Dear Fr. O'Shea, Thank you for your letter last month and also for the private correspondence since then. I think you might take up this one as a sequel to the first. We were discussing ‘punishment’ for sin, and you gave a strange interpretation of it, but since you say it came from the Catechism I have to accept that it’s not your own invention. I still have some difficulty with it. If God made reparation for all sin why is it necessary for suffering to continue in the world? in any form! Is it that the clergy cannot admit the miracle of God's healing grace. This Purgatory before and after death, how do you square it with the gracious healing mercy of God. The Gospel's show us a God of abundance, why not an infinite abundance of his mercy in healing all and everything! Maybe I'm pushing this too far, but my big fear is that the church is clawing back something from us. Please comment.
Dear Mr Pinfield,
Thanks for your letters, and for your determination to make this a real conversation.
I agree, it is always possible, and even probable, that when we speak of God we are using ‘God’ as a kind of scarecrow to keep the birds away from the seeds (as I heard it expressed the other day). We are very likely to project our own mean-mindedness onto God: to create God in our own image. That's a permanent and universal possibility, and everything we try to say about God has to be questioned by it, again and again. We should never be guilty of trying to ‘claw something back’, as you put.
Should God's mercy prevent all suffering? One thing we know for certain: suffering exists. And one thing we know for certain in faith: God is merciful. So God's mercy does not in fact prevent all suffering. What we have to do is try to make sense of this.
Have you ever met anyone who never suffered? What would such a person be like? He would have no depth, no growth, no awareness; he would be absolutely juvenile; he would be a complete idiot. Imagine parents who protected their child from everything! “People who have not suffered, what do they know?” said Henry Suso, a man who suffered more than most in a century (the 14th) that suffered more than most. Here is his statement in context:
"There is nothing more painful than suffering, and nothing more joyful than to have suffered. Suffering is short pain and long joy. Suffering has this effect on the one to whom suffering is suffering, that it ceases to be suffering…. Suffering make a wise and practised person. People who have not suffered, what do they know…? All the saints are the cup-bearers of a suffering person, for they have all tasted it once themselves, and they cry out with one voice that it is free from poison and a wholesome drink.”
The one to whom suffering is suffering. He was being precise about this. To many who suffer, suffering isn't suffering as such, but misery and anguish and rejection of suffering. The word ‘to suffer’ in English means ‘to allow’, whereas the word ‘anguish’ comes from the Latin ‘ang(u)ere’, which means ‘to choke’. There is a proverb in Greek, pathemata mathemata: literally, ‘things suffered, things learned.’ It is the same insight as Suso’s: “People who have not suffered, what do they know?”
This is not to claim that we who have suffered now ‘know’! It is not book-knowledge or factual knowledge; it is experiential knowledge that continues day by day and is never finished. It is not the kind of knowledge that gives us security and control (which would be a kind of closure) but which opens us up to experience, to life in the raw.
If you or I or anyone were to think that God's mercy should have protected us from every kind of suffering, then we would have a big problem with God, would we not? God's mercy did not protect Jesus from suffering, nor Mary, nor any of his disciples through the ages. We cannot expect that it will protect us. It would be protecting us from life, and that would be no mercy.