Suffering unto God by Michael Ford

We need to suffer with God.
– Henri Nouwen

Day after day, evening after evening, news programs here in Britain take us inside the coronavirus wards of our National Health Service. Our Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who experienced them for himself as a patient, says he owes his life to the NHS.

Like many others the world over, we go outside our houses and applaud our appreciation for our front-line workers, some of whom have lost their lives in the call of duty. In Britain this has become a weekly ritual at 8:00 p.m. on Thursdays. Car drivers toot their horns, parents cheer loudly, and children create their own cymbals. Never again will we take doctors, nurses, care workers, and the hidden army of support staff for granted, we say.

It is hard to keep up with the changing news of the pandemic. For example, on Palm Sunday, all within a couple of hours, the Queen made an historic speech, the prime minister was hospitalized, and a chief medical officer resigned for twice visiting her second home. In these unprecedented times, it is impossible to second-guess what will happen next. There has never been news quite like this.

But essential though it is to know what is happening and how we should act, I must confess to having some concerns about the psychological impact of such continual coverage on our mental well-being. From the start, I have been urging people on social media not to overdose on round-the-clock commentaries. This might seem a strange position for a journalist to take, because, of course, we need to be kept informed and updated. But if we spend every moment of every day following the relentless reportage, and then listening to it again and again on repeated bulletins, our psychological—and spiritual—health will suffer. We are likely to become depressed and less sensitive.

I don’t think anyone has been in any doubt about the gravity of the pandemic or the selfless and sacrificial work that is taking place in our hospitals. We need to be aware of that. But becoming addicted to coronavirus news will have consequences.

In his own day, the spiritual writer Henri Nouwen (who taught at Yale in the 1970s) wasn’t slow in pointing out that excess monitoring of the news could easily lead to compassion fatigue. Last year, in a volume of unpublished addresses, Following Jesus: Finding Our Way Home in an Age of Anxiety, Nouwen’s voice sounded again on the subject. “Confrontation with human suffering does not lead to compassion,” he wrote. “It leads to anger, numbness, irritation and rejection, because we don’t know how to deal with it all. It is too much. It is a heavy burden—more than we can carry.”

Nouwen goes on to speak theologically about the mystery of the Christian life, reminding us of the wider picture. “It is not that God came to take our burden away or to take our cross away or to take our agony away. No. God came to invite us to connect our suffering with God’s suffering, to connect our pain to God’s pain.”

It is important to bear these words in mind in the current circumstances, especially when tempers flare and impatience wins the day. The great invitation of the Christian life is to live a life of connectedness with the Son of God who, according to Nouwen, “wants to give us his burden as a light burden because it is a burden that God has already carried for us. There is more. Not only is God compassionate with us, but we have to be willing to be compassionate with God. We have to be compati with God. Compati is Latin for ‘suffer with’—we need to suffer with God.”

Nouwen regards this invitation to suffer with God as probably the most profound dimension of the Christian tradition: Compassion means not only that God suffers with us but also that now we are invited to suffer with God.

When we pray, we connect our entire life with God’s life. God’s love flows through our spiritual veins, enabling us to face our struggles in a new way. “Take your worries and convert them into prayer,” Nouwen urges. “Take your fear and connect it with God’s fear. Take your depression and see it in the presence of God’s dying on the cross. Bring it to the Presence who has suffered all and lived it all.”

Once, when Nouwen was extremely depressed and was weighted down by an immense sadness, he took himself off to the Grand Canyon where, observing billions of years of creation, he was able to see his depression against a broader perspective. Looking at that “enormous abyss of beauty,” the depression fell away and he could feel the silence of the place. In the face of the natural wonder, he asked himself what he was worrying about, as if he were bearing the burden of a world that survived before him and would go on a long time after him. “Why don’t you just enjoy your life and really live it?” was his next question.

Nouwen concludes that God is like the Grand Canyon. God suffered the wound of all humanity and, if one can enter into the presence of that wound, one’s own wound can become a light burden or pain—because it has been embraced by love. “I can live my pain and not be destroyed by it,” Nouwen wrote. “The Grand Canyon invited me to enter an abyss of divine love and to experience that I am immensely loved and cared for. I was invited to enter life with a new heart, with God’s heart.”

As soon as the lockdown began, I deliberately set myself a project that would continue beyond the pandemic. I’d wanted to write about one individual for many years but never had the time. So I gathered everything I had collected on this person, ordered material I didn’t have, and set about getting to know him as never before. It has not been a deliberate diversion from the crisis, but I feel it has kept me calm and hopeful in a world where it is all too easy to become overwhelmed and understandably fearful. Perhaps there’s someone you’ve always been intrigued by—a poet, writer, artist, musician, scientist, philosopher, or theologian—but never got around to exploring. Now is the time!

During these anxious weeks, I have also found myself becoming more attuned to beauty, the beauty of our created world and the beauty of our interpersonal relationships. Ironically, even though we have to keep further apart these days, everyone seems suddenly so much closer. In the more reserved climes of England, walkers or joggers don’t always return a smile as you pass. But now, people are waving over hedges, youngsters are beaming like I’m one of the gang, and families exercising in the fields beside our home are making a point of acknowledging us through the window as we sip our morning coffee.

A few minutes ago I saw four young deer gamboling across a freshly cut pasture. It’s not an unusual sight around here, but for a moment their antics held my attention as never before and I found myself rejoicing in the sacredness of the present moment. Always a nature lover, I think the isolation has made me appreciate the glories of creation even more. It has become a time of profound gratitude. I feel more grateful than ever before to my family, friends, colleagues, and teachers—past and present—who have made me who I have become. As the Jesuit priest Teilhard de Chardin writes in The Mass on the World: “One by one, Lord, I see and I love all those whom you have given me to sustain and charm my life.”

To console us at this time, the media have also been supporting us artistically. Poetry has been read every morning on the BBC’s main radio news station—this morning Prince Charles was the contributor—while The Times has been offering us healing through literature. And a cellist who played at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle has spoken on television about how music can heal us during the global emergency.

But there was no live music at a funeral service I recently conducted for a former theatrical producer (who had not died of the virus). Everything had to be computerized, with the tracks played in by the funeral director as no staff were allowed in the chapel. The 90-year-old might have expected—and certainly deserved—a full house for his farewell, as his wife had a few years before. But on this occasion, there were only 12 mourners, all sitting in the front row. The service was streamed.

After the commendation, away from the webcam, I led the way to the graveside in a surrounding cemetery. The sky was a deep blue that day, the sun was ablaze, and, apart from the celestial birdsong, there was an incredibly profound silence in the air as there was so little traffic around. I had never experienced an atmosphere like it. Despite the social distancing measures, people felt bonded and uplifted to an unusual degree, connected by our common human vulnerability.

Perhaps in these times we are beginning to reflect a little more about the vulnerability of God as well.

Michael Ford is an author and theologian in England, where he worked in BBC news and religious broadcasting for many years. His articles for TAC reflect spiritually on his life as a journalist and writer.

 

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