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  • Writer's pictureProfiles in Catholicism

O Death, Where is Thy Sting? A Meditation on Suffering

by Joe Hoover

Recently, I have endured physical suffering and when I was in surgery all I could think of is how Christ suffered for us. I was on the operating table in the sign of the cross and when I felt pain, I thought about Jesus’ puncture into His side. It was painful physically but spiritually I felt I was in the embrace of Christ and I understood on some level the pain of His sufferings. So when my editor asked me to review this book, I thought it would be just what the doctor ordered. Brother Hoover is trying to figure out the suffering in this world. I am too. Even my physical pain had more questions than answers. When I received the Anointing of the Sick, I asked God to let this pass as I really wanted to continue to work in His vineyard. I felt this to have a deep sense of truth to it as I had prayed the same prayer for my husband before he died and for my parents after him. Again, suffering seems to raise more questions than answers, although at this time I felt with Him. The author is very able to commiserate with others. He gets the questions of suffering and attends to the vastness of suffering. There is value in commiseration.

Suffering and all it entails is sent to people who are at many levels of spiritual development in their understanding of who God is in this suffering. Many people find comfort in the lives of others and the saints who have gone before us. The importance of suffering doesn’t lie primarily in the mind but is centered in the heart. Hoover tells the story of his stay in L’Arche Daybreak in Canada where people live in clusters with the handicap of broken bodies, they are weak and vulnerable, many of them have no control over their bodies and voices. To really describe this suffering adequately we need the mind and heart of a poet, more heart than anything.

Perhaps this is because the heart is graceful; it can soar to the heights of mysticism and sink to the depths of despair and still maintain its integrity. It is the heart that seeks to understand not by principle, but by internalizing and communicating the riches and poverty of reality – a reality that needs to be communicated. The narrative comes to mind. Hoover tells the stories carefully and spiritually. People want to tell their story. They want people to recognize what happened to them. Sometimes people aren’t looking for an explanation of their suffering, but a recognition of it. They want us to show that we hear them, that we are affected by their suffering, and that their suffering is important. They want the validation of their frustration, confusion, and pain, rather than narratives about God which turn the conversation away from their own experiences. If they take their pain out on God and want to put God on trial, who am I to stop them from making that all too human prayer? The theologian in me might balk at this, but the poet in me welcomes it.

I am reminded of my position on the operating table during surgery and Christ on the cross. He cries to the Heavens, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me” This is the message of Divine commiseration as Jesus effectively screams out in his own pain to all of us in our pain, “I hear you! Your suffering is horrible and I am suffering alongside you. You are not alone.” What an intimate way to be with God.

And in that agony, in the tension of believing in a good God yet feeling abandoned by God, we find that we actually have more in common with Jesus than we might have thought, the operating table helped me realize that. He felt abandoned too—and, mysteriously, we become closer to the Divine in our suffering with Jesus. Our distance from God is diminished.

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