The seven words that give hope to suffering

November 28, 2007 | Struggles | 15 comments

Yesterday I was catching up on some blog reading and came across a blogger who did a post in remembrance of Holodomor, the great Ukrainian famine of 1932-33 (found via BlogWatch). For her post she translated the writings of some Ukrainian bloggers who wrote on the topic.

I wasn’t prepared for what I read. First of all, I am ashamed to admit that I was not that familiar with Holodomor. I had some awareness that many people in that area of the world died of hunger around that time, but that was the extent of my knowledge. But to find out the details, and to read those stories recounted by the bloggers whose grandparents lived through it, was just shattering. One Ukrainian writes:

Old men and women spoke calmly about [raskulachivaniye – persecution of kulaks, collectivization], about the war, about DneproGES [Dnipro Hydroelectric Station] construction. No big deal, they were saying, it was tough, but it was a long time ago, and tears and grief tend to get erased from memory.

But as soon as you asked them a question about the Holodomor of 1932-33, these ancient men and women, who had seen lots of horrors, began to cry. Just cry. Some refused to talk – they had no energy to tell anything about it.

Of course Holodomor is not by any means the only large-scale tragedy to have happened to civilization — many more occurred even in the same century. Maybe it was that I never heard much about this in history classes, that we live in a world where even a tragedy of that scale could get lost in the mix of all the other terrible things that happened in those years; maybe it was the personal tales that put a “face” to the suffering; maybe it was that quite a few of the stories involved parents mistreating their own children; or maybe it was the fact that the entire situation, this mass starvation of millions of people, was caused and perpetuated by a government. It was probably all of the above. But, whatever it was that jolted me out of my detached mode of reading words about historical events and into the mode of a mother, a daughter, a fellow human being whose heart ached terribly for the men, women, children and babies who faced such unimaginable suffering and evil…it left me in a sort of spiritual paralysis.

Since becoming a Christian I’ve read and prayed and thought a lot about suffering, so I tried to analyze the situation based on the knowledge I’ve gained from reading the great Christian scholars and their works on the subject. But it wasn’t working. Just as I would begin to recall what C.S. Lewis or St. Augustine had to say about it, the thought of all the children who lived during Holodomor would come to mind, which would remind me that the Holocaust happened just shortly after that, which would remind me of all the stories my dad told about his friends who died terrible deaths in Vietnam, which would remind me of the current AIDS crisis in Africa…it was too much to think about. I thought about praying for the people involved but couldn’t even really do that because bringing any of these topics to mind just overwhelmed me with sorrow. I have three little kids to take care of, and thinking about this was making me feel so down that it was impacting my ability to function, so I decided to just forget about it for now.

I tried to, anyway. It didn’t really work. Shutting all of these horrors out of my mind, not even spending much time praying for the people involved because that would mean thinking about it, did not feel like the right response, especially as a Christian.

So last night as I knelt beside my bed to pray, I asked God to show me what to do. I knew that putting my head in the sand was not the right response, but I just couldn’t think clearly enough to know how to even begin to pray about suffering at this kind of catastrophic level, to understand how we as Christians are supposed to have even a shred of hope in the face of such tremendous evil.

This angst was still with me in the back of my mind when I went to pick my husband’s car up from the mechanic’s shop this afternoon. As soon as I turned the key in the ignition, I hear the beautiful, familiar sound of a mournful yet hopeful violin piece, and I heard the serene voice of one of my great heroes, Fr. Benedict Groeschel, say:

You must keep your eyes on the risen Christ at all times, or life will seem to be just a bitter joke.

Unbeknownst to me, my husband must have borrowed my rosary CD and left it in his car. I’ve listened to it, this introduction to the Glorious Mysteries in particular, so many times; yet it was like hearing it for the first time as I started it from the beginning, and wiped tears from my eyes as I heard:

No rosary, no meditation on the life of Christ, is complete, or even makes sense, without pausing to think about and to pray about the events that took place beginning early Easter morning. The glorious Resurrection and the absolute triumph of Christ makes all of these events comprehensible, livable, for those who are still walking in the valley of tears.

You must keep your eyes on the risen Christ at all times, or life will seem to be just a bitter joke.

In the Glorious Mysteries we have not only Christ’s victories in this world, but the coming of the Holy Spirit, and the promise of eternal life. The Christian life only makes sense when we keep before us the glorious and eternal mystery that we celebrate at the end of the rosary.

Yes. Of course.

I believe that hearing that line as soon as I started the car was God’s answer to the question I posed in prayer. Whether or not it was a direct response to my prayer, it is certainly the answer to the question.

I came to believe not too long ago that Jesus probably did rise from the dead like the Christians claim; and now that I have lived as a Christian myself, and seen God’s work in my own life as well as the lives of those around me, I am certain it is true. And that’s really all that matters. In the face of suffering in our fallen world, it’s not even necessary to do too much complicated theological analysis, because the only important question is this: did the crucified Christ rise from the dead? Did the Resurrection happen? Because, if it did, then we know that there is eternal life, and that all the terrible events of this finite world will be but a blip in comparison to an eternity with God. We know that the epic saga of human history has a happy ending.

I realize I’m talking about concepts here that most Christians probably mastered sometime around the third grade. But I thought I’d share anyway since this disarmingly simple truth has shown me how I can think about, pray about, and hopefully one day actively help those who experience great suffering, without succumbing to despair in the process: I don’t need to analyze it or even fully understand all of the how’s and why’s behind all that is wrong with the world. I don’t need to sift through all the words in the weighty tomes about religion and human suffering. I need to remember only those seven words that mark the turning point of all of history and shine a floodlight of hope into the darkness of our fallen world: “He is not here; he has risen.”

15 Comments

  1. Karie, the Regular Guy's Extraordinary Wife

    Jen,

    These are not the thoughts of a third -grader, these are the thoughts of a mature woman fully coming into the Faith. Praise God. I know that when I face horrible suffering either in my life or watching others, I find I must remember the same words. God bless you. I hope we meet someday.

  2. Melanie B

    Beautiful.

    You know I’m a cradle Catholic and I’ve learned it and learned it and learned it. It’s one of those lessons I think I need to have repeated every so often, it is so easy to lose sight of the risen Christ, to get distracted. Yes, it’s a simple truth and yet it’s also the deepest truth and therefore learning it and mastering it is a lifelong process.

  3. Jonathan

    Jennifer,

    Once again, simply a beautiful observation and evidence of God’s constant presence.

  4. Rebekka

    Beautiful post. Thank you. Amen.

  5. blog nerd

    mmm. wonderful, jen.

    I love Fr. Groeschel. I’m going to send you a picture of him from when I met him.

  6. Mary Poppins NOT

    “Unless you become as little children…” Don’t be ashamed of having a child-like understanding of the faith. While maintaining the child like qualities, we must still be open to growing in wisdom and love, and sometimes these may fight with each other, but they don’t have to. Hearing God’s answer to your prayer is a good example of being trusting like a child, yet discerning the events around you with wisdom.

    Blessings!

  7. The Sojourner

    This is certainly not something I mastered in third grade. I think it’s one of those truths that Chesterton called, “Too simple to understand.”

  8. november

    Yet again, the Holy Spirit has used you Jen to speak into a situation that I’m facing right now and bring comfort, reassurance, and peace to me. While it’s nothing compared to the tragedies you mentioned, I’ve been going through my own unexpected trials in the last year and what I thought was finally an end is proving to be just another major setback.

    “He is not here; he is risen.”
    Thanks for reminding me of that truth. Christ’s resurrection should be the source of all of our hope. No matter how many years one has been a Christian (for me, it’s been 9 years), it can be so easy to get distracted by suffering and forget that reality.

  9. Anonymous

    Beautiful post. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts.

    — Bridget

  10. lyrl

    I’m glad so many people find comfort in that idea.

    However, for myself, the idea of eternal life does nothing to mitigate the tragedies experienced in some lives. It is not OK to be cruel to an infant on the grounds they will not remember the event as adults. And it is not OK for horrors to have happened on the grounds that they will be just a blip in eternity. My theology requires experience to be meaningful in and of itself, not dependent on vast timescales.

    At least in death these people would have rest from their memories. In eternal life they get to remember them forever.

  11. Abigail

    My thoughts on this topic are too deep to sum up in a comment box. I have many of the same heart-sick responses to suffering. The joy of Easter morning keeps shining bright, however.

    I’ll check out the website you suggested soon. I’d also be interested in learning more about the Catholic & Russian Orthodox saints from that period. Didn’t our blessed Mother’s message at Fatima have something to do with praying for Russia?

  12. Jenny

    Jen,
    Suffering is the great mystery and majesty of our participation in His divine life. Your reflections are so consistantly profound but simple and approachable. I love reading your stuff.

  13. Anna

    Whether or not it was a direct response to my prayer, it is certainly the answer to the question.

    How could this possibly be anything other than a direct response to your prayer?

    God works through both natural and miraculous means; the setting of the CD to those words does not need to be miraculous in order to be a direct action of God. How he did it doesn’t matter; that it was Him that did it does matter.

    As for determining whether something was truly from God or not, you know because of the effect it had on your heart. Ideas from the Accuser are harsh and discourage us: he persistently tries to slip in some variation of the idea that we are worthless, even if he’s in the guise of light. Ideas from purely human sources may seem cool, but only God can truly satisfy our heart, encourage us and lift us up even when he’s revealing our sins to us.

    God bless,
    Anna

  14. november

    lyrl said: My theology requires experience to be meaningful in and of itself, not dependent on vast timescales.

    The comfort that I found in this post is indeed when this world will be no more, in the “sweet by and by”, but more importantly now, in this life, when suffering happens, while many times I don’t understand it, I know by faith that God is in it and is using it for the ultimate good. Suffering is a great mystery and we don’t understand why some of the great tragedies we see happen, but our hope should lie in the fact that our Lord suffered (like us), defeated the grave, and is risen. We know that while we may not understand the why of certain suffering, we know by faith that we can have hope right here and now because of Jesus’ resurrection.

    That might sound trite, but the alternative is very dismal. Like Fr. Groeschel said if one doesn’t keep one’s focus on our risen Lord, the source of our hope, life can truly resemble a cruel joke. And when one thinks that, only despair can follow.

  15. LSK49rs

    I have to constantly remind myself of two things – first, that only in arrogance can I have the idea that I will ever understand the Will of God. I will never EVER understand the cruelty of creatures but if I do not trust that nothing happens in God’s Universe by mistake I can go forward, doing whatever I can to alleviate the suffering as testimony to my love for Him. Second, anytime I doubt that from all evil comes great good I have only to look at a crucifix…for from the ultimate evil (creatures murdering The Creator)unbelieveable good has come – in particular, The Eucharist.
    God bless you, Jen. You are growing in Faith as we all are and it is wonderful to witness.

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