Because we are created, designed, and therefore evolved as rational, thinking beings, we humans often display an innate curiosity, a longing to understand. Doubting, questioning, testing, rethinking, exploring, and considering issues from all viewpoints are essential to embracing our humanness, becoming fully alive. We are called to love God with all of our minds.
It is natural as well to seek order, to fix what is wrong, to control inventions and technology for the good of all, to bring harmony, peace, and health to our world. It is why social justice, healthcare, charitable works, and traffic lights are so important. In the primal act of creation, God brought order out of chaos, created a garden filled with beauty where heaven and earth interacted in shalom, and gave humans the task of expanding that harmony.
So, it is no wonder that we quite naturally seek to fix, control, eliminate, and understand pain. Often, we can. The underlying causes of our physical, emotional, or spiritual pain can be discovered and remedies applied with the aid of physicians, therapists, and spiritual guides. With wisdom, they shepherd us towards wholeness.
But we cannot understand or fix everything. There are deep pains that defy explanation and that yield to no balm. It may be a chronic physical pain that eludes diagnosis. It might be a grief that leaves an ever-bleeding wound in the soul, a depression that resists treatment, a life-controlling fear, or a childhood wound that lies deep beneath consciousness. In spite of our longings, prayers, charities, ballots, and sit-ins, injustice remains. Wars, poverty, racism, global warming, and tyranny never go away.
We are tempted to despair, to give up. In our despair, we may seek refuge in apocalyptic fantasy, pie-in-the-sky religiosity, any of all the myriad distractions of pleasure and ownership, or political ideology. When even those don’t work, we sink into the dark realm of hopelessness.
Faith is the ability to wait in liminal space, to stand patiently on the threshold, to hold antitheses, until we are moved by grace to a profoundly deeper level of being and a much larger frame of reference. There, both our private pain and the vicarious pain of wider suffering step to the side. They do not disappear; they simply yield center-stage to the all-encompassing God who is Perfect Love. They become supporting cast in the drama of life. There, our pain blends with the shame of Eden, the blood of Abel, David’s adultery, and every drop of blood shed in every war, every wail that erupts from a bereaved parent, every whimper of every dying child, every injustice, and every tear.
It is good and right to do our best to understand and fix pain, whether it be personal or collective, whether it be physical, emotional, or spiritual. Those who give their lives to alleviating pain and suffering are true heroes. Mother Theresa (now Saint Theresa of Calcutta) said she was not called to serve the poor; she was called to follow Jesus and she followed him to the poor. When we follow Jesus, he will lead us to those in pain where our vocation becomes being faithful, but not necessarily successful. We cannot alleviate all pain.
When we meet with pain we cannot understand, fix, control, or even ameliorate, we must learn the art of sitting with it, staying there in the liminal space of not-knowing, having no answers and no solutions. It is there that we slowly discover the mystery of the cross. It is there that we experience cruciform love. There, we abide in the secret place of the Most High God, the fellowship of God’s sufferings. And, it is there we experientially learn that the one who carried the cross, carries us.