09 April, 2011

The Lessons of human suffering

Viktor Frankl, M.D. Ph.D, in his seminal work, 'Man's Search for Meaning' shines a light onto the role of human suffering as a path to discover the meaning of anyone's life. He was certainly  qualified to write on the field as he wrote the book soon after being liberated from a WWII German concentration camp. As well as being a Holocaust survivor, he was the founder of logotherapy, which is a form of Existential Analysis, the "Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy".

His best-selling book, chronicles his experiences as a concentration camp inmate and describes his psychotherapeutic method of finding meaning in all forms of existence, even the most sordid ones, and thus a reason to continue living. Frankl was one of the key figures in existential therapy and a prominent source of inspiration for humanistic psychologists. He wrote: “If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death.” Frankl goes on to say that, “without suffering and death human life cannot be complete.”

During the season of Lent, as Christians prepare for the Holy celebrations of the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ, it is an appropriate time to reflect upon the role of suffering in their personal lives as well as within their faith communities. Frankl was not a Christian, but the meaning he found in suffering has spoken to million of all beliefs.

This was powerfully brought home to me at the recent celebration of a brother priest who burned to death in a house fire. He was a man who understood that life was difficult, and the manner of his passing proved it to be true in death too. Yet by reflecting upon the manner in which he willingly accepted his earthly sufferings without revealing its cost to others, the witness of his life and death strengthened and inspired  me (and many others) at his final liturgy.

As suffering is an integral part of the life of individuals, so too is it true for those institutions that bring believers together, the Church, the 'Bride of Christ'.

It’s certainly beyond dispute  that Churches are suffering in these times. Many polls show the decline in attendance at weekly religious liturgies. Christian values and virtues, previously  enshrined in civil law, are today eroded by the courts, guided only by the rubric of 'personal choice trumps common good'. This has become the Polaris star by which today’s social morality is  oriented. Voices raised in alarm at these changes are now shouted down as being discriminatory and oppressive. To argue today for the Christian proposition is to be ridiculed and marginalized by a world that seems to have closed their ears to traditional Christian teaching and values. Even the most ardent opponent of the faith would have to admit that the tide is not running with traditional Churches these days.

The answer to understanding the place of suffering Frankl proposes is to be found in the power of love to overcome the consequences of man’s suffering, and there by discovering life's essential meaning. He is speaking of a form of love that is best expressed in its Hebraic ‘agape’ form, and not as ‘eros’ or sexual love. Man’s sexual desire vanishes under the conditions of a Concentration camp. Yet his remembrances of his wife as his ‘Beloved,’ transported him to a place where sufferings could not touch him: a private sanctuary that could not be sullied by the depravities of man.

So too must churches turn again to their self-understanding as being intimately related to Christ: to seek again that euphoria that floods the heart of a bride catching a first glimpse of her Beloved on her wedding day. This is the imagery which both scripture and Tradition use to express the reward awaiting the faithful. By reminding themselves of this, Christians can remember what it was that motivated them to participate in the life of the Church in the first place: to seek again that relationship between Christ and his believers which lifted us up in times past. To see behind the soil and dirt that the keepers of the trust of faith have spread upon their wedding clothes, and to rejoice  at knowing that the stain of sin cannot ultimately ruin the joyous celebration when Christ returns to reward his faithful.

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