Dealing with Sorrow and Suffering
Mary, the Mother of Jesus, is presented with The Seven Sorrows. They are: Simeon’s prophecy that a sword shall pierce her heart (Lk 2:34, 35), the flight into Egypt (Mt 2:13, 14), the loss of the Child Jesus in the temple (Lk 2: 43-45), the meeting of Jesus on the Way of the Cross, the Crucifixion, the taking down of the Body of Jesus from the Cross, and the burial of Jesus. To this official list we can also add the following sorrows she experienced: death of Joseph, Jesus leaving his mother to begin his public ministry, when people sarcastically referred to the nature of his birth, when he was misunderstood and ridiculed, when they called him a lunatic, when they wanted to throw him off the cliff…
Pain, in general, is understood as physical; that which is experienced in the body. In common parlance it is also used in another contexts such as, ‘my heart pains to see you like this or you are a pain in my neck’ though here not in the physical sense. Sorrow and suffering are a result of one’s mental and emotional response to physical pain, sadness, despair and depression, mental agony, when plans go haywire, financial loss, break up of a relationship, betrayal, death of a loved one. Many such circumstances can result in tremendous sorrow and suffering. At times sorrow can lead to an experience of pain in the body.
Pain is unavoidable. Since we have a body, the body is bound to experience pain. To a certain extent we can control pain by the quality of our life with the aid of medicine, or other choices we make, but all these can only delay the onset of pain. Pain occurs in the body because of one’s lifestyle, consumption of a particular type of food, substance abuse, side effects from medical treatment. Calamities of nature cause pain, too. We cannot escape pain, but sorrow and suffering are under our control.
In the eyes of the Church, Mary, "having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory." It is presumed that Mary did not experience physical death. Though her body did not decay and she was assumed into heaven body and soul, still this did not spare her from experiencing pain in the body as any other human being (headache, flu, cold, joint pain, body pain etc.,). The Seven Sorrows of Mary are an indication that she was not free from sorrow and suffering as well.
Jesus too experienced pain and sorrow. The Passion Narrative is an indication of the intensity of pain he experienced in his physical body. The response of the people to his Words and Works brought him sorrow and suffering to the point of his perspiring blood in the garden of Gethsemane.
Like Mary, Jesus, the Prophets, and all those who have said “Yes” to God have had to deal with sorrow because of their saying “Yes” to God. Commitment to God placed them in situations that exposed them to sorrow and suffering. Isn’t this what Simeon prophesized about a sword piercing Mary’s heart? Surrendering to God’s will comes with the price of sorrow and suffering. This is not to take away the pure joy that one experiences in surrendering to God and living out God’s will, but such a “yes” inevitably carries sorrow and suffering within itself. How did Mary deal with pain, sorrow, and suffering? How did she respond to it?
Pain, sorrow, and suffering do not have a religious flavor. They are human experiences without a face. They have no religious, political, national, or cultural identity. Whether one is a Jew, a Christian, a Hindu, a Buddhist, a Muslim, a theist, or an atheist, the nature and reality of pain and suffering are the same. But the response definitely can be and is conditioned and qualified by one’s belief system and philosophy of life. Thus, there can be a Jewish, a Christian, a Hindu, a Buddhist, a Muslim, a theistic, and an atheistic response to pain and suffering. While pain and suffering are universal, the responses can vary.
This blog is not the place to highlight all the different possible responses which no doubt are helpful, but we will focus mostly on the Christian response and will also attempt to respond from a contemplative point of view.
I personally find it difficult to accept that God would directly cause pain and suffering in the life of an individual/family/group to instill in them a religious/moral lesson, to draw them back to their forgotten faith. Isn’t this what Jesus rejects when he was asked whether the blind man’s blindness was the result of his sin of that of the parents (Jn 9)? Pain, as stated above can enter the body from different sources. But the question is, once pain, sorrow, and suffering strike us how do we respond to it?
A faith based approach calls the believer to surrender one’s pain, sorrow, and suffering to God and to trust that God will bring good out of it. It is a call to let God act through it. Isn’t this the common experience of a vast majority of believers that once they surrender to God, God will bring some good out of it? At the actual time of experiencing pain, sorrow, and suffering we may not understand why such a thing is happening in our life but once surrendered in total trust and faith to God, the believer begins to see the good in that very pain and sorrow itself. Thus, a believer is not only grateful to God for the blessings but equally for the losses, misfortunes, tragedies, failures… Isn’t this the meaning of “Give God thanks and praise in all situations of life?” No one wants to be exposed to sad events and tragedies in life, and when they do occur we feel miserable, and it is normal to feel so. But later when we revisit a misfortune, a loss, a tragedy, a broken relationship, a heart wrenching event, a plan that did not go our way, we still out of trust and surrender can say, “Thank you God.” Then we will also realize that because of pain and sorrow I have learned something precious in my life because I am a richer person today, not in the economic sense but spiritually. And isn’t our life fuller now? Aren’t I a better person today? Have we not learned valuable and precious lessons that life teaches us? If surrender is our attitude, then we must equally be grateful to God even when things do not go our way. Suffering and sorrow contain within it more life and religious lessons than what we have learned from all the years of learning about life. Because of my exposure to pain and sorrow God becomes more real, personal, and experiential. To acknowledge the presence of God even on the cross is real spirituality.
Khalil Gibran captures it so well when he writes:
Your joy is your sorrow unmasked. And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears. And how else can it be? The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain. Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter's oven? And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives? When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy. When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight. Some of you say, "Joy is greater than sorrow," and others say, "Nay, sorrow is the greater." But I say unto you, they are inseparable. Together they come, and when one sits, alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed. …
And in the words of Sufi mystic Rumi:
I said: what about my eyes? God said: Keep them on the road. I said: what about my passion? God said: Keep it burning. I said: what about my heart? God said: Tell me what you hold inside it? I said: pain and sorrow? He said: Stay with it. The wound is the place where the Light enters you.
I saw Grief drinking a cup of sorrow and called out, “it tastes sweet, does it not?” “You have caught me,” Grief answered, “and have ruined my business. How can I sell sorrow when you know it is a blessing?”
From a non-dual Contemplative perspective when the self is in union with God, the self becomes a witness to all that happens in the mind and the body without identifying with it. The body experiences pain and the mind reacts resulting in sorrow and suffering, but the self, as pure witness, is beyond the mind and the body. We don’t deny the experiential reality of pain, suffering, and sorrow, we feel and experience it as it is, but through contemplative prayer we also realize that the self cannot be touched by fire or cold. It is beyond the mind-body structure, it is a pure witness to what is happening in the mind and the body without identifying with it. It’s the ego that identifies itself with the mind and the body and with all that happens in the mind and the body. But the one who seeks union with God and realizes his/her true self, becomes aware of pain and suffering without denying it but does not identify his/her self with what is happening in the mind and the body. Wouldn’t the daily dying (through contemplative prayer) to our ego prepare us for the final dying where the mind and the body would die but the self alone remains? Be that self even while you are alive in spite of pain, sorrow, and suffering.
To be continued ....