upon the mystery of the cross long enough, our dualistic mind breaks down, and we see in hindsight that nothing was totally good or totally bad. We realize that God uses the bad for good, and that many people who call themselves good (like those who crucified Jesus) may not be so good. And many who seem totally bad (like Jesus’ crucifiers) end up being used for very good purposes indeed.
Jesus says, “There’s only one sign I’m going to give you: the sign of the prophet Jonah” (see Luke 11:29; Matthew 12:39, 16:4). Sooner or later, life is going to lead us (as it did Jesus) into the belly of the beast, into a place we can’t fix, control, explain, or understand. That’s where transformation most easily happens—because only there are we in the hands of God—and not self-managing.
Suffering is the only thing strong enough to destabilize the imperial ego. The separate and sufficient self has to be led to the edge of its own resources, so it learns to call upon the Deeper Resource of who it truly is (but does not recognize yet): the God Self, the True Self, the Christ Self, the Buddha Self—use whatever words you want. It is who we fundamentally are in God and who God is dwelling in us. Once we are transplanted to this solid place, we are largely indestructible! But then we must learn to rest there, and not just make occasional forays into momentary union. That is the work of our whole lifetime.
This is how Etty Hillesum (1914–1943) describes the indestructible nature of the True Self in the midst of all the horrors of the Westerbork transit camp, a staging ground for the deportation of Jews during the Holocaust:
This morning, while I stood at the tub with a colleague, I said with great emotion something like this: “The realms of the soul and the spirit are so spacious and unending that this little bit of physical discomfort and suffering doesn’t really matter all that much. I do not feel I have been robbed of my freedom; essentially no one can do me any harm at all.” 
Hillesum is speaking of her True Self, which cannot be hurt. She describes the True Self earlier in her diary as follows:
Truly, my life is one long hearkening unto my self and unto others, unto God. And if I say that I hearken, it is really God who hearkens inside me. The most essential and the deepest in me hearkening unto the most essential and the deepest in the other. God to God. 
 Etty Hillesum, Letter (June 29, 1943). See An Interrupted Life: The Diaries, 1941–1943 and Letters from Westerbork, trans. Arnold J. Pomerans (Henry Holt and Company: 1996), 287-288.
 Hillesum, Diary entry (September 17, 1942). Ibid., 204.
Adapted from Richard Rohr, A Spring Within Us: A Book of Daily Meditations (CAC Publishing: 2016), 121-122.
Rupture of the Ordinary
Friday, October 19, 2018
Barbara Holmes paints a moving portrait of how suffering transformed kidnapped peoples from different African tribes and languages into a kind of contemplative community, beginning with their journey across the Atlantic.
Captured Africans were spooned together lying on their sides in ships that pitched with every wave. Together they wept and moaned in a forced community that cut across tribal and cultural lines. . . . In his book Terror and Triumph, Anthony Pinn discusses the Middle Passage as the horrific transition from personhood to property and nonidentity. The journey can be characterized as “rupture.”  . . .
Slavery does not represent ordinary suffering. It is one of many unique situations that far exceed the limits of human imagination and assessment. Holocausts against one group or another cannot be contained within the bounds of the individual human body. Instead, oppression of this magnitude forces a community beyond courage and individual survival skills into a state of unresolved shock and disassociation. Under these conditions, the interiority of the community becomes a living “flow” that sustains the afflicted. . . .
The hold of the slave ship becomes the stage upon which the human drama unfolds. . . . Although unity is the ultimate outcome of flow [or contemplation], angst and anguish are the fertile sites of its emergence. Strangers linked by destiny and chains focused their intentions on survival instead of the unrelenting pain, because pain that does not abate cannot be integrated into human reality structures. . . .
Ultimately, our objective tools for analyzing and interpreting pain will always fail us because there is an aspect of suffering that is not within our rational reach. Pain is a parallel universe that sends shock-waves breaking over our unconscious, daring us to succumb. The only hope of understanding it comes as we align ourselves with a groaning universe committed to cycles of birth, rebirth, and the longing for a just order. As Eric Cassell puts it, “suffering arises with the ‘loss of the ability to pursue purpose.’ Thus in suffering we face the loss of our own personal universe.”  . . .
The only sound that would carry Africans over the bitter waters was the moan. Moans flowed through each wracked body and drew each soul toward the center of contemplation. . . . Contemplation can . . . be a displacement of the ordinary, a paradigm shift that becomes a temporary refuge when human suffering reaches the extent of spiritual and psychic dissolution. It can be a state of extraordinary spiritual attenuation, a removal to a level of reality that allows distance from excruciating circumstances.
The portal to this reality can best be described as a break in the ordinary, exposing the complexity and chaos of a universe that sanctions both pleasure and pain.
 Anthony B. Pinn, Terror and Triumph: The Nature of Black Religion (Fortress Press: 2003), 35.
 Eric J. Cassell, The Nature of Suffering (Oxford University Press: 1991), 24-25.
Barbara A. Holmes, Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church, second edition (Fortress Press: 2017), 47, 48-49, 50. Above references as cited by Holmes.
My soul is sore when I learn how our people are tortured, when I learn how the rights of those created in the image of God are violated. —Óscar Romero (Sunday)
Sunday, October 14, 2018
You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom. . . . And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble. —Matthew 5:10, 12, The Message
Today Óscar Romero (1917–1980) will be named a saint by the Catholic Church. As Archbishop of San Salvador for the last four years of his life, Romero was a strong, public voice for the many voiceless and anonymous poor of El Salvador and Latin America. When he preached in the cathedral on Sunday mornings, I’m told that the streets were empty and all the radios were on full volume, to hear truth and sanity in an insane and corrupt world.
Here is a man who suffered with and for those who suffered. His loving heart shines through clearly in his homilies:
The shepherd must be where the suffering is. 
My soul is sore when I learn how our people are tortured, when I learn how the rights of those created in the image of God are violated. 
A Gospel that doesn’t take into account the rights of human beings, a Christianity that doesn’t make a positive contribution to the history of the world, is not the authentic doctrine of Christ, but rather simply an instrument of power. We . . . don’t want to be a plaything of the worldly powers, rather we want to be the Church that carries the authentic, courageous Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, even when it might become necessary to die like he did, on a cross. 
In his homily on March 23, 1980, the day before he was murdered, Romero addressed the Salvadoran military directly:
Brothers, we are part of the same people. You are killing your own brother and sister peasants and when you are faced with an order to kill given by a man, the law of God must prevail; the law that says: Thou shalt not kill. No soldier is obliged to obey an order against the law of God. No one has to obey an immoral law. And it is time that you recover your consciences. . . . In the name of God, then, and in the name of this suffering people whose laments rise up to heaven each day more tumultuously, I plead with you, I pray you, I order you, in the name of God: Stop the repression! 
The next day, following his sermon, a U.S.-supported government hit squad shot him through his heart as he stood at the altar.
Only a few weeks earlier, Romero had said:
I have often been threatened with death. I must tell you, as a Christian, I do not believe in death without resurrection. If I am killed, I shall arise in the Salvadoran people. I say so without boasting, with the greatest humility. . . . A bishop will die, but God’s church, which is the people, will never perish. 
Romero’s epitaph reads “Sentir con la Iglesia” (“To be of one mind and heart with the Church”); these words were his episcopal motto, his promise to share the suffering and strength of the people he served.
 Óscar Romero, Homily (October 30, 1977). See Through the Year with Óscar Romero: Daily Meditations, trans. Irene B. Hodgson (Franciscan Media: 2015, ©2005), 17.
 Homily (December 5, 1977). Ibid., 28.
 Homily (November 27, 1977). Ibid., 24.
 Homily (March 23, 1980). Ibid., 175.
 From a telephone interview with newspaper correspondent José Calderón Salazar. See James R. Brockman, Romero: A Life (Orbis Books: 2005), 247-248.
Adapted from Richard Rohr, “St. Óscar Romero,” The Mendicant, vol. 8, no. 4 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2018). The print and digital issue of CAC’s newsletter will be published later this year.
For me, to be a Christian means to accept that battlefield, to accept and to somehow participate in the mystery of death and resurrection in oneself and in the universe. (Monday, October 15, 2018, Searching for Meaning)
During the next two weeks I will reflect on suffering and how we might recognize God’s image and likeness in people even—and perhaps especially—during hard times. Some of the greatest wisdom has come from those who experienced unspeakable trauma and harm. Holocaust survivor and respected psychiatrist Viktor Frankl (1905–1997) offered guidance for anyone who suffers. Rabbi Harold Kushner explained in his foreword to Man’s Search for Meaning:
The greatest task for any person is to find meaning in his or her life. Frankl saw three possible sources for meaning: in work (doing something significant), in love (caring for another person), and in courage during difficult times. Suffering in and of itself is meaningless; we give our suffering meaning by the way in which we respond to it. . . .
Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation. You cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can always control what you will feel and do about what happens to you. 
Etty Hillesum (1914–1943), a young Jewish woman who died at Auschwitz, shared an intimate glimpse into her own experience through her journals:
June 14, 1941: More arrests, more terror, concentration camps, the arbitrary dragging off of fathers, sisters, brothers. We seek the meaning of life, wondering whether any meaning can be left. But that is something each one of us must settle with himself and with God. And perhaps life has its own meaning, even if it takes a lifetime to find it. . . .
June 15, 1941: For a moment yesterday I thought I couldn’t go on living, that I needed help. Life and suffering had lost their meaning for me; I felt I was about to collapse under a tremendous weight. . . . I said that I confronted the “suffering of mankind” . . . but that was not really what it was. Rather I feel like a small battlefield, in which the problems, or some of the problems, of our time are being fought out. All one can hope to do is to keep oneself humbly available, to allow oneself to be a battlefield. 
This is what it means to hold the contradictions and the pain of the world, as we do in contemplation. Hillesum accepted her destiny. She believed, as I do, that we are called to be both the agony and the ecstasy of God—for the life of the world. For me, to be a Christian means to accept that battlefield, to accept and to somehow participate in the mystery of death and resurrection in oneself and in the universe. It is a process of “oneing” with Foundational Reality, which some call at-one-ment.
Social psychologist Diarmuid O’Murchu writes:
Creation cannot survive, and less so thrive, without its dark side. There is a quality of destruction, decay, and death that is essential to creation’s flourishing. . . . And the consequence of this destructive dimension is what we call evil, pain, and suffering. Obviously, I am not suggesting fatalistic acquiescence. Indeed, I am arguing for the very opposite: an enduring sense of hope, which it seems to me is not possible without first coming to terms with . . . the great paradox. It is . . . the unfolding cycle of birth-death-rebirth. And it transpires all over creation, on the macro and micro scales alike. 
Yes, I know, sisters and brothers, suffering is and will always be a mystery, maybe the major mystery.
 Harold S. Kushner in his foreword, Victor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (Beacon Press: 2006), x.
 Etty Hillesum, An Interrupted Life: The Diaries, 1941–1943 and Letters from Westerbork, trans. Arnold J. Pomerans (Henry Holt and Company: 1996), 29, 30-31.
 Diarmuid O’Murchu, Incarnation: A New Evolutionary Threshold (Orbis Books: 2017), 152.
Adapted from Richard Rohr, True Self, False Self, disc 5 (Franciscan Media: 2003, 2013), CD.
The path of descent is the path of transformation. Darkness, failure, relapse, death, and woundedness are our primary teachers. (Tuesday)
The first step toward healing is truthfully acknowledging evil, while trusting the inherent goodness of reality. Poet and pastor John Philip Newell writes about the journey through suffering:
Knowing and naming brokenness is essential in the journey toward wholeness. We will not be well by denying the wrongs that we carry within us as nations and religions and communities. Nor will we be well by downplaying them or projecting them onto others. The path to wholeness will take us not around such awareness but through it, confronting the depths of our brokenness. . . . As Hildegard of Bingen [1098–1179] says, we need two wings with which to fly. One is the “knowledge of good,” and the other is the “knowledge of evil.”  If we lack one or the other, we will be like an eagle with only one wing. We will fall to the ground instead of rising to the heights of unitary vision. . . .
In one of her . . . visions of Jesus, Julian [of Norwich (1342–1416)] realizes that he is [a] “handsome mixture.” . . .  His face speaks of a knowledge of life’s delight and a knowledge of life’s pain. It is not a face that is naïve to the world’s sufferings or to the personal experience of sorrow. Nor is it a face that is so overwhelmed by sorrow that it loses its openness and wonder. . . . It is a soul that has experienced the heights and the depths of human life. . . .
In July 1942, the same month that the Nazis began their first big street roundups of Jews in Amsterdam, Etty Hillesum wrote in her diary, “I am with the hungry, with the ill-treated and the dying, every day, but I am also with the jasmine and with that piece of sky beyond my window; . . . It is a question of living life from minute to minute and taking suffering into the bargain. And it is certainly no small bargain these days.”  Etty was looking at suffering straight in the face. Her friends, her family, and she herself were under the sentence of extermination. It was now beginning to be carried out. And yet Etty held within herself the “handsome mixture” of pain at the plight of her people, and of what one people can do to another people, along with a continued delight in the gift of life and its ineffable wonder. “I have looked our destruction, our miserable end, which has already begun in so many small ways in our daily life, straight in the eye . . .” she writes, “and my love of life has not been diminished.”  To look life straight in the eye, to see its pain and to see its beauty—this is an essential part of glimpsing the way forward.
 Hildegard of Bingen, Letter to Wibert of Gembloux. See Hildegard of Bingen’s Book of Divine Works with Letters and Songs, ed. Matthew Fox (Bear & Company: 1987), 350.
 Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, trans. Elizabeth Spearing (Penguin: 1998), 119.
 Etty Hillesum, An Interrupted Life: The Diaries, 1941–1943 and Letters from Westerbork, trans. Arnold J. Pomerans (Henry Holt and Company: 1996), 152.
 Ibid., 155.
John Philip Newell, A New Harmony: The Spirit, the Earth, and the Human Soul (Jossey-Bass: 2011), 64-65, 67, 75.
If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it—usually to those closest to us: our family, our neighbors, our co-workers, and invariably, the most vulnerable, our children. (Wednesday)
All healthy religion shows you what to do with your pain, with the absurd, the tragic, the nonsensical, the unjust and the undeserved—all of which eventually come into every lifetime. If only we could see these “wounds” as the way through, as Jesus did, then they would become sacred wounds rather than scars to deny, disguise, or project onto others. I am sorry to admit that I first see my wounds as an obstacle more than a gift. Healing is a long journey.
If we cannot find a way to make our wounds into sacred wounds, we invariably become cynical, negative, or bitter. This is the storyline of many of the greatest novels, myths, and stories of every culture. If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it—usually to those closest to us: our family, our neighbors, our co-workers, and, invariably, the most vulnerable, our children.
Scapegoating, exporting our unresolved hurt, is the most common storyline of human history. The Jesus Story is about radically transforming history and individuals so that we don’t just keep handing on the pain to the next generation. Unless we can find a meaning for human suffering, that God is somehow in it and can also use it for good, humanity is in major trouble. Because we will suffer. Even the Buddha said that suffering is part of the deal!
We shouldn’t try to get rid of our own pain until we’ve learned what it has to teach. When we can hold our pain consciously and trustfully (and not project it elsewhere), we find ourselves in a very special liminal space. Here we are open to learning and breaking through to a much deeper level of faith and consciousness. Please trust me on this. We must all carry the cross of our own reality until God transforms us through it. These are the wounded healers of the world, and healers who have fully faced their wounds are the only ones who heal anyone else.
As an example of holding the pain, picture Mary standing at the foot of the cross or, as in Michelangelo’s Pietà cradling Jesus’ body. One would expect her to take her role wailing or protesting, but she doesn’t! We must reflect on this deeply. Mary is in complete solidarity with the mystery of life and death. It’s as if she is saying, “There’s something deeper happening here. How can I absorb it just as Jesus is absorbing it, instead of returning it in kind?” Consider the analogy of energy circuits: Most of us are relay stations; only a minority are transformers—people who actually change the electrical charge that passes through us.
Jesus on the cross and Mary standing beneath the cross are classic images of transformative spirituality. They do not return the hostility, hatred, accusations, or malice directed at them. They hold the suffering until it becomes resurrection! That’s the core mystery of Christianity. It takes our whole life to begin to comprehend this. It tends to be the wisdom of elders, not youngers.
Unfortunately, our natural instinct is to try to fix pain, to control it, or even, foolishly, to try to understand it. The ego insists on understanding. That’s why Jesus praises a certain quality even more than love, and he calls it faith. It is the ability to stand in liminal space, to stand on the threshold, to hold the contraries, until we are moved by grace to a much deeper level and a much larger frame, where our private pain is not center stage but a mystery shared with every act of bloodshed and every tear wept since the beginning of time. Our pain is not just our own.
Adapted from Richard Rohr, A Spring Within Us: A Book of Daily Meditations (CAC Publishing: 2016), 199, 120-121.
I believe—if I am to believe Jesus—that God is suffering love. If we are created in God’s image, and if there is so much suffering in the world, then God must also be suffering. (Thursday)
In his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Harold Kushner dispels a common myth about suffering and helps us see our way through intense pain:
The conventional explanation, that God sends us the burden because [God] knows that we are strong enough to handle it, has it all wrong. Fate, not God, sends us the problem. When we try to deal with it, we find out that we are not strong. We are weak; we get tired, we get angry, overwhelmed. . . . But when we reach the limits of our own strength and courage, something unexpected happens. We find reinforcement coming from a source outside of ourselves. And in the knowledge that we are not alone, that God is on our side, we manage to go on. . . .
Like Jacob in the Bible [Genesis 32], like every one of us at one time or another, you faced a scary situation, prayed for help, and found out that you were a lot stronger, and a lot better able to handle it, than you ever would have thought you were. In your desperation, you opened your heart in prayer, and what happened? You didn’t get a miracle to avert a tragedy. But you discovered people around you, and God beside you, and strength within you to help you survive the tragedy. I offer that as an example of a prayer being answered. 
Many people rightly question how there can be a good God or a just God in the presence of so much evil and suffering in the world—about which God appears to do nothing. Exactly how is God loving and sustaining what God created? That is our dilemma.
I believe—if I am to believe Jesus—that God is suffering love. If we are created in God’s image, and if there is so much suffering in the world, then God must also be suffering. How else can we understand the revelation of the cross? Why else would the central Christian logo be a naked, bleeding, suffering divine-human being?
Many of the happiest and most peaceful people I know love “a crucified God” who walks with crucified people, and thus reveals and redeems their plight as God’s own. For them, Jesus is not observing human suffering from a distance; he is somehow at the center of human suffering, with us and for us. He includes our suffering in the co-redemption of the world, as “all creation groans in one great act of giving birth” (Romans 8:22). Is this possible? Could it be true that we “make up in our own bodies all that still has to be undergone for the sake of the Whole Body” (Colossians 1:24)? Are we somehow partners with the Divine? At our best, we surely must be. But our rational minds will never fully surrender to this mystery until our minds are led by our soul and our spirit.
 Etty Hillesum, An Interrupted Life: The Diaries, 1941–1943 and Letters from Westerbork, trans. Arnold J. Pomerans (Henry Holt and Company: 1996), 153.
 Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People (Avon Books: 1983), 129, 131.
Adapted from Richard Rohr, A Spring Within Us: A Book of Daily Meditations (CAC Publishing: 2016), 120.
The only hope of understanding [pain] comes as we align ourselves with a groaning universe committed to cycles of birth, rebirth, and the longing for a just order. —Barbara A. Holmes (Friday
That left me with only two options: miss Mass completely that day or go to a funeral Mass at a neighboring parish. I opted for the second choice despite the fact that I did not know the woman who had died. Hey, it’s always good to practice a corporal work of mercy, right?
Little did I know then what I know now: God had a message for me in that funeral liturgy that would last a lifetime.
As I walked into the church, which was standing room only, I learned that Vi, the woman who had died, was a beloved mother, grandmother, friend and wife. A woman in her early 60s, she had just lost her battle with breast cancer. Her husband and three daughters were the last to enter the church and were visibly devastated.
Eight priests from near and far had come to celebrate the final farewell of a woman who was one of the pillars of the parish. The priest who gave the homily had traveled over 1,000 miles to bid her farewell and provide a stunning tribute to her selflessness. It quickly became obvious to me that Vi was one of those people you met and never forgot, a person whose character made an indelible mark on everyone she encountered.
The prayers of the faithful highlighted the various charities that had benefited from Vi’s advocacy and faithful support. The grandchildren each carried something that symbolized their special bond with their grandmother, each of the seven claiming to have been told in secret that he or she was “Granny’s favorite, but don’t tell the others.”
As I sat in the back of that church, absorbing the love and gratitude for this woman I had never met, I was struck by the potential we each have to make a positive difference in the lives of others. It was truly touching. In truth, though, it was not yet all that different from other touching tributes I had heard given at funerals.
Then, everything took a different turn. Vi’s sister-in-law stood up to give the eulogy. It went something like this:
“On behalf of my brother, James, and his children, I would like to thank you for being here to celebrate Vi’s life. The value of her life is demonstrated by the sheer number of people who have come to say goodbye. It is true that she was a beautiful person, inside and out. She was generous, thoughtful, sensitive and loving. But I am here to tell you something you might not know: She wasn’t always like that.
“As you know, Vi was my sister-in-law. When she and my brother were dating, I was not in favor of the match. He was in grad school and she was — well, let’s just say she was what I called a ‘spoiled-rotten brat.’ James was in love, dismissive of my complaints that she was shallow, self-centered and seemingly only interested in him for his money. He would respond, ‘You just don’t know her the way I do. If you could see her through my eyes, you would love her, too.’ Exasperated, I would storm out of the room, mumbling something about blinders and idiots.
“When they got married, I tried to believe she would change and be ‘worthy’ of my brother’s love. Nope. Believe it or not, it actually got worse. She announced she didn’t want to have children because she didn’t want to wear those ‘horrid maternity clothes.’ She declared she had no intention of getting a job. She spent her days at the mall and the spa, ensuring her appearance was, in her words, ‘on par with Lady Diana.’ James would come home from work to find her lying on the couch, exhausted after an arduous day of shopping and hairdressing. He would throw in a load of laundry and get dinner started while she finished her nails or soaked her feet.
“After a year of this, I sat James down and begged him to open his eyes and see her for what she really was: a selfish woman who spent every dime he earned on herself. I asked him to tell me one thing she had done that demonstrated that she genuinely loved him. He heard me out and responded calmly, ‘You just don’t know her the way I do.’ And he stood up and walked away.
“I was heartbroken over the havoc my brother’s naiveté was wreaking in his life. I actually kind of pitied him. ‘If only he could just accept the truth,’ I thought. I prayed that God would give him eyes to see. It turns out my prayer kind of boomeranged.
“As the months went by, little by little, things started to change. James would come home, and maybe the laundry was started or the plates were on the table. Maybe. After a few more weeks, Vi would have vacuumed the living room or would respond, ‘Oh, I didn’t make it to any of the stores today’ in answer to his question about where she had gone shopping. James told me Vi even made cookies for the veterans at the VA hospital, where he brought Communion every Sunday. And then one week, she started going with him.
“Little by little, Vi changed into the woman every person in this church knew her to be: selfless, generous and giving. This eulogy is a tribute to that woman — and to her husband.
“James, you were right. You saw something in Vi that no one else could have guessed was there, and you loved her into being. She became the woman you loved so very much, and we are all the richer for it. Thank you, James, for your faith and for your love. Thank you for loving Vi into our lives. Thank you for giving her to us. You were right. You were so right. You weren’t the one who needed different eyes. We were. Thank you for not giving up on her — or on me. And Vi, thank you for letting yourself be loved into existence.”
With the eulogy finished, Vi’s sister-in-law sat down, and the congregation stood up for the final commendation, but somehow, I couldn’t bring myself to move. “Thank you for letting yourself be loved into existence.” What if we could do that for each other? What if we could love someone into being the best possible version of themselves, the way James did? Better yet, what if we could let ourselves be loved into our best existence by the Beloved who values our potential over our shortfalls?
Don Quixote saw the lady Dulcinea when everyone else perceived only Aldonza, a woman of ill repute. Author Gregory Maguire proposed that the Wicked Witch of the West had a name, Elphaba, and a story. And what Harry Potter fan doesn’t remember that in the end, Snape was one of the good guys? The possibility of being recognized and loved for more than what we seem is all throughout literature. It’s nothing new. What Vi and James taught me, though, is that this is not the stuff of fiction. This is the stuff of love.
Missing my alarm that Saturday morning was one of the best mistakes I’ve ever made. Thank you, Vi, for teaching me the lesson that has become a lifelong prayer: Lord, help me to see each person the way you see them so I can love them, too. And, Lord, help me to let you love me into my best self.
[Virginia Herbers is an Apostle of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. She has master’s degree in pastoral studies and has ministered in education at both the elementary and high school levels in Connecticut, New York, Missouri and Taiwan. She currently serves as the vice-provincial for the United States province of her community.]