By Tom Palanza, Jr.
I do not watch the news. My brother and father, in particular, are always incredibly frustrated with me whenever they start talking about current events that I have no knowledge of. I am, therefore, usually late learning about what is going on in the world that is not immediate to me. This was the case with the Christian persecution going on in Iraq. It wasn’t until last Thursday when I read “The Worst Thing We’ve Read all Day” post that I learned about what was happening. After reading that post and then praying Thursday’s Office of Readings, I thought it uncanny how many connections the two had with each other.
The connections started with the saint of the day, Sharbel Makhluf. One thing I’ve noticed about my prayer is that the saint of the day, in a limited way, transports me to their region and time while I pray. I imagine myself praying in a setting that the saint might have prayed in. St. Makhluf, born in Lebanon, put my prayer setting in a place not very far from Iraq.
The connections continued with the psalm. Psalm 44 is a personal favorite, but having the situation in Iraq pulling on my thoughts helped me give more attention to the psalm, to imagine better the suffering it talked about. Please do read the whole of Psalm 44, but here are some snippets if you can’t:
You make us retreat before the foe;
Those who hate us plunder us at will.
You hand us over like sheep to be slaughtered,
Scatter us among the nations.
You sell your people for nothing;
You make no profit from their sale.
All this has come upon us,
Though we have not forgotten you,
Nor been disloyal to your covenant.
Yet you have left us crushed,
Desolate in a place of jackals;
You have covered us with a shadow of death.
For you we are slain all the day long,
Considered only as sheep to be slaughtered.
Awake! Why do you sleep, O Lord?
Rise up! Do not reject us forever!
Why do you hide your face;
Why forget our pain and misery.
Rise up, help us!
Redeem us in your mercy.
As I read, I began to wonder two things: what can a Christian in this situation do, and what can a fellow Christian (or fellow human) do for another in this situation? How does the sufferer deal with suffering, and how can the fortunate help the suffering? I would like to reflect more about the question of “What can the sufferer do?” The question of what can the fellow Christian do is just as important, but requires another post to discuss adequately.
The readings, coincidentally, addressed this first question. The first reading was from Paul, 2 Corinthians 4:7-14:
But we hold this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body. For we who live are constantly being given up to death for the sake of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you. Since, then, we have the same spirit of faith, according to what is written, “I believed, therefore I spoke,” we too believe and therefore speak, knowing that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and place us with you in his presence.
One of the major themes Paul uses here, just as it was in psalm 44, is that power is God’s. Psalm 44 begins by remembering that all Israel’s past fortune came, not from their own strength, but from God. This is the only way to “win” a conflict; to let God fight for you. But what does that mean for Christians in Iraq suffering terribly? They do not have the Ark to carry in front of an army to guarantee victory over their oppressors; how then is God supposed to fight for them? How does the power of God enter into our suffering and save us? St. Ambrose gives a hopeful message to those who suffer:
We know, then, the place where Christ is shining within us. He is the eternal splendor enlightening our minds and our hearts. He was sent by the Father to shine on us in the glory of this face, and so enable us to see what is eternal and heavenly, where before we were imprisoned in the darkness of this world. …Even if, Lord, you turn your face away from us, yet “we are sealed with the glory of your face.” Your glory is in our hearts and shines in the deep places of our spirit. Indeed, no one can live if you should turn away your face.
The light of God that the psalm states won the Israelites victory over their enemies is not gone, nor limited to a single object or person. Instead, as Paul and Ambrose remind us, that light is now residing in our hearts. We are never without this light, we are never without the power of God, we are never without the means to turn evil to good, to save as God saves – to redeem. After Christ, there is no evil that can have a final victory. Christ took the greatest evil, death, and used it as the means to grant the greatest good, life. No suffering is meaningless, so long as the Christian chooses to suffer in love: to suffer so that others might be strengthened, to suffer so that evil might be exposed, to suffer in order to be more like God or more like our neighbor (which is to be compassionate). The lightest and the heaviest sufferings can yield good fruit if they are born with the light of the Spirit.
Small comfort that is to those suffering, you might say. It’s just too spiritual and lacking in applicability, praxis, action, reality. In a way, that is true. For as great as St. Paul and St. Ambrose sound on paper, they don’t give us anything we can use to help those in need. And even closer to the situation of the sufferer, the light of Christ does not protect from mortality, pain, or hardship. What can we do to make our earthly situation better? Don’t Paul and Ambrose seem a little useless for our progress towards a better world? I would say no. For as much as we would like to stop suffering from happening, there are situations where it is going to happen, despite our best efforts to prevent it. There are times when you are just going to suffer. It is in those times that the message of Paul and Ambrose becomes clear and valuable. They give those people who are forced to suffer a freedom, a humanity, that their suffering would have otherwise taken away from them. For even when suffering is forced upon you, the Christian still has the freedom to choose good, a freedom that comes from the Spirit. They have the chance, when oppressors treat them inhumanly, to claim their true humanity, to claim love. Isn’t that the tragedy of suffering, that it is inhuman, that people cannot choose to be human? It seems to me, as spiritual as Paul and Ambrose may sound, that they actually provide those people in the worst of situations with a chance to have their humanity back. That seems rather comforting to me.