National Catholic Register


The Good News of Pain and Suffering

BY Ellen Wilson Fielding

February 28-March 6, 1999 Issue | Posted 2/28/99 at 2:00 PM


“The Providence of God, the Question of Evil, and the Mystery of Suffering” by Carol Egan (The Catholic Faith, January/February 1999)

Carol Egan, a mother of five, writes: “In an earlier age, people had a more sober view of life; there seemed to be a greater understanding of the mystery of human suffering. … There was awareness that pain — while still inexplicable and mysterious — was to be endured for a greater purpose. Today, however, in the materialistic world in which we live, the only spiritualism one can find is in a pervasive obsession with psychic phenomena.

“Evil is the privation of a good that should be present. Both evil and good occur within the permissive providence of God. The only real evil occurs when sin is committed, thus upsetting the moral order. In sin, there is the absence of a good that should be present. As such, the only real and absolute evil is sin, which is mysteriously linked to suffering, but not necessarily as cause and effect.

“God's providence is mysteriously, inexorably bound up with evil. Says St. Thomas Aquinas, ‘If evil were entirely swept away, Providence could not regenerate and restore the integrity of things, and this would be a greater evil than the particular evils they suffer.’

“The pleasure principle dictates on a natural level our continuous, ongoing orientation. We love leisure and gratification. We are willing, happy receivers of good from God, but when He allows evil, we too often become rigid and unyielding. Job, the prototypical sufferer, marked the way toward the consummate work of the sacrificial Lamb, when He said ‘Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?’(2:10).

“Father John Hardon insists that the words love and pain should never be separated. If Love Incarnate endured the greatest pain in human history, then these two words are inexorably and mysteriously linked as condition and consequence. Francis Fernandez links pain with joy in his exposition on human suffering which is the Church's constant teaching since apostolic times. ‘Joy is inseparable from the Cross. Not only that, but we will also understand that we can never be happy if we are not united to Christ on the Cross, and that we will never know how to love if we do not at the same time live sacrifice.’

“That God sometimes permits evil in order to allow good is not self-evident. Our darkened intellects can scarcely place day to day events in their proper perspective, much less when there is some extended pain or suffering. Moreover, we tend to compare our crosses with those of others. This is a grave error for many reasons, but mostly because the possible benefit to one's soul could be lost in what can turn into envy at the ostensible greener pasture. By focusing on the pain itself instead of trying to discover what is behind it, or what it is that God wants of us during each painful but intensely valuable moment of the cross, we lost the opportunity to grow in grace by being patient under trial.

“In his Apostolic Letter, [Pope John Paul II] exhorts that ‘Salvation means liberation from evil, and for this reason it is closely bound up with the problem of suffering, and at the basis of human suffering there is a complex involvement with sin’ (14, 15). … The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that one of the Church's remedies for suffering is the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. Speaking about the union of a sick person with the passion of Christ, the writers entreat that ‘in a certain way he is consecrated to bear fruit by configuration to the Savior's redemptive Passion. Suffering, a consequence of original sin, acquires a new meaning; it becomes a participation in the saving work of Jesus’(1521).

“Human suffering is always accompanied by a desire for it to end. No one enjoys pain, but the key to successful endurance during trial is found in the conscious surrender of one's will to the will of God, trusting Him to effect some good from the experience of the misery.”

Ellen Wilson Fielding writes from Davidsonville, Maryland.