I figure two of the greatest questions in life are, Why do we suffer? and Where is God? Even further, if there is a God, why do we suffer? And further still, in our suffering, can we even find God?
Certainly, wiser people than I have grappled with these question for millennia. I am not here to strike down a proverbial gavel of truth to tell you I have discovered the answers.
I am, however, writing to share some brief thoughts, born out of study and contemplation and experience, that might be useful.
Father Richard Rohr teaches that, according to the Franciscan worldview, several tenets are true. First, all matter is evidence of the Incarnation of Christ. The Universal Christ (distinct from Jesus, whose last name was not Christ, by the way) is everywhere and in all things. The Divine permeates all matter. Following the way of St. Francis, Rohr states, “Let what you see…talk back to you. There is the discovery of the mutuality, the univocity, of being.”
Second, the particular leads us to the universal. In other words, the more we pay attention to the details of our own journeys by asking questions, going deep, investigating the workings of our own souls, the more connected we become to the universal issues of the same themes. Our micro leads us to the macro and, again, to the interconnectedness of every living thing and every larger, more comprehensive system.
Third, the only way to see the evidence of the Divine in everything, the Incarnation of Christ, is through suffering. This is the way to “experiential salvation,” as James Finley describes it. Only through pain and sadness can we truly know we are actually connected to the Divine. Only when we experience disconnection can we, at the same time, understand that we are inherently aligned with God.
If the Christian perspective and tradition resonate with you, I imagine you will be comfortable with using “God” in these contexts. But in truth, the veracity of these teachings is independent from the name we give to this greater presence. If Source or Source Energy feels more comfortable, then use that. Or perhaps you prefer the Divine or Spirit or Oneness Consciousness. It doesn’t matter. The only important thing here is that we agree we are part of a greater whole. At the same time we exist in form, we are also infused with spirit–with the “energy that creates worlds” (Abraham). As Jung explains, “God named or not named still is.”
All of this brings me back to my musings on all of this and specifically to a short interaction I recently experienced with Sean and his sisters. He received his First Holy Communion two weeks ago, and on the way to the church I explained this to his sisters and him. I told them that, according to our faith, we receive the Body of Christ for the first time when we are around 7 or 8. That before that, we are not permitted to receive. This is why it is such a special occasion and an important Sacrament.
But then I added this. Even though this is what our faith teaches us, I want you to know, as I tell you all the time, that God resides in your heart always. You belonged to God, to Source Energy, before you were born, and you were, are, and always will be one with the Divine, because He lives in you. So let’s enjoy and celebrate your First Eucharist. And at the same time, I personally choose, in accordance with the desert fathers, contemplatives, and Catholic Mysticism, that it is a reminder, an affirmation, of what is already true. You are already the tabernacle; you are already the vessel for eternal “One-ing,” as many contemporary mystics call it.
For the past 18 months, Sean has been my greatest teacher. His sweetness and sensitivity and kindness have always affirmed for me that the Divine resides in all things. But it was his experience through cancer that clarified my worldview. Sean’s journey affirmed for me how the particular and the personal lead us to the universal–how the details of our own lives resonate with others and theirs with ours and that the result, if we walk wholehearted and open, is our enhanced capacity for compassion and understanding. These months with Sean also revealed to me how suffering, unexpected, unwanted, and often blindingly scary, in its ability to break us open and expose us to vulnerability, is the very seed of, indeed an invitation to, growth and evolution.
My contemplation upon the Franciscan worldview, particularly its tenet on suffering, recently led me to this explanation from James Finley, which resonates deeply with me:
These struggles….remind us of [our humanity]. We are not exempt from the human condition. There’s a kind of humility in the willingness to walk with our limitations….But if we let them, [these struggles], they become our teachers. They help us hand [them] over to God–accept ourselves as we are. [For] we learn to do for ourselves with God’s Grace. God [helps] us by transforming us with His love. There is a heightened capacity to be spaciously present. This love is qualitatively richer than what we were capable of [experiencing] before. We can see the changes happening. And we can be more that way, [loving and open], with others.James Finley, Turning to the Mystics Podcast, St. Teresa of Avila, Fourth Mansion
We may often remark how growth or learning is the result of pain in life, but here James Finley goes further in his explanation of how and why this is. It is not just that we become stronger from adversity–a true but in truth tired and obtuse expression. The process is a true “leveling up,” as Martha Beck calls it. First we must be willing to be humble in the face of struggle. Next we accept the love of Source and allow it to permeate and fill the spaciousness within us that was born of the pain. Finally, we are prepared for, and open to, true transformation. It is here that we find ourselves “qualitatively richer” than we were before the struggle came upon us.
All of this to conclude that, although words are useful for helping us express and share these ideas, as Richard Rohr often says, “Words don’t teach.” It is only through experience that we can become intimate enough with these ideas that we might then be able to integrate them into our personal worldview.
Sean’s answer to my question, Where is God? for me epitomizes experiential knowing and salvation. Yet still a child, his understanding of inherent goodness and his own alignment with the Divine are real and profound. Should we be surprised that such truth emanates from children? From those who are so much closer to the mystical and spiritual than most of us so-called learned adults?
Yes, Sean. God resides in your heart. May we all take the time to be still, go within, and understand this eternal truth and mystery.