The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote that “life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”
“We dare not get rid of our pain before we find out what it has to teach us.” - Fr. Richard Rohr, Franciscan priest and mystic
I served for two years as a chaplain in a community hospital. I recall one homeless patient in the ICU who was struggling with addiction. He was in the hospital because he had downed a half a bottle of rubbing alcohol. The physicians were frankly surprised it hadn’t killed him. I saw him just an hour before he was to be transferred to a local psychiatric hospital for observation. My guess is that his physician did this because he assumed that anyone who would do such an extreme thing must be a danger to himself. But, speaking as a recovering addict, I completely understand how a person can become totally, utterly desperate – desperate for anything, ANYTHING, to numb the pain of existence, even briefly. I vividly remember counting the minutes until the liquor store opened each morning; I could hardly bear to wait. Alcohol was my escape from the horrible reality my life had become. I found myself wondering, too, about this particular patient. What private hells was he going through? What had driven him to such a desperate act? He didn’t have much to say; only stared straight ahead and kept saying over and over, “I gotta get somebody to help me…I gotta get somebody to help me…”
You don’t have to be a homeless end-stage alcoholic to experience suffering like that. Life is irony. And suffering, I think, may be the ultimate irony. We tell ourselves: I’ve done all the right things, I’ve been good. I’ve gone to church, believed all the right stuff, eaten lots of green vegetables and whole grains, got good grades, and now…I have cancer. Or, now I’ve become an alcoholic or addict. Why? And what of the irony that there are those who live for themselves and scoff at those who have faith, yet experience long and full lives? Irony in its most basic definition is “when things turn out contrary to what one expects.” Irony is paradox, and it is a paradox people of faith must continually hold in tension. Perhaps another important question we must struggle with is this one: “What does it mean for us that we serve a God who suffered?”
For many years the Christians I hung out with worked very hard to banish irony from their lives; they lived in what I jokingly call an “irony-free zone,” sort of like Disneyland, or perhaps Branson, Missouri. A place where all turns out as is expected, where there are no unpleasant surprises. A universe where cause and effect rule the day. A place where bad people get punished, and get what they ultimately deserve: Judgment, Pain, and Suffering. And God’s faithful people in turn get what THEY deserve; the good life. Proverbs 3:1-2 was often quoted to me:
“My son, do not forget my teaching, but keep my commands in your heart for they will prolong your life many years and bring you peace and prosperity.”
But that’s not the way life is - right? So how to resolve this? We can’t, period. We’re unfortunately stuck with living in this tension, between “the now and the not yet.” We must somehow find ways to balance this paradox and allow our suffering to redeem us. Perhaps in the midst of doing so we will get a glimpse of the kingdom of God.
Some may say we suffer because of our sin. There may be some truth there, I think. And I am well aware that there are significant passages in the scriptures that speak of God’s holiness and righteousness, that God hates sin and the terrible effects it has, and that we will all someday stand before God and give account for our lives. I acknowledge these truths. But I am grateful this is not the ONLY, or even the PRIMARY message of the Bible. For every verse that talks about God’s judgment there are ten more that remind us of his mercy, compassion and grace. May my life and ministry consistently reflect what I would call this ‘bias’ on the part of God toward mercy and grace! I have experienced this divine mercy many times in my life. As an addict, I felt, in the words of the prophet Jonah, like “the cords of hell had entangled me” and that, as the psalmist commented, “darkness was my only companion.” But God, in his mercy, rescued me, he saved me. I like that word, “saved.” Some Christians these days shy away from that word “SAVED” because it has negative connotations and has been used as a doctrinal ‘hammer’ in some instances to determine who is in and who is out. But I do feel like I was saved from a shipwreck. The shipwreck of my addicted life. In fact, recovering Catholic priest Father Richard Rohr refers to us addicts as “the community of the shipwrecked.” Indeed. I’m thankful to be a part of that community. May I never forget.
Fr. Richard +