Making meaning of suffering

Lynne Smith, OSB Living in Community Leave a Comment

Photo by Michael Kirsh

“There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.”
– Fyodor Dostoevsky

The above quote comes from a Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) Occasional Paper by Ted Dunn entitled: “The Role of Meaning-Making in Transitional Times.”  The sisters have been reading and discussing this in our daily morning meeting. The quote caused all of us to stop and consider what Dostoevsky might have meant by being “worthy of one’s sufferings.”

In the article, Dunn relies on the work of Victor Frankl who was in a concertation camp during World War II. Dunn writes: “While there is no prescription for meaning-making, Frankl believed that creative work, encounters with beauty and suffering are three prime sources from which meaning commonly springs. … The goal is not to suffer intentionally, or unnecessarily, but to transform the suffering we encounter when life serves it up. …the invitation is to find meaning in our suffering and transform it into something noble and full of hope.” (LCWR Occasional Papers – Summer 2019, p. 7)

As we considered what it might mean “to be worthy of my sufferings,” we noted that it takes time and reflection to find meaning. It takes staying with the suffering to experience it fully, taking it to prayer, acknowledging it before God and waiting, reflecting on it, even reverencing it.

I was reminded of the verse in Hebrews that has always intrigued me. “Indeed, it was fitting that, …God… should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering.” (Heb.2:10) How does suffering make Jesus (and us) perfect? Most of my life, I have sought, to no avail, to escape suffering. In my later years, as I have turned to face my suffering, I can begin to venture a response.

Suffering faced, moves me in the direction of humility and compassion – a good thing for a Benedictine. It forces me to acknowledge that I am not in control, even of my own body, as Benedict would say. It forces me out of my self-righteousness to approach myself and others with compassion. It helps me enter more deeply into my true self rather than trying to bolster a false sense of self. When I turn toward suffering and can no longer avoid it, suffering asks me to welcome parts of myself that I had left behind.

It is not an easy thing to turn toward suffering and feel the full force of it. One can be swallowed up in the pain of it. Here is an opportunity to turn to God in lament and trust. The Psalms are a help here. Suffering calls me to re-evaluate who I think I am. I’m not this impervious person in control of my life and others. I am not powerless, but I am affected by my choices and others’ actions. I can’t control what happens to me, but I can control how I respond. Some of my responses to past suffering, which helped me at the time, no longer serve me. So my current suffering may be an invitation to learn new ways to respond.

Surprisingly, suffering and my response seem to be my path to God. Without my particular suffering, I would be a very different person. Trying to find meaning in my suffering has led me to a God who does not take away pain but is mysteriously present in it, a God who has carried me through suffering that I could not fully bear at the time, a God who waits patiently and longingly for me to come home to myself.

I understand now that to be worthy of my sufferings means to enter into them, to see the hand of God using them to shape me. Being worthy of them means collaborating with God’s work as best I can at the moment and coming to gratitude for all that my life has held. It is not easy, but it is a path to God, to my true self and to others.

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