Bowing to the Great Suffering

November 17, 2009 Length: 10:39

Fr. John illustrates how Christians are those who reach out to people in pain





I have often wondered what becomes of the writer who runs out of words, or what becomes of the podcaster who runs out of voice. Now I know. I’ve struggled with mine for almost a month now, which explains your delicious reprieve from Hearts and Minds. But I think the voice is back, so once again the listeners of Ancient Faith Radio must endure.

Let’s talk books. Any discussion of the greatest novel ever written will certainly include for consideration The Brothers Karamazov, by the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky. It is long, complicated, rich, and multi-layered, which is why many people prefer to watch it on DVD or listen to some audio version as they drive around between trips to the bank and the local dry cleaner. On the surface, The Brothers Karamazov is the story of three brothers coping with the untimely death of their father. There is Dmitri, the impulsive and sensual brother with a hot temper; there is [Ivan], the coldly rational one with a sharp intellect; then there is Aloysha, the young and gentle and spiritual novice, who hopes to one day become a monk.

In one moment of the story, the elderly and wise Monk Zosima, a moral center of the story, suddenly and without explanation falls down in prostration before one of these brothers, as if prostrating before something sacred. Why he does it touches on an important theme in a very familiar gospel story. Jesus arrives in the country of the Gadarenes and meets a man from the city who was troubled by demonic possession. The demons, in total submission to the Son of God, begged Jesus to allow them to leave his presence and enter the herd of pigs nearby. At the risk of a terrible but timely joke, the swine flew down the hillside and into the water. The village residents come out, see that the man is now in his right mind, yet beg Jesus to leave their place.

We may comment about demonic possession. We may comment about the authority of Christ over the spiritual world. We may comment about why those innocent pigs died: it was so the guilty, possessed man could live. We may comment about how an encounter with Christ puts a person in his right mind. Or we may comment about those frightened villagers, stuck in their ways. But let’s step back to ask, “What made the whole event possible in the first place?”

“Let this mind be in you,” we read in Philippians 2, “which was also in Christ Jesus, who emptied himself.” This is the great mystery of our faith: the Creator of the universe emptied himself. He entered this world that he made, taking on our flesh and our nature, and became like one of us. It is not in the nature of our God to be aloof or temperamental or self-protective or distant. Instead, the Incarnation is the great moment when God comes looking for us. Not only does he not wall himself off from our pain, but he comes looking for it. This is precisely what makes the healing of the demoniac possible. One big reason the demoniac was delivered and put into his right mind is that Christ entered his neighborhood that day.

The four gospels are filled with stories of people who did not come to Christ, but to whom Christ came. Our Lord could have lived his whole earthly life in his mother’s house, under her warm and protective watch. He could have stayed and enjoyed her company for a lifetime. Even if he had never left her side, he still took on our human nature and carried it back to heaven with him when he went. The mission of our salvation would still have been accomplished—and yet the great mission of Christ is to show us what God is really like. When Christ goes looking for people in pain, we learn that God is really interested in being with people who are in pain. Therefore the Christian, by definition a “little christ,” is one who goes looking for people in pain.

One modern saint, Theophan the Recluse, wrote, “Most men are like shavings of wood, curled around their central emptiness.” What imagery. Pain is everywhere: outside the walls of the Church and also within, perhaps especially within. As we know, to become Christian is not to enter a life suddenly free from pain. Instead, it is to enter a new kind of relationship with pain. As we grow in God, we go in a journey of self-discovery. We learn, for example, all the ways that we medicate ourselves—emotionally, psychologically, physically—so as not to feel pain. We learn that pain is part of leaving the old nature behind and growing in our new nature, like a caterpillar emerging with great effort from its cocoon as a butterfly.

We learn to expect the pain of fasting, the pain of prayer, the pain of forgiveness, the pain of a more sensitive conscience. And if we expect it, we are not so shocked by it when it comes, and our faith is not shaken. But if we can make peace with pain, we will find ourselves a much greater help to people who are in it.

The Christian writer, Henri Nouwen, tells the story of a lonely, isolated man he knew who was going into the hospital for major surgery. The man had no friends or family to speak of, and the surgery was terrifying to him. He was not sure he had the will to live through it. After all, what would be the point? He was lonely going in; he’ll be lonely coming out. So Henri went to the man’s hospital room on the morning of the surgery and spent time with him. An important part of this story is that Henri really did not know what to say to the man. He did not have much advice, and he did not have any truly comforting words. So Henri just sat with the man. He was just in the room with him. Henri was practicing the ministry of presence. He was just present with the man, quietly listening and praying.

Then, as the surgical staff came to roll the man to surgery, Henri stood up and said, “When you are finished with surgery and come back to the room and wake up, I will be here, and I expect you to not disappoint me.” The man made it through because he had something to look forward to.

We do not need the right words. It is enough simply to reach out to those in pain. We must write checks and send care packages and say prayers, yes, yes!—but being physically present is a great work. There are people in your life right now who are in pain and need your presence. You yourself may be in deep pain, and the saints tell us that one good way to lessen that pain is to reach out to people who suffer, too. As one saint wrote, “God does not only reach out to the small ones, but also to those who reach out to the small ones. Do you want him to love you? Then love the small ones. Love the poor, love the humble.”

Of the three Karamazov brothers, [Ivan] was the bright one with a sharp intellect. Fr. Zosima could have prostrated himself before [Ivan] because of his brilliant mind. Aloysha was the gentle, spiritual one. Fr. Zosima could have prostrated himself before Aloysha because of his pure and holy heart. Instead, Fr. Zosima prostrated himself before the impulsive and temperamental Dmitri, not because Dmitri was holy or pure or bright. As Fr. Zosima himself explains, “I bow down to the great suffering in store for him.”

Christ entered the neighborhood of the demon-possessed man. Your presence, your touch, your voice, your phone call, your effort is a time for you to become a messenger of grace.