I remember a priest-friend of mine visiting a family who had just lost their young son due to a tragic car accident. When the mother opened the door and saw my friend, she said “Well, Father, I suppose you have come to preach to us.”
But he replied, “No, I have come to weep with you.”
Another story comes to mind, that of Mother Teresa trying to comfort an old woman dying in a lot of pain at one of Mother Teresa’s hospices in India. The saintly nun said to the dying woman: “Jesus is kissing you in your wounds.” To which the woman gasped out, “Then please tell him to stop kissing me!”
I suppose there is not much use trying to preach to anyone going through physical or mental or other suffering. The best thing is probably to hold them, pray for them, let them see the pain in your own eyes as you suffer along with them in spirit . And it takes a spirituality of immense proportions, such as Mother Teresa obviously had, to find in suffering cause for joy and blessing. We know now, years after her death, that Mother Teresa spent most of her active life, caring for others, in the most profound spiritual darkness, with no emotional sense of God being with her, but carried by a power of faith and trust that made her a saint. Would that I could call on such reserves of faith and trust!
But I have been with people suffering in ways beyond my power to imagine, who have astounded me, humbled me, inspired me with the depth of their faith and trust in God. I have heard people, struck with cancer, which usually puts great fear in us, just to hear the word, speaking of having a great peace in the midst of their battle with that terrible disease, knowing that God was with them and carrying them through it all. I have recently witnessed a friend of mine,a mother, whose son and daughter-in-law were killed in a terrible fire in their home, along with two neighbours of theirs, yet holding onto faith and trust that God would make sense of this tragedy and turn it to good. She was consoled also to know that her son and his wife, and their neighbours, would have been praying at the time the fire started, as they usually did of an evening. While I was struggling in my reason to make sense of why God could have allowed people of such devotion to perish right while they were praying, she was taking that suffering into her heart, not seeking to find a reason, or excuse for God, but surrendering it all over to his hands, knowing he was there with her, and with her family.
Our first reading today presents us with the well known story of Job, a good and upright man, suddenly, and for no good reason, struck down with the most appalling tragedies, loss of property, loss of family, and loss of health, so he ends up in the most abject misery, scraping his boils with a piece of pottery. Along comes three of Job’s friends, supposedly to comfort him in his grief, but in fact, telling him to be a brave boy and bear it all with good grace, because obviously God was punishing him for his sins. No wonder the phrase “Job’s comforters” has become familiar to us, describing those who use our times of suffering to pour salt into our wounds by telling us that God must be teaching us a lesson through it all and we should suck it up and not complain. I have heard of people going along to pray with someone in hospital and , when after the prayer, the patient is still not healed, haranguing them because, obviously they did not have enough faith to be healed.Talk about adding insult to injury! If I had been Job, I would have taken that piece of pottery and thrown it at his so-called friends! But he sticks instead to protesting his innocence and wondering why God is nowhere to be seen or heard during his anguish, as no doubt many have felt when in similar difficulties
There is the story of Saint Teresa of Avila on a journey, falling off her horse into a pool of mud and complaining to God, “Why did you let that happen to me?” and God saying to her “That’s how I treat all of my friends.” To which the saintly Teresa responded bitterly: “Then, it’s no wonder that you have so few of them!” Only a true friend of God could get away with such a rebuke to Him. But the truth of it is: God is ok with that kind of give and take. He has broad shoulders, he can take it. And he would rather have us direct our honest, heart-felt complaints to Him, than pretend that we are fine, just great, and continue giving him polite prayers with our lips, while our hearts are far from him, taken up with our sense of grief and anguish. I have lost count of the number of times I have tried to tell devout, pious Catholics that it is OK to “lose your rag” with God, tell him how you really feel, get out all that ugly, bitter, resentful rage at him. God would rather, much rather, have that honesty than polite distance any day.
The psalms are full of such bitter complaints to God. For example:
“My soul is struck with terror, but you, O Lord – (how long are you going to let me suffer like this?”)
“Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?”Psalm 10
“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me for ever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear this pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long?”Psalm 13
and of course this one:
“My God,my God why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but find no rest.”Psalm 22
and there are so many more of them I could quote.
They are called “psalms of lament” and make up a large part of the book of psalms. I could go on to quote from the prophets (e.g.: Jeremiah) and from other parts of the Bible. The point is, if this kind of honest, outright complaint against God and his justice and compassion are considered worthy to be considered part of the inspired word of God, then we must find a place in our prayer that is from our heart, and which we don’t try to censor, because we fear it might offend God, and he might retaliate by punishing us even more.
No, no, no, no!
In prayer you must be real before God. Tell him how you feel, ugly as it may be . . . so long as you allow God the right of reply.
If God seems at times to be utterly remote from us when we are most in pain, then our gospel today proves the opposite. All these stories of Jesus healing people over and over again. The way Mark describes a typical day in the life of Jesus, which is what he Is doing, we see pictured a Jesus, who is God incarnate, don’t forget, who never seems to stop day and night confronting suffering and healing it. It seems everywhere he goes, suffering is thrust upon him. He goes to the local synagogue, as we saw last week, and immediately he has to deal with an evil spirit which is tormenting a poor man there. He leaves the synagogue, goes to a nearby home for a bit of a rest, and immediately he is shown a woman suffering with fever, and pretty much asked to heal her, which he does. In the evening, the word has got round the whole village, so that the house is surrounded by lots of people demanding, begging, crying out for healing (imagine: “the whole city was gathered around the door”).
But Jesus does not stay around in that place to heal every single person.
He moves on to the next place, and the next place, in search of others who are in pain and anguish, to offer them hope and healing. But he never forgets to find time and space to pray. From there comes his power and ability to heal, to confront suffering but not to be swamped by it. From this communion with his Father, he knows that his job is not to heal every single person on the planet straightaway, but to let people know that God cares for them in their suffering, is not at all remote and aloof, but absolutely in the thick of it all, giving healing where it is needed, compassion and strength to endure where that is needed also, always, everywhere giving signs that the kingdom and reign of God is indeed breaking into the world through Jesus, but also showing that the kingdom has not fully arrived. In the end, the ultimate suffering of the world, the evil unleashed by Satan at the dawn of human history, because of our first parents’ rebellion against God, that ultimate suffering will only be undone by an act of pure, and incredible love, the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. At Calvary, Jesus confronts his own physical, mental, emotional and spiritual suffering and endures it, but also opens wide his arms to confront and embrace the suffering of all the world and overcome it through faith and trust in his God, and loving the world to death. His resurrection is proof positive that suffering will not last forever, but it must have its day here on earth, but the power and healing of the cross and resurrection of Jesus is breaking everywhere into people’s lives, if we will let it, to heal and transform all suffering. In the end, when the kingdom of God comes in all its fullness, at the end of time, there will be:
“No more death, no more mourning and crying and pain, and God will wipe every tear from our eyes.”Revelation 21:4
Why do you think the Church has us pray at Mass, and in our daily prayer, the Our Father, with its heartfelt cry, which is also a command, “Thy Kingdom come. Lord, bring in your reign, your kingdom fully into every single person’s life, so that there will be no more death, no more suffering, no more goodbyes.”
Why isn’t every person healed, right away at the moment of their suffering?
I don’t know, not fully, no-one does, only God. I have bits and pieces of an answer, drawn from Scripture, from the example of Jesus’ own life, his suffering and death, and resurrection. Since Jesus promised, at the end of Mark’s gospel, that he would always be with his disciples, performing miracles of healing through them when they prayed with others, perhaps one answer is that there are not enough of us who believe that promise, and actively ask those we meet in their suffering, whether we can pray with them, not just pray for them, but pray with them, there and then, for their healing. I am sure that, if more of us were to dare to do that, the rate of healing would increase dramatically. How many people have had to continue on in their suffering, because you and I have failed in faith and trust, and love and compassion to offer healing prayer?
We blame God for not doing his part, but might it not be that we are not doing ours? Probably, not everyone will be healed when we pray with them, but assuredly some will. So what is stopping us?
A lack of faith, or trust, or love?