Is the question ‘Why?’ blessed or cursed?21 April 2021
It’s such a common question, so powerful in its expression, so difficult to answer. It’s such a true question, so human, so demanding but one which, by its very nature, can’t endure utterance, isn’t expressed by the mouth, can’t be contained in words, can’t be made public to an audience and, even more, isn’t open to easy answers, from those who are supposedly knowledgeable to others who are certainly in pain. It may well be the one subject on which no speeches can or should be made. It’s too profound to rise to the surface of consciousness. It’s too painful to fit into the limits of our endurance. It’s too personal to be found in the arena of public discourse. It may be that the question hurts more than whatever cause gave rise to it. Because we all know there’s no easy answer. And yet it’s so persistent and real.
‘Why me, God?’ The questions rings in my ears and resounds deep in my heart. It’s the question of every parent whose child is suffering or every person who is stricken with an incurable disease. How can this question be turned into a sermon, advice, an opinion or an answer?
The question is asked continuously and can be answered only with tears not words, with feelings not thoughts, with silence not opinions, with empathy not answers. How can we do anything? There are times when the eyes speak more eloquently than the mouth, when a sigh is more powerful than thought, and when a shared perplexity at suffering expresses the truth better than any answer.
Why the pain? Why the wrong? Why the children? Why so young? Why that way? Why was the indescribable joy of their innocent presence followed by unbearable pain? Why? And if it’s for our unknown good, why is this good so bitter?
What harm did I do? How can I examine myself and find a cause I don’t even know about? And if I’m to blame, can I not do something to set things right again? And why should that innocent little creature suffer because of me? It’s more than I can bear. I’m close to losing what little, weak faith I have. In the end, what’s the good in all of this?
‘Why to me, God?’
Am I not your child? Are you not the God of love? How can your love be connected to my suffering? How can your scourging bring me closer to you? How is your goodness connected to this inexplicable logic of pain, to sorrow, to the possibility of being shocked by it all?
The ‘blessing’ of pain. Blessed ‘Why?’
This ‘Why?’ was sanctified on the Cross by Christ himself: ‘God, my God, why have you forsaken me? God, why have you done this to me? What did I do to you? Am I not your son?’. This is the same question we all have, and it also remained unanswered. Or it seemed to remain unanswered. In fact, events provided the answer.
Job the much-suffered asked ‘Why’ so many times, as did the wounded David, two people who suffered the tragic loss of their children. This loss stamped their passage in history and has made them peerless models of faith, perseverance and patience.
We address this question to God, we ask it of ourselves and we repeat it to people who we feel are particularly loving towards us. We say it mainly to express what’s within us, and also in the expectation of the gentle caress of an answer. But even if somebody knows, how can they tell us?
Saint Basil the Great says to a grieving father that pain makes people so sensitive that they’re like an eye that can’t bear even the weight of a feather. The slightest movement increases the pain of the person suffering. The most appropriate comparison can’t be borne. Anything that’s said as a reasonable argument is unbearable. Only tears, shared perplexity, silence and inner prayer can help to relieve the pain, illumine the darkness or beget a tiny hope.
Pain engenders truth, empathy and common feelings.
Pain doesn’t only awaken us, it also kindles love in the people around us. They try to put themselves in our place. Even though they’re not under any distress themselves, they try to share our feelings, which is the last thing they want. But they do it. Pain begets patience in us, but at the same time it also forges a bond of love with our brothers and sisters. Pain begets truth. It plants empathy for others in our own heart. That is also where the answer is discreetly hidden.
In this way, comfort is engendered in our heart, the sweetness and relief of which are much more intense, as experiences, than the weight of pain.
Pain takes us beyond human limits.
In the end, these ‘Why?’ questions don’t have the answer which our poverty and weakness would expect. In terms of reason, they usually go unanswered. This is why Christ said very little about death. He simply chose it himself, and suffered as no-one else ever has. Even when he rose, his mouth gave few words and more breath. He said nothing about life and death, only prophesied concerning Peter’s martyrdom. Pain isn’t answered with arguments. Injustice and death aren’t countered with reason. These problems are solved only by the inhalation and breath which God alone supplies. They’re solved with the Holy Spirit. They’re overcome by the humble acceptance of God’s will, which is so true but usually also so incomprehensible.
At the time when trials are being undergone, we’re bombarded with unanswerable questions. We writhe on the hook of ‘maybe’, of ‘why’, of ‘if’, and we retain hopes and put up with survival in this world, awaiting something sure and something firm. This is not usually to be found in the solution proposed by us, however, but is centered on unexpected, supra-rational, divine consolation. Any attempt to replace it with human substitutes is unfair to us. Every restriction caused by the choking noose of rationalist answers traps us ever deeper in our drama. In the dialogue with pain, injustice and death, we have to transcend human limitations. This isn’t just the way out of the trial, but is also our blessing.
The only chance.
In the end, we can pose the question, but can only await the answer. God either doesn’t exist, or he’s granting a trial to give us a unique opportunity. Had there been no crucifixion, there would have been no resurrection. Christ would have been a good teacher, but not been God. God gives the opportunity. It remains for us to see it and exploit it. The joy and substance of this opportunity are far greater than the distress and pain of the trial. Death, pain and injustice are a mystery which is thrown into total confusion by any attempt to solve it. In these instances, the truth isn’t expressed as an opinion or argument, but is offered as humility and shared pain. On our progress along the fine line between life and death, between being shocked and rendering praise, between miracle and injustice, we’re presented with twists and turns where the truth of life is preserved. If we resist the temptation to give in, then we’ll see the truth in a light we’d never have imagined. If you can embrace pain, it kindles a sensitivity you’ve never known and reveals realities that otherwise no-one sees. The challenge isn’t for events and revelations to happen; they exist anyway. The challenge is for us to open our eyes so that we can look directly at them.
It’s an undeniable truth, unfortunately, that it’s only when we lose what we desire greatly that we recognize and gain what is greater.
Certainly, pain and injustice can’t expunge God’s love. God exists and he is love and life. Perfect love and the fulfilment of life. And the greatest miracle of his being is that he co-exists with pain, injustice and death.
It may be that the greatest challenge for each of us is to exist with our own personal pain, that tight embrace with these deeper ‘Why?’ questions, the humble, inner penetration into the expectation of God through the ‘injustices’ we think he perpetrates against us.
Some time ago, a young woman came to me. It appeared that the lamp of her life was flickering. Through her unbearable pain, I discerned hope. In her tearful eyes, I saw joy, strength and wisdom.
‘I want to live’, she told me. ‘But I didn’t come for you to tell me that I will. I came for you to help me to be ready to leave this world’.
‘I’m a priest of life, not of death’, I answered. ‘So I want you to live. But let me ask you something. In your suffering, do you ever ask “Why me, God?”’.
‘I don’t understand you, father’, she told me. ‘I ask “Why not me, God?”. And I’m not waiting for my death. I’m waiting to be enlightened’.