Over the past few months I have had plenty of conversations about what is happening to Theresa and have had many people express different perspectives such as:
“I get so mad, because she is so young and with Ryan being so young…”
“As you know, God could heal her right now if He wanted, we don’t understand the plan…”
“It makes me angry to see bad things happening to such a good person when there are so many people bad people seeming to have not a care in the world”
I truly appreciate everyone’s perspective and can identify with all of them. One of the things that has come out of this journey is that I have a greater understanding of suffering in the life of an orthodox Christian. While I grew up a Latin rite Catholic, I never really understood the perspective of redemptive suffering. I’ve had some people tell me that we should offer up our suffering in line with St. Paul writing to the Colossians: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and fill up on my part that which is lacking of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body’s sake, which is the church…”.
Others have mentioned gazing upon a crucifix and pondering the immensity of what Christ endured for our salvation. In this pondering, we realize that His outstretched arms are an invitation to unite with Him in His suffering. We are to take the suffering as it occurs and offer it up for a specific intention (“Use this pain, Lord, for the salvation of my brother…”). I have a deep respect for those who hold to the perspective of redemptive suffering, but it is not a perspective that I share.
Over the past ten years, my theology, faith and spirituality have taken a sharp turn towards the East. I am grateful for this shift in my theology. I am blessed to have a wonderful spiritual director and priest who guides me along the right path. And with all that has happened with my wife’s health over the past year, I am thankful when I reflect on things over the past ten years that have prepared me for the current journey that I am on.
The Eastern Christian perspective on suffering is that there are generally three sources of suffering in this world: suffering from the persecution of others in body and soul, suffering from sickness and disease, and suffering in spirit because of the sins of the world. There are only two possible ways to deal with such sufferings. Either one humbly accepts them and transforms them into the way of salvation for oneself and others; or one is defeated by them with rebellion and rejection, and so “curses God and dies” both physically and for eternity in the age to come (cf. Job 2:9-10). The spiritual person, when suffering in the flesh, uses his afflictions to be set free from sin, and to be made “perfect through suffering” like Jesus himself (Heb 2:10). He knows that as his “outer nature is wasting away” he is being born into the Kingdom of God if he suffers in and with Jesus the Lord.
More relevant to me personally is in a very real sense the most grievous suffering of all is not in the flesh but the spirit. In this journey, this is the suffering that I bear, while Theresa deals with the flesh and spirit. This is the suffering that torments the soul when, by the grace of God and in the light of Christ, the spiritual person sees the utter futility, ugliness and pettiness of sin which is destroying men made in the image of God. The spiritual person, according to the measure of grace given by God, participates spiritually in the agony of Christ. It is the greatest suffering of the saints, more unbearable than any external persecution or bodily disease. It is the torment of the soul over the utter foolishness of sin.
Several years ago, I went to a Carmelite parish for confession and had the opportunity to speak to a very wise Carmelite priest. He heard my confession, pondered it for a moment and said the following to me: “God forgives always, man forgives sometimes, but nature never forgives; do you understand that?” At that time, I didn’t think much about his words but they came flooding back to me when we heard that Theresa’s cancer had recurred and spread. And it was in that moment that the words of the Anaphora of St. Basil rang true regarding why bad things happen to good people: “When You created man and had fashioned him from the dust of the earth and had honored him as your own image, O God, You set him in the midst of a bountiful paradise, promising him life eternal and the enjoyment of everlasting good things by keeping your commandments. But when he disobeyed You, the true God Who had created him, and was led astray by the deceit of the serpent, he was made subject to death through his own transgressions…..”Since sin entered the world through a man and death through sin, so your Only-begotten Son was well-pleased to be born of a woman, the Holy Theotokos.” “He gave Himself as a ransom to death by which we were held captive, having been sold into slavery by sin. He descended into the realm of death through the Cross, that He might fill all things with Himself. He loosed the sorrow of death and rose again from the dead on the third day, for it was not possible that the Author of Life should be conquered by corruption. He made a way to the resurrection of the dead for all flesh.”
Why do bad things happen to good people? Because of free will, which was used to transgress the first commandment (but of the tree of knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die). With that first transgression sin entered into the world through a man and death through sin. When we sin and ask for forgiveness, God always grants forgiveness, while our fellow men sometimes grant it. However, no amount of contrition or repentance can make nature change. We live in a world of sin and death, physical and spiritual. The work of Jesus on the Cross was not to eliminate sin and physical death. Rather, it was to free us from death’s despair and open to us the gates of paradise.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus encounters a man who was sick for thirty-eight years lying near the pool called Beth-zatha, which had five porticoes. Jesus asks the man if he wanted to be healed and the man replied: “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is troubled, and while I am going another steps down before me.” Jesus tells the man to rise, take up your pallet and walk and at once the man was healed. Yet, Jesus warns the man saying “See you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse befall you.” It’s hard to imagine with our human understanding what could be worse than spending thirty-eight years lying sick, more likely than not in his own waste and stench. Yet, Jesus says that something worse can befall him. It is in this that I see what is important in our journey on the earth. We are not made for this world but made for eternity in the Kingdom.
After Divine Liturgy on Holy Thursday, my spiritual advisor gave me a bible and said it was an old priest tradition to start at the 17th Chapter of John and read until the end of the Gospel of John on Holy Thursday. Chapter 17 starts with the high priestly prayer of Jesus. “I do not pray that you should take them out of the world, but that you should keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth, your word is truth”.
Do I believe that God could restore Theresa completely? Yes. Do I pray for this to happen? Yes, if it His will. Do I believe that what is happening to her physically/spiritually and spiritually to Ryan, Mom and I is for the sanctification of our soul and body? Absolutely. We will not know what spiritual benefit this situation has provided to us and others who are on the journey with us until the veil is lifted and we find ourselves in the Kingdom. Until that time, I will continue to humbly accept whatever comes my way and transform that into the way of salvation for myself and for others.