As we go to press, vacationers are fleeing the Caribbean as Hurricane Dean rushes toward landfall. In Peru, there was no warning and no place to flee. A 7.9 intensity earthquake there killed 700 people, injured more than 3,000 and left more than 20,000 homeless.
The problem of suffering is much easier to intellectualize than to live through. But when natural disasters strike, it is helpful to review the basic answers Christian faith offers to the problem of suffering.
First: This world is not all there is.
The random massive destruction of a hurricane or earthquake can look meaningless. Worse, it can look monumentally unfair. Poverty has already wreaked havoc on the Caribbean Islands: Do they really need a hurricane on top of it?
But not only is this world not the only one that exists — suffering is a prerequisite for entrance into a far better world.
The Catholic faith uniquely understands the place of suffering in the human experience — and the divine experience.
Our Church began with the crucifixion of its founder, grew during a time of persecution in which its most prominent members were martyred and now requires that each church feature a crucifix in its center and Stations of Cross along its walls.
When God asks us to suffer, he isn’t asking us for something he isn’t willing to do himself. In fact, we believe that God cared so much for our plight, he entered our world as one of us in order to transform our suffering into a pathway to a pain-free, eternal life.
This central truth of our faith transforms tragedies into hopeful occasions, all by itself, because it has the power to transform sudden death into eternal life.
Second: God brings good out of suffering even for the living.
That first principle can lead to a mistake. It can appear to make the next life so fundamental that life in our present world is merely a mirage or a waiting line for the next.
But entry into heaven isn’t automatic — and life in this world has infinite value all on its own. Suffering in this world helps us to perfect our way of life in order to be able to enter the next life.
When the Catechism states this principle, it cites the words of the saints.
St. Paul said: “We know that in everything God works for good for those who love him.”
St. Catherine of Siena said to “those who are scandalized and rebel against what happens to them”: “Everything comes from love, all is ordained for the salvation of man, God does nothing without this goal in mind.”
St. Thomas More, shortly before his martyrdom, consoled his daughter: “Nothing can come but that God wills. And I make me very sure that whatsoever that be, seem it never so bad in sight, it shall in deed be the best.”
Ultimately, even the saints experience the “the problem of suffering” as a mystery. They aren’t certain why things happen the way they do, but they know that even suffering is part of God’s providence. The suffering they experience builds their trust in God more than their lives before made possible.
Third: Christians are called to help the suffering.
This was the message of the important second section of Pope Benedict XVI’s first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love). The first half was an intriguing, original and deep analysis of God’s love. Some commentators seemed puzzled that there were fewer intellectual fireworks in the second half.
But Pope Benedict’s message in the second half was clear: In the face of suffering, it is necessary for Christians to act to alleviate the suffering, not simply observe it.
In this, the Holy Father is reminiscent of St. Jerome, who was also a scholar, famous for translating the Bible and addressing important doctrinal issues. When refugees flooded his region after the sacking of Rome in 404, he left his books.
“I cannot help them all, but I grieve and weep with them, and am completely absorbed in the duties that charity imposes on me,” he wrote. “I have put aside my commentary on Ezekiel and almost all study. For today we must translate the precepts of the Scriptures into deeds. Instead of speaking saintly words, we must act them.”
Pope Benedict also advocates a particular kind of action: one that serves the body as well as the soul, providing spiritual comfort as well as material aid.
“This proper way of serving others also leads to humility,” wrote the Pope. “The one who serves does not consider himself superior to the one served, however miserable his situation at the moment may be. Christ took the lowest place in the world — the Cross — and by this radical humility he redeemed us and constantly comes to our aid. Those who are in a position to help others will realize that, in doing so, they themselves receive help.”
In the face of suffering, Christians can philosophize all they want. But they won’t truly understand until they help.