Suffering

Emma Childs looks for clues to the meaning of suffering in a story where suffering does have meaning - the story of Christ's suffering and death, a story which is made present for us today as we come to know him in the Eucharist.


This article was first published in the Spring 2002 issue of Chrism. The author's profile below is from the same date

The Revd Emma Childs is Priest in Charge of St Stephen-in-Brannel, a parish in the heart of the clay mining area of mid-Cornwall (not far from the Eden Project). She was elected onto the Guild Council while still at Ripon College Cuddesdon and holds an MTh in Applied Theology from Oxford University. Her thesis for this was on the ministry of healing and was sub-titled ‘A Special Occasion or a Way of Life?—A theological Study of the Ministry of Healing with Reference to its Frequency and Purpose’. She has been a member of the Guild for quite a few years and was Secretary of the Cairncross branch before going to theological college.

© Guild of St Raphael

Searching for a Meaning

Through a Glass Darkly is, I believe, a truly remarkable and wonderful book. It is the sort of book that leaves the reader bereaved when it is finished, but also a book that is healing. In it, Jostein Gaarder, the author of the much acclaimed Sophie’s World tells of the unusual encounters between Ariel, an extra-ordinary angel, and Cecelia, a young girl who lies ill in bed preparing for her death, while downstairs her family prepare themselves for Christmas. Cecelia comes to realise that the way we embrace suffering is a matter of perspective and finding meaning in it. Her suffering is easier for her to understand than for her family, though from time to time her Grandmother is privileged to share some of Cecelia’s special insights. The underlying theme of Through a Glass Darkly seems to be that suffering puts an individual in a unique position to try and make sense of what it is to be human, and to encounter that mystery which is God.

‘Do you see that there are ice roses on the pane?’, [her mother] asked. ‘Isn’t it strange how they manage to draw themselves?’ She opened the window.

‘Lots of things are strange, Mother. But it’s as if I understand everything so much better now that I’m ill. It’s as if the whole world has become a little clearer at the edges.’

‘It’s often like that. All we need is a bad dose of the influenza to hear the birds outside in quite a different way.’ 1


When experiencing suffering and pain, our outlook on the world changes; it is as if the veil between earth and heaven becomes more fragile. We recognise more fully our own mortality, and our relationship with God is examined. The extent to which this will be true will depend on our perspective—whether we are the ones, like Cecelia’s family, to stand a little way back and see a dim reflection in the mirror, or whether, like Cecelia, we are the ones to stand with our nose and fingers pressing up against the glass.

In this article, I will look at how individuals may find meaning in suffering, and the opportunity for healing that participation in the Eucharist gives us. It is here that we re-tell and find our part in God’s story, the story of the incarnation, suffering and death of Christ, and partake of the ‘benefits of his passion’. Through the transformation of our lives by the cross, we are able to engage more fully with the mystery of suffering.

There is nothing more immediate and ‘earthly’ than suffering. For those who suffer and, perhaps to a lesser extent for the family and friends who share in it, that suffering is all encompassing, and plays a significant part in the search for meaning in the world around them. Suffering provides us with stark choices and crossroads, and guidance will be needed in knowing where to begin. Eric Symes Abbott wrote:
As we all suffer in degrees more or less,
What we become in and through the
Suffering is vital. Shall we become more
Full of love and acceptance,
Of compassion with other sufferers,
Even more full of a certain kind
Of peace and joy? Or shall we become
Narrower, more self-enclosed,
More self-pitying?’2


It would be natural for any afflicted individual to feel self-pity, though if Christian ministers can encourage a creative view of suffering, a journey towards love, acceptance and compassion can follow. Beginning that journey, however, is to step onto an unfamiliar road, where there will be many questions and much searching for the way ahead. Perhaps the most asked questions, even from those who would not profess any faith, are, ‘Why me?’, and, particularly when faced with either one’s own or another’s mortality, ‘Where is God in all this?’ This last question may, at first, be unarticulated, but suffering occurs mostly as the result of something beyond our control, and the usual human response is to rationalise it, and maybe to apportion blame.

Unarticulated questions, however, will often lead to self-withdrawal, and it is essential that people are helped to express their feelings and re-establish communication with others and with God. Paul Fiddes rightly points out that the moment of acute suffering is not the time for theological arguments, though the way in which the minister reacts to the situation will depend on the image of God they have, and ‘even more profoundly, it will be influenced by what they believe can be possible through participation, or deeper participation, in the triune God.’3 In his book, Participating in God, Fiddes outlines four possible theodicies, though he concludes that no argument finally convinces, because ‘we cannot rationalise God or explain suffering’. He considers that central to any understanding of suffering is the idea that God suffers with his creation, which fits with the image of a God who ‘acts with loving persuasion on the inside of human nature, luring creation from within towards a fullness of life,’ rather than an interventionist or coercive picture of God’s activity.4 The renewal of our alienated, weakened, fragmented condition begins with Christ’s incarnation, and his healing ministry is seen as ‘the outworking of the suffering servant who “took our infirmities and bore our diseases.” (Matthew 8.17).’5 Effectively, this means that we can build up a picture of God who does not inflict suffering on his creation, and it will be possible to find meaning in our suffering, and healing from the God who suffers alongside us.

When ministering to those who are suffering in the parish, it seems that Fiddes’ theodicy of story could be most helpful. Time spent talking with those who suffer, for example those who are dying, the bereaved, and the very sick, reveals that stories and memories are vitally important. There is a need to recall our story, and to consider how other people and God fit into that. Often, there also comes the comment, ‘There are others worse off that I am.’ In the theodicy of story, Fiddes appeals to the power of the stories of other people’s suffering. Much human suffering appears to be pointless, and if we are unable to make sense of it, we can be forced into silence, though Fiddes believes that hope can be found in the midst of suffering if we place our story alongside a greater story, ‘a story of suffering which does have meaning.’

Michael Ramsey too says that transfiguration and healing comes when difficulties are accepted and placed in a larger context in which to make sense of it. ‘That larger context is Jesus crucified and risen, and [the Christian priest is], again and again, to be lifting human situations into that context and finding in that context new and exciting things begin to happen to the situations, and to those of us who are confronting them.’6 In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus recalls the story of the righteous sufferer of Psalm 22, and in turn, the story of the cross becomes a paradigm that we can place alongside our sufferings, to see what meaning emerges.7

In the death and resurrection of Christ we see the whole story of God, a story that has meaning. In it, God transforms human life ‘by the power of sacrificial love,’ and brings ‘resurrection life out of the worst kind of death.’8 A path to healing could be found by sufferers placing themselves in this story, and it is this story that Christians recall in the sacrament of the Eucharist. However, in the Eucharist, this story is not simply remembered, it is the place where, with others, we can meet with the Christ who understands the suffering we bring to the foot of the cross. John Robinson emphasises that healing is not found in cure, but in the healing of the whole person in all his or her relationships. He considers it to be significant that ‘at the high-point of the Communion service, the gift of the bread of life and the cup of salvation, has traditionally been accompanied by the words, “Preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life”, and it has ended with the invoking “the peace (the shalom or wholeness) of God which passes all understanding”.’ 9

In the Eucharistic liturgy Christ is present in word and sacrament, and by engaging with the rhythms and moods of the Christian year, those who suffer can more fully find their place in God’s story, discovering meaning in their distress. During the Christian year we live out, in faith, the story of the incarnation, suffering, death and resurrection of Christ; he shows us how to live, and also how to die. Eucharistic ritual also helps us cope with order and chaos, and uses everyday symbols, such as water, bread, wine and oil in homely, nurturing and caring actions that are in themselves reassuring and healing, and as real and immediate as the suffering itself. ‘Bread and wine or the touch of a hand, in their very simplicity, hold together “earth, sky, gods and mortals.”’10 As the liturgical action unfolds, we are enfolded in the love of Christ, who makes himself known to us in the breaking of bread.11 Sacramental actions and symbols are used which express truths beyond words, whether it is lighting a candle, exchanging a sign of peace, or allowing our feet to be washed.12

The Eucharist satisfies our physical hunger and thirst, but also our hunger and thirst for God (Psalm 63.1).13 Bread is a symbol of work and life, wine of sharing and communion, though the symbolism goes much deeper: broken and shared bread is about brokenness itself. The bread is Christ’s broken body, and it is helpful to those who suffer to receive broken, ragged and torn bread, simply because the vocation to follow Christ is in part about accepting brokenness.14 This is where healing begins. However, the Eucharistic bread and wine also represent human work and productivity and all the concerns, sufferings, achievements and failures that people bring when they offer themselves at Mass. 15

Receiving the Eucharist, and feeling Christ’s presence there can be a very powerful experience, one which is uplifting in the sense of meeting with God, and of being up-lifted in prayer by others. The shared participation of the Eucharist brings those who suffer into closer communion with all, human and divine. The sense of intimacy, being actually touched by Christ, of his indwelling, is very much there. As we kneel at the altar rail it is the actual physical things that we do which draw our attention to the Eucharist as a healing experience. ‘Dwell in me, as I in you.’ ‘All who touched him were healed.’ 16

It would be wrong to consider the Eucharist, and its healing for those who suffer, without mentioning sacrifice. Nothing should detract from the unique sacrifice of Calvary, but Michael Perham says it is possible to use the term ‘sacrifice’ of the Eucharist to link the self-offering of the communicant to the offering of Christ. The cross lies at the heart of the Eucharist; it is this that makes worship accessible to those for whom participation in a ‘celebration’ would be difficult, for example those burdened with sadness or sickness. Instead, those who suffer can approach the cross and ‘can come to Christ and find his yoke is easy and his burden light’.17 John Macquarrie affirms that in the Eucharist Christ is both ‘the healer and the sufferer’. In his brokenness, Christ heals. He accepts our woundedness and sinfulness, as well as our sickness and our sacrifice, transforming them through the cross, through the forgiveness of sins and the giving of himself in the bread and wine, into something acceptable to God.18 In reconciliation and love, Christ restores our relationship with him, bringing those who suffer to wholeness of life.

The Eucharist plays a vital part when trying to find meaning in suffering. It is not merely God’s story to be told, ‘once upon a time’, but a continuing narrative in which we have a part. ‘Hearing the story told, or seeing it displayed in broken bread and outpoured wine, can thus draw us into a deeper awareness of the divine fellowship and the ‘communion of saints’, so that we can live in a larger story.’19 Worship enables us to ‘grasp the heel of heaven, to glimpse, albeit fleetingly, the life of heaven, to plug in, for a moment, to the worship of the angels and the praises of the saints.’20 This will, for a short while, take us beyond our suffering, but we know that Christ is among us, present in bread and wine. Of all the sacraments, the Eucharist most clearly portrays the whole mystery of Christ’s incarnation,21 and so embraces humanity in all its suffering and brokenness, enabling us to leave our burdens at the altar rail, ‘which is the foot of the cross recalled vividly into the timeless present,’ and then to receive the healing touch of the living Christ.22

We return again to Cecelia, who found meaning in her suffering. Before she died she asked her Grandmother to record her thoughts.

‘Both the creation and the heavens are such a great mystery that neither human beings on earth nor the angels in heaven can comprehend it. But there is something in the firmament that is not quite right. Something has gone wrong with the whole of the great design.’

She looked up. ‘Then there’s only one thing more.’

Grandma nodded again, and Cecelia said:

‘All the stars fall at some time. But the star is only a tiny spark from the great beacon in the sky.’ 23

In the Eucharist, those who suffer can experience the presence of Christ, and receive a measure of the healing and enfolding love he has for us all. There, many will discover meaning in their suffering, finding their own place in God’s story. For others, the mystery of suffering may not be unravelled, but it could be enough simply to meet the incarnate God and to know that he suffers too; for them, true healing may come only in death, when we return once more to God.

Notes
  1. Gaarder, Jostein, Through a Glass Darkly, p.46
  2. Abbot, E.S., Invitations to Prayer: Selections from the writings of Eric Symes Abbott, Dean of Westminster, 1959-74, Cincinatti, USA, 1989, p.23 in Love’s Redeeming Work, OUP 2001.
  3. Fiddes, Paul S, Participating in God, DLT 2000, pp 152-3.
  4. Ibid. p.153.
  5. From the theological introduction to the Wholeness and Healing services, Common Worship: Pastoral Services, Church House Publishing 2000 p.96.
  6. Michael Ramsey, Retreat Addresses given to the Oratory of the Good Shepherd, Clewer, 1972, p.6-7, in Love’s Redeeming Work, pp.670-1.
  7. Ibid., pp.156-8.
  8. Robinson, J A T, in James, Eric, A Life of Bishop John A T Robinson: Scholar, Pastor, Prophet, London 1987, p.309.
  9. Power, David, Unsearchable Riches, Pueblo, 1984, p.96.
  10. Maddocks, Morris, The Christian Healing Ministry, SPCK, 1995, p.113.
  11. Perham, Michael, Lively Sacrifice, SPCK, 1994, pp.54-5.
  12. Rouillard, ‘From human meal to Christian Eucharist’ in Seasoltz, R Kevin, ed., Living Bread, Saving Cup, p.127.
  13. Perham, p.145.
  14. Shorter, A, Jesus and the Witchdoctor, Geoffrey Chapman, 1995, p.206.
  15. Hacker, George, The Healing Stream, DLT, 1998, p.100.
  16. Perham, pp.4-5.
  17. Macquarrie, John, Guide to the Sacraments, SCM Press, 1997, p.43.
  18. Fiddes, pp.162-3.
  19. Perham, pp.8-9.
  20. Shorter, p.205.
  21. Maddocks, p.115.
  22. Gaarder, p.143


© Guild of St Raphael