I have been gaining great inspiration and insight recently from reading a biography of Mary Teresa of Calcutta. In her letters, Mary Teresa writes with profound intensity and a singularity of gospel commitment. At the same time, she demonstrates incredible humility and self-denial. Teresa is an inspiration to me for the way in which she was so passionate and yet so amazingly yielded to Jesus and the work that he gave her, both interiorly and in the world.
I would like to emulate Mary Teresa’s witness. Though I must admit that I have no desire to bear the inward cross of spiritual desolation that she did, I see that this intense darkness (and her continued faithfulness in it) was the highest mark of sanctification and union with God. She truly got a taste of Christ’s spiritual desolation as he suffered and died on the cross! It was not that God was not present with her. Rather, God was powerfully present in her life, but she could not feel God’s love and peace in her soul. She was left desolate, even while living a life of saintliness and union with God. How amazing. How true to the experience of Jesus!
I see that this is what I fear and flee: the dreadful reality of death on the cross. It brings about the resurrection, laying the groundwork for rebirth in Christ. The suffering of the cross is central to God’s plan of cosmic redemption. Yet, it is so dreadful to my soul. Terrifying! It represents the death of the willful self, the “old man.” But I can see the blessedness of this self-dying in the witness of Mary Teresa. While I cannot bring myself to long for the agony of the cross, I do pray to die to self so that I can live fully in Christ – so that Jesus can come to live fully in me, just as he seems to have done in Mary Teresa.
In the suffering and spiritual anguish of the saints, I see the truth that is incomprehensible to the modern-day western consciousness: I see that God’s plan is not centered around human desires, individual fulfillment or happiness. Mary Teresa saw that her suffering could be cosmically redemptive, perhaps different only in degree from Christ’s suffering and death. Indeed, as Christ’s body, we participate in his atoning (reconciling) sacrifice.(1)
This is radical stuff. I was raised to focus on my own personal fulfillment and advancement. Individual happiness was always the name of the game. But what if happiness is not the point at all? What if suffering is not, in fact, tragic? What if suffering is actually an integral part of the divine plan? This impacts the question of theodicy. Because, of course, while theodicy technically means “why evil?” in practice it tends to mean, “why suffering?”
While it is certainly right to say that evil results in suffering, it does not necessarily follow that suffering is evil. What if suffering is like an antibody that God has created to combat evil? What if suffering is a God-given part of the cosmic “immune system”? What if suffering is the only path to healing? What would the implications be for those of us (the vast majority, I imagine) who avoid suffering whenever possible?
1. See 1 Colossians 1:24