Why Do We Suffer? Pt. 2

Natural disasters are a huge source of suffering

As I concluded in the last post, I think it’s important to differentiate between those sufferings caused by God and others caused not by God. Even though suffering is suffering, manifesting itself in a similar way no matter the source, the reason I separate the two is because they require completely different responses. This post will deal specifically with sufferings caused by God.

The very idea of God causing suffering may be very hard for some to accept because it contradicts the image of a “loving God that just wants you to be happy.” Part of the problem in this field of study is that we often believe that suffering, no matter the source, shouldn’t exist. I don’t think that’s true. What sort of world would it be if we only ever experienced happiness, joy, sunshine, and success? What sort of superficial love would we have for God if we never experienced sadness, sorrow, or disappointment? Without the ability to experience all of these emotions we lack an ability to experience God. In some cases, God not only allows suffering to occur, but is also the one who sends it. How do we know the difference?

Like I said before, the approach has to be both/and, not either/or: I think God can manipulate natural forces and send them specifically to an individual in a miraculous way, e.g. the plagues in the Exodus, but I think that it’s more likely that creation exists as an ever-moving machine, always acting within the laws that govern it. For example, God could send a lightning bolt to target your house specifically, but its more likely that the answer is that your house was the tallest in the area, containing materials conducive for the flow of electricity between the earth to the sky. God created the laws of physics, and lightning abides by it, indiscriminate of whether or not humans dwell nearby.

In a way, this explanation is simply splitting hairs: either God is directly responsible by sending it specifically to a given people or place, or indirectly responsible because he allowed his creation, which never acts outside of its intended nature, to cause suffering. If we are to believe that God is all-powerful, why would he let things like this happen?

God created and loves all creation, not just humanity. If he were to intervene in every instance where we had the opportunity to suffer, there wouldn’t be anything left of creation but us! Cancer causes suffering, but it is a creation of God just like dogs, and so sometimes God allows life to work itself out the way it was created. (Other times, he works miracles.) Doing so allows us to more deeply understand God by understanding the nature of creation.

Other times, suffering can be the result of incorrect expectations. In the case of cancer, we experience suffering because we have the expectation of not receiving it; the same can be said about loss of property and death. In cases like these, it’s sometimes helpful to reorganize our priorities and better focus on God: a life in Christ is not free from harm, but it’s one of eternal joy upon rebirth into heaven. Sometimes, we just need to say, “that’s life,” understanding that suffering is just a part of life that we can endure. Can we really say, “I want to follow Christ, but I’m not willing to suffer?”

As crazy as it sounds, suffering may very well just be an experience that God wants us to have. It better prepares us to appreciate the good, it forces us to be dependent on him, it facilitates a society of caring and uplifting, and it opens us up to a more complete experience of God and the fullness of life. God does not send suffering upon us that we cannot endure because he is ever calling us back to him. Sometimes it’s like a parent that punishes a child: the child needs to learn the difference between right and wrong. Other times, God lets us venture out to explore, knowing that we’re going to experience hardship: a parent takes off the training wheels even though there’s a high probability of a crash in the future. Do either of these situations negate the goodness of a parent?

The problem is that a child can experience suffering caused by others, some of which a parent would never wish upon them. Pt. 3 will look at suffering caused by our free will that is completely separate and against the will of God: evil.

Continue to Part 3

Why Do We Suffer? Pt. 1

Where is God amidst suffering?

Poverty, war, ecological disasters, abuse, death, cancer, famine. Why do we experience suffering and evils? It’s a question that I’ve thought about for a few years now, and the lack of a concrete answer begs one of the oldest and most popular theological questions: if we are to believe that God is omnipotent, omniscient, and comprising all that is good, what does the existence of suffering and evil do to God?

There are two very common, and incomplete, answers to this question that attempt to justify God. The first is the claim that “everything happens for a reason.” If there is suffering, it is because God made it so. There is no such thing as coincidence: everything that happens, good or bad, is either a gift or burden from God based on his plan for each of us. This paradigm upholds God’s omnipotence and omniscience, but it also accepts that God permits, even sends, evil and suffering to the world. This is an unacceptable paradigm.

As a reaction to this cold-hearted God that sends despair, others will characterize God as a “watchmaker,” forming all creation as good but then stepping away and taking the role as compassionate observer as it is set into motion. This paradigm upholds God’s omniscience and goodness, but it asserts that God is distant from us in our suffering, and powerless to effect change in creation. This, also, is an unacceptable paradigm.

Though technically complete opposites, both of these explanations share the same flaw: neither is willing to accept that there are different forms of suffering that may have different origins. They both attempt to protect God by saying that he is EITHER in complete control OR completely innocent of any harm. The truth is, God is BOTH just AND merciful; BOTH respects our autonomy AND values our connectedness; and through the incarnation, BOTH separately divine AND similarly human. God is at once in our lives, articulating and inspiring his plan to us through word and deed, responsible for some of our suffering, and also autonomous, allowing for the world to work itself out, free from his every command or desire.

The true question in theodicy, thus, is not whether or not God causes suffering, but rather which acts of suffering are at God’s hand, and which are not (and what are other possible sources)? Part two of this series will deal with understanding how and why God causes suffering, how this suffering does not negate his goodness, and how we are to respond to it. Part three will recognize the free will God grants us, the inevitable consequences of such an act, and how God then responds to us. Taken together, I hope to create a more complete paradigm through which we may see and understand God, refusing to accept easy answers and half-truths. There is no doubt that my synthesis is incomplete and will need further adaptations, but I hope that it may add to each of your own perceptions of God.

Continue to Part 2

Retreat to the Beach

Great guys, great food, and a great view!

Up until only recently, friars were not allowed to spend the night with family or friends outside of the friar community: when visiting home, they were required to sleep at the local rectory and commute to wherever their family lived. This, along with the vow of poverty, made it very difficult for many friars to take much needed vacations or retreats from their ministries.

It was because of this, that the province decided in the 1960s to buy a house in Margate, NJ. Centrally located to a lot of friars back then, this 13 “bedroom” house offered a free and comfortable getaway whenever anyone needed it. (I put “bedroom” in quotes because it was probably designed as a seven bedroom house, but walls were added to trade quality for quantity, and each one is probably about 6×15 ft.) Throughout the summer, and even the off-season, friars fill the house on personal vacations, community retreats, and overnight stays in place of a hotel.

What was great about this trip was that the entire community of Wilmington friars attended it. Though we’ve been living with Fr. Chris, Fr. Todd, Br. Bill, and Fr. John since August, we never really had a chance to formally get to know them. It was a great opportunity to hear their vocation stories, discuss our different experiences in the friars, possible visions we have for the future, and general ideas related to living together. Along with prayer, mass, meals, and a good amount of free time to spend on the deck and beach, it was a refreshing weekend.

Given the free time to just sit by the ocean and think, I think a few things were made a bit clearer in my mind. Over the next few days/weeks, I’d like to post my reflections on a few topics that have grabbed my attention over the past month: Gods role in suffering and why bad things happen to us, the necessity of keeping the sabbath and how difficult it can actually be for a priest/religious brother, and what it means to be a spiritual death valley or dead sea. Though we’re given a lot of time during the day for prayer and reflection, there’s just something about being at the beach and looking out at the wonder of the ocean that is so conducive for epiphanies and revelations. Hopefully I’ll be able to articulate some of the things I realized this weekend in a way that will be helpful to others. I hope you’ll check back in a day or so and see which one I’ve decided to tackle first! Thanks again for reading!

Pictures are up on the shutterfly website!

Adopting a Few New “Habits”

The postulancy is a year for trying on a new way of life

“The Franciscans have been wearing the same thing for 800 years, and in no way is it out of style. From the latin word habitus meaning “to put on a new way of life,” the habit is an outward symbol of an inward commitment. I will not receive one until my second year, and will not have the three knots until I take my initial vows the following year.” Sound familiar? It should! It’s been on the right side of the screen under the brown habit since I launched this blog!

I think it’s a great idea on the part of the order to a have a preparatory year such as this in which we do not receive the habit because it allows us to discern our own inward commitments a bit more before we show the world in such a physical way. This, however, doesn’t mean that we as postulants can’t begin “to put on a new way of life,” expressing the beginnings of our inward commitment by adopting personal “habits” so to speak. Here are a few of the lifestyle changes that I’ve made so far this year that I feel are both a representation of my commitment and an aid to strengthen it.

Early to bed, early to rise: It’s been a very difficult discipline, but I’ve been in bed by 11:00 almost every single night, and up by 7:00 every single morning. For those who don’t think that’s hard, remember that I’m 22, and just 6 months ago I was on the 1:30am-9:30am sleep cycle. The first week of transitioning was awful, but I’ve been okay with it since.

No more dryer for me: In an attempt to lower my carbon footprint and better respect God’s creation, I’ve decided to air-dry all of my clothes. It takes about ten extra minutes of work to hang all of them on a drying rack than than to throw them in dryer, but there is absolutely no energy used in the process. It also means that my clothes, in theory, will last longer, requiring me to buy new things less often.

Praying multiple times a day, every day: As a community, we pray in the morning at 7:30, in the evening at 5:15, and at night at 9:00. Though this isn’t exactly an optional habit to get into, it still requires an appropriate mindset for each: I could simply show up to each, or I could take a few minutes before and after the set times to prepare and reflect. I’m certainly working towards the latter, and it’s one of the best habits I’ve adopted.

Reading the Bible everyday: As a typical Catholic growing up, I didn’t read the Bible often, and the extent of my knowledge came from the readings at mass. Given that it has a couple thousand pages, it would be easy enough to label it an overwhelming task and never read any of it. But if I commit to reading a chapter or two every day, 3-6 pages a day turns into more than a thousand pages in a year. I can commit to three pages a day! So far I’ve read the Gospel of Luke, most of John, and the commentaries for both.

Clean and simple room: For those of you who know me well, this may be the most shocking habit I’m attempting to adopt. I have made my bed every day, I fold and put away clothes immediately, and I’ve put papers and books back where they go rather than letting them stack up. As I said in A Rush To Slow Down, my room is my sacred space, and part of keeping it sacred is keeping it clean. So far so good, but we’ll have to see once the year starts getting a little busier!

Obviously there are a lot more things that have changed in my life since last year, but I thought that these were the most significant. I hope that adopting these new habits with great joy will help me discern my commitment to following St. Francis’ way of following Jesus.

I won’t be able to post again until Tuesday night at the earliest as we’re heading off to the beach for a community retreat. Thanks for reading and I hope you’ll check back Tuesday or Wednesday!

It’s Off to Work We Go

Father Ron took this picture of us yesterday

Yesterday our lives as postulants got busy. After a month of a sort of “grace period, (but of course, all periods with the friars are graced…) we were let loose from the house, sent forth into the world to minister. Three days a week, Edgardo will meet with the Legion of Mary where he will be visiting the sick and bringing communion to the housebound parishioners; Ramon and Sergio will drive up to Philadelphia to work at the St. Francis Inn where they will be serving the poor directly; and Dennis and I will be going to a nursing home in Newark to visit the sick and elderly.

Unlike most nursing homes, Jeanne Jugan Residence is a warm, inviting place where almost all of its residents are happy to be there, and there is a waiting list of a few years to be admitted. Run by the Little Sisters of the Poor, a religious order of women devoted to the sick and elderly, this home offers a dignity and respect to each of its residents that I have never seen before: there are two full-time entertainment coordinators that run games and events every day, the residents are visited on a daily basis by the sisters, the food is honestly very good, and the facilities feel more like a big comfortable home than a drafty hospital. The sisters that run the home actually take a forth vow (along with poverty, chastity, and obedience) of hospitality, vowing to never let anyone feel unwelcome or lonely, caring for those especially on their deathbed. Besides serving those who can no longer serve themselves, the sisters have a whole wing of the building set aside as apartments for more active and independent people, free to come and go as they please.

All in all, pretty boring job right? Listen to old folks ramble on about the “good ol’ days” and about how “kids these days” are ruining society, right? Yesterday, I played a card game called Tri-Virsity with three sassy women that had me on my toes and laughing the whole time (who also beat me), got a chance to go to mass, ate ribs with the residents living in the apartments, played host to a number of game shows such as “Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader?” then rounded out the day by getting my butt kicked in Wii bowling by someone three times my age (seriously, I bowled a 223 and this old lady beat me by more than 20 pins!)

Because there’s such a range in activity levels, I’m excited to run a bible study for some, but also be a pair of ears for the lonely ones who never get visitors; play competitive card games, but also push someone’s wheelchair outside so they can get fresh air; listen to some tell me about how I’m “exactly like my grandson” or “perfect for my granddaughter” but also talk without response to others so they know someone’s with them.

For Dennis and I, work looks a bit more like leisure: we play games, we sit and talk, and we enjoy a meal together. But in the end, even though it may not be very “difficult” to do what we’re doing, does it make it any less significant for the person to which we’re ministering? If we want to uphold the dignity of all human life and foster the authentic development of all human life, I think it’s equally as important to play Wii with a lonely old woman as it is to give bread to a hungry young man. Don’t you? When I look at it this way, and realize that God needs help in many different ways, it’s pretty easy to just let go, take a vow of obedience, and minister wherever it is I’m told to go… even if that place is a nursing home.