Reflections on Suffering
One of the things I most love about the line of work I’ve fallen into—writing books that push the Christian theological envelope—is that it brings me into conversation with so many fascinating people around the world. The majority of these folks belong to the general category of what I’d call “heartbroken Christians:” thoughtful, prayerful, sincere spiritual seekers, often deeply committed to other spiritual paths, who have found in my books permission to re-open their own deep questions and take a second look at Jesus and the Christian path. At any given time, I’ve probably got a half-dozen of these conversations going on. I particularly enjoyed the following one last week with Robert Perry in New Zealand, who has graciously given his permission to reproduce it here.
Your stunning book, The Wisdom Jesus, which I purchased only three weeks ago, has had a profound effect on me, and the opportunity to ask you a few questions about it directly has felt like an important thing for me to seek.
I understand that you receive a lot of email and that you may not be able to reply straight away – no problem. I also want to clarify that, contrary to possible appearances, when I ask the questions below, I am not “in my head”. I’m thirsty for clarification on a heart level more so than on the level of intellect.
Before I begin with the questions, I just want to add that I met you a few years ago when you spoke at St Andrew’s-on-the-Terrace in Wellington. I certainly don’t expect you to remember me, but, as a Gnostic-Christianity-loving Buddhist, I was inspired by your emphasis on the wisdom aspect of Jesus’ teaching, and the practice of kenosis, so essential to Buddhism under a different name. This talk of yours, and your book, have provided a doorway for me into a more mature take on Christianity which my heart has always known to exist and been in love with, but has, for thirteen years, had a great deal of trouble finding.
So here are my questions:
Spiritual teacher Ram Dass, with whom I’m sure you’re familiar, often says, “Suffering is grace.” The reason this has been so helpful to me is that it has reframed suffering in a positive light and has given it a spiritual context. When I say “positive light”, I don’t mean that in a masochistic way. The most inspirational passage for me in ‘The Wisdom Jesus’, and simultaneously the most confusing, is on pages 99-100, where you say it is “not in spite of but because of [this earthly realm’s] very density and jagged edges [that] offers precisely the conditions for the expression of certain aspects of divine love that could become real in no other way.” That sentence I have no problem with at all, because to me it sounds the same as “Suffering (the jagged edges) is grace.” There appears to be an implication that the “jagged edges” of this realm are somehow deliberately and divinely designed that way, which is why I felt this inspirational and comforting perspective was being snatched away from me when you then said, twelve lines later, “Let me be very clear here. I am not saying that suffering exists in order for God to reveal himself. I am only saying that where suffering exists and is consciously accepted, there divine love shines forth brightly.” Now it sounds like God comes in after the jagged edges; that God had nothing to do with the jagged edges being there in the first place – that the jagged edges were just random and meaningless and painful. All I know is how important and liberating it is for me to find a perspective on suffering as not being random, as being meaningful, and as being ultimately and paradoxically something that assists one beyond suffering – something that, to use your words, “offers precisely the conditions for the expression of certain aspects of divine love.” Unless you’re able to clarify and reconcile these apparently divergent statements in the book, I want the passage from twelve lines earlier back!
What I’m trying to say here is that suffering is the inevitable outcome of the conditions of this planet, which include hard edges and finite boundaries. But this is not random; God has created it in precisely this way because it is precisely in these conditions and only these conditions that certain aspects of love shine forth so luminously—and it is precisely this luminosity which God is trying to reveal, the innermost self-disclosure of the heart of divine love. I’m trying to avoid the trap here that god “creates” suffering (for our education, our growth, etc;) that may make suffering meaningful, but at a high cost in the perpetuation of the image of a micro-managing, sadistic God. I’m saying that God doesn’t cause the suffering directly; the conditions do that. But the conditions are necessary for the full revelation of love, and God is infinitely, immediately present in these conditions to reveal this love as the silver lining in the suffering if we are open to receive it.
On page 61, you say something that, for chronological reasons, any Buddhist would be a tiny bit offended by – “[Jesus] is the first truly integral teacher to appear on the planet.” I’m open to the possibility that this is true, but I’m not sure what you mean by “integral.” What was so much more “integral” about Jesus’ teaching in comparison to the Buddha’s teaching?
What I meant to say was in the west. Somehow either I misstated that or it got edited badly and I failed to pick it up. In either case my apologies: you are quite correct.
In his book ‘Be Here Now’, Ram Dass (my favourite teacher!) says, “Do you think that when Christ is lying there and they’re nailing the nails in he’s saying, ‘Oh man, does that hurt!’? He said the night before: ‘Well, tomorrow is the big trip. Yeah – right – these are the nails. Wow! Look at that!’” The idea I got from this is that a spiritual master as highly advanced as Jesus or Buddha is fully human – they still get a sore back; their mind still experiences the whole panorama of human emotional pleasure and pain – but their identification with, and propensity for suffering from, such mental or physical states has been, as they say in Buddhism, “irreversibly severed.” This question is not just speculative curiosity on my part. It’s important to me because I need to know that freedom from (by which I mean “in the midst of”) suffering is waiting at the end of the path. When, at St Andrew’s-on-the-Terrace, I am encouraged on Good Friday to empathize with Jesus’ isolation, loneliness and despair, I have a strongly aversive reaction to that, because if Jesus was fitting anything less than Ram Dass’ description up on that cross, what hope for freedom from suffering do I eventually have? Partly, too, it’s because my own subjective model of an enlightened being, which I acknowledge is just a model, is not compatible with the image of an awakened master overwhelmed by a very unenlightened identification with feelings of betrayal and doubt. All of this leads to my difficulty with your statement, on page 117, that you favour the scenario of Jesus’ excruciating physical and spiritual anguish because it is “more consistent with the sacramental necessity that Jesus drink to the dregs the full anguish of the human condition.” I understand what you mean there, and I’m actually quite moved by the cosmic necessity for Jesus to “penetrate all the way to the root of human darkness.” But my brain can’t compute the idea of a fully awakened spiritual master anguishing to this degree, or to any degree, and my brain doesn’t want to. Perhaps the scenarios in the Gospels are ones from which one can pick and choose, but, as I say, I am touched by this idea of sacramental necessity, and so I’m hoping you can help me reconcile these seemingly incompatible ideas, rather than just telling me to throw one of them out.
Well, to begin with, as I’ve read these gospel texts further and allowed myself to see what’s hidden in plain sight, it’s now become imminently clear that Jesus did not die alone or abandoned. Mary Magdalene was right there beside him through the whole thing, holding him in unmovable love, and rendered invisible only by the not-so-hidden agendas of some of the gospel authors (I discuss this in greater depth in my recent book on Mary Magdalene). And so we have to factor in from the start some editorializing and exaggeration in the synoptic gospel accounts of Jesus’ final human moments. That in and of itself might soften the strength of your “aversive reaction.”
That being said, however, I do think it’s a romanticism to suggest that advanced spiritual masters do not suffer and anguish at the human level. Suffering and anguish are an inevitable and deeply sacramental reality of the human condition. The equanimity of a true spiritual master is not ideally an equanimity which prevents the onset of these experiences: it simply allows one to retain equanimity in their midst. Equanimity is not a state, but the laser point of the will.
Two more short questions:
On the way to Calvary, why didn’t Jesus, out of self-compassion, fight back? Why did he let himself be trampled on? Was it a teaching in kenosis?
Once you’ve imprinted in your very being that every constrictive motion (bracing, defending, self-justifying, etc.) is far harsher than fingernails screeching on a blackboard, there’s no way you can actually make these reactive gestures. That’s the physiological underpinning of his response, one which you can come to verify in your own being fairly quickly through the practice of Centering Prayer. On a spiritual level, the standard theological answers hold true here. Jesus was a man on a mission, and the mission was not to defend his egoic empire but to ground truth his teachings in his own life by demonstrating that perfect love casts out fear.
Is it all a fable? I’m aware of certain things, including the existence of a sage called Jesus, being historically factual. But how much of it is historically factual? Almost the whole thing? And even if it is, is it something that is nevertheless best approached as a factual myth, in the sense of something whose spiritual truths are the only truths that matter? (Sorry – that was four questions!)
Almost the whole thing is not only true but factual.
Thanks again for your time, Cynthia.
Good reminder. I nedeed this to be the first thing I read this morning. I can fool myself into thinking I am taking care of myself, but in reality I’m not. I need to exercise, go for more walks, love myself, be more open with friends and family, pray and give thanks more, be grateful and generate a lot more financial security in my life. Seems like a good to do list for today and everyday.
Alan…I think Cowan and the others you quote are correct when speaking of saints, which does not describe me. If we shed duality and learn to see as Bourgeault and Rohr suggest that everything belongs (everyone too!) even we ordinary folks will find such releasement as we can grasp. Even so, we can experience the Presence and be quietly overwhelmed with life changing wholeness and union…Christophany.
For many years as I have been on this journey, I have insisted on what I call “The rule of the shovel handle.” What this means to me is that whatever I learn or experience must be avaiable for discovery by the man on a shovel handle. The key I am sure is surrender, however reached. Kenosis will follow. Understanding may or may not be helpful, but at the least, the attempt to understand may disclose the wish of a heart which is “knocking”.
All the best…Jim Ulrey
Yes, I know I left the t out of sanctuary
Both Cynthia and Robert Rohr speak of ego or egoic operating systems as though there is something fundamentally wrong with ego (it seems to me). This troubles me because ego was one of the developing systems as we emerged beyond consciousness into self-consciousness. It is clear that ego has the potential to cause a lot of our troubles. but ego is also our source of power that distinguishes us from lower species and is the source of great good also.
Thus it seems to me that we may need to recognize that the better direction for ego development is not withdrawal but further maturation. Consistent with my first post re non-exercise of power as the fullest expression of love, I noted therein that the power not to be exercised must be a fully attained/claimed power which I suggest is a fully matured power,i.e., fully matured ego. If the entire Easter event was, as I have concluded, a kenotic event, then I must also conclude that Jesus as the Christ enjoyed/suffered a fully matured ego. It would follow then that one aspect of Wholeness/Divinity is an ego willing to be sacrificed for others. I see in Jesus just such a Wholeness. I also see such a wholeness in ths prodigal and in Magdalene as she subordinated herself to the Crucifiction/Easter necessity.
Also I am fairly certain that a growing maturity of the ego is necessary to imaginal events as described in various of Cynthia’s writings. As I have tried to understand my own imaginal experiences I have come to know that they occur rarely and only in moments of complete surrender, stillness and yearning.
Some 30 years ago the following was one such experience. It has remained with me ever since. I wrote this only three weeks ago in response to my friend Fr. Charlie Roper.
WITH CHARLIE’S HELP
In the sancuary of my silence
On my knees with a thought
to worship You on high,
I am suddenly aware
Of a smiling Presence, on knees before me…
With arms outstretched
To enfold me in loving wholeness.
Despite my iniquities…
I would stay, but must go.
Going and being will never be the same
For I know that at any moment
my heart holds this treasure
and in quietude I may always find this Holy place.
In the Faith,
Can i add one other comment corresponding to Cowna’s views mentioned earlier? I’m reminded of a poem I once read written by another of my favorite mentor’s, Thomas Merton:
WHEN KNOWLEDGE WENT NORTH.
Knowledge wandered north
Looking for Presence, over the Dark Sea,
And up the Invisible Mountain.
There on the mountain he met
Non-doing, the Speechless One.
“Please inform me, Sir,
By what system of thought
And what technique of meditation
I can comprehend Presence?
By what renunciation
Or what solitary retirement
May I rest in Presence?
Where must I start,
What road must I follow
To reach Presence?
Such where his three questions.
Non-Doing, the Speechless One,
Made no reply.
Not only that,
He did not even know
How to reply!
Knowledge swung south
To the Bright Sea
And climbed The Luminous Mountain
Called “Doubt’s End.”
Here he met
Act on Impulse, the Inspired Prophet,
And asked the same questions.
“Ah,” cried the Inspired One,
“I have the answers, and I will reveal them!”
But just as he was about to tell everything,
He forgot all he had in his mind.
Knowledge got no reply.
So Knowledge went at last
To the palace of Emperor Ti,
And asked his questions of Ti .
“To exercise no-thought
And follow no-way of meditation
Is the first step toward understanding Presence.
To dwell nowhere
And rest in nothing
Is the first step toward resting in Presence.
To start from nowhere
And follow no road
Is the first step toward attaining Presence.
Knowledge replied: “You know this
And I know it. But the other two,
They did not know it.
What about that?
Who is right?”
Only Non-doing, the Speechless One,
Was perfectly right. He did not know.
Act-on-Impulse, The Inspired Prophet,
Only seemed right
Because he had forgotten.
As for us,
We come nowhere being right,
Since we have the answers.
“For he who knows does not speak,
He who speaks does not know”
And “The Wise Man gives instructions
Without the use of speech.”
This story got back
Who agreed with Ti’s
Way of putting it.
It is not reported
That Non-Doing ever heard of the matter
Or made any comment.
The Way of Chuang Tzu.
Thanks John & Jim for your excellent posts! I could really resonate with your central metaphor, Jim, of your “journey” being ‘like the peeling of an onion as spiritual progess has drawn me along” and then your issue of “so what” and “what do I do now?” I feel we’re travelling similar paths… I especially liked your term “kenosis crisis”!
My patron saint is Frances of Assisi… in John Cowan’s (2001) book FRANCIS – A Saint’s Way, he believes a central tenet that embodied St. Frances’ ‘theosophy’ – which seems centred around becoming a true poverello; in what Heidegger called “releasement”. Quoting Meister Eckhart, Cowan writes, “If we are poor in will, we must will and desire as little as we willed and desired before we came into being”.
Cowan thinks that [Frances] “…knew that poverty implied will-lessness, releasement, and a condition that was so unencumbered that a man would not necessarily know whether it was God that acted through him. Poverty was not simply a state of physical want, but rather one of a lack in spirit (Matt 5:16) and a lack in knowing.” (p. 128-29)
Cowan goes onto say that this “not-knowing” should be “…utterly free of self-knowledge…[and] that we should allow God to do what He will and that we should be entirely free of all things.” From [Frances’] POV, the body [i.e. Brother Donkey] is fundamental & necessary for the realization of the divine intention… It is suffering that leads to success in every instance.”
What do y’all reckon about Cowan’s insistences??
Further to my post of 12/14, I am 74 and was struck by my kenotic crisis around age 35. Mine took the form of a deep and immobilizing depression for several months. It was certainly not something I sought and only in retrospect have I come to understand what happened. The self emptying aspect was difficult and somewhat frightening but in recovery I have come to see how essential the experience was for me. I have guarded the urge to suggest that anyone else must undergo this path. I still do not know the answer to this question and I would be interested in your thoughts. Subsequent to my recevery a dear friend and mental health professional asked me if this had been a religous experience. The question had not occurred to me, but I immediately knew the answer was YES. My life has never since been the same.
Subsequently, my path has been like the peeling of an onion as spiritual progess has drawn me along. With the indirect help of Jack Spong, Richard Rohr and yourself, I have reached the point where I “know” spiritual abundance and union/singleness. This is the most overwhelming sense of peace and grace I have ever known. Now I’m trying to deal with what I call my “so what” issue. What do I do now? Richard Rohr is very helpful in his newest book,” Falling Upward”, wherein he suggests the job now is not to try to fix anything, but simply to allow one’s “light” to shine, to let others see and learn by osmosis if they are ready to “see”.
But, back to the issue of kenosis. Do you think that suffering and removal from one’s comfort zone is the only gateway to the kenotic experience, and do you think kenosis is essential to finding spiritual wholeness? Do you think some fortunate persons are simply born with such wholeness?
I will look forward to your thoughts.
With warmest regards and deeply in the faith,
This is my first post since discovering your so significant body of work for which I will be ever most grateful. Years ago I encountered Dr. Geddes MacGregor who introduced me to the idea of “non-exercise of power”. His point is that if you choose not to exercise power you have truly claimed and know to be yours, you are demonstrating (modeling) the greatest example of love. This must be power you know you possess. When used in a non-dualistic paradigm it is extremely disarming to persons who think they are either superior or inferior to you. I see Jesus doing precisely this in the entire crucifiction event, lovingly creating space wherein the perpetrators and others might perceive the true wrongness of their conduct. If we can believe the story of the centurion it worked for at least one person so confronted. I see the same kind of conduct chosen by Bonhoefer when offered freedom in exchange for recanting. They both seem to focus on the act of loving in a way that allows them to subordinate the suffering.
I don’t think the non-exercise applys only to suffering, but to any inter-personal opportunity to provide aid to another who needs help, consciously or unconsciously.
As I have grown, I have used this approach with surprising results. Of course some folks just don’t get it.
Also I have not faced anything near crucifiction or hanging. I would hope to have gained strength from their strength, and faith from their faith and love from their love.
All the best
These Reflections on Suffering started when I was in the middle of over a month of illness. They nourished me at a heart level when my brain was sludge (due to outpatient pneumonia) and now that I have recovered they continue to provide that as well as conceptual clarity and emotional support. I can read them every week and receive some new light.
Thanks to Rob Perry and Cynthia for beginning this, and today especially to Bill Ryan (Nov. 16) for his statement on Presence, and John Anngeister (Nov. 17), and Susan Williams (Dec. 9) re trust. My current Active Prayer Sentence is from Psalms for Praying, Number 105, “With trust in You, our lives become simple, assurance and peace” which is helping me more fully embody presence and trust.
Finally, to Elizabeth Ramus (Dec. 11) I hope you will continue to join us in being an audience for the statements both profound and simple, and, in the spirit of “Pray as you can, not as you can’t” write as you are moved.
Advent Blessings and Peace,
Carole in Houston
I find it almost overwhelming that people are making such profund statements regarding their doubts or fears or even the comfort of their fruitful discoveries and enlightenment ..
I have doubts, so many doubts about my Faith path but my questions are very simple and I think I am allowing this forum to inhibit me somewhat.
such as do I belong here in this discussion .
I too want to express my gratitude for the dialogue. But isn’t it true that ultimately words fail before the great mystery of human suffering? And that ultimately it is a matter of faith that we are God’s beloved children and that all will be well? Such faith is of course pure gift.
About 12 years ago, I was on my knees in despair begging God for help and guidance when suddenly there came into my mind the words, “You are my beloved child.” I grabbed onto those words and held on for dear life. Shortly thereafter, I encountered Centering Prayer, which over time has transformed my life. Then, this past June, I read two books by Henri Nouwen—”Life of the Beloved” and “The Return of the Prodigal Son.” After finishing the latter, I began to feel very strange—as if I were no longer who I had always imagined myself to be—that is, someone who had never fully belonged to the world and who had, in self-defense, embraced the identity of the “outsider.” Then, in a flash I understood. Not only did I not belong to the world, I also no longer belonged to myself. I belonged totally to God! My first thought was ‘I’m not ready for this!’ But, just as quickly I realized that there was no going back. God had claimed me as His, and I had claimed Him as mine.
The other gift I received was the idea for a sacred drama, which simply dropped into my head one day while I was riding a bus. Initially I put it aside, because I was working on something else, but every single morning thereafter I would awaken with another piece of it in my head. God is persistent that way! And so, I “took dictation” for three months while it was finishing itself. All those who have read it—both clergy and lay—have declared it a profoundly moving encounter with God. I claim no responsibility at all; I am simply grateful to have been the instrument.
I guess what I want to say is that if one is somehow broken open to the absolute reality of God’s love, and then moved to surrender to His will in all things, one will simply cease to ask questions. Trust is not abdication; it is bliss.
How heartening to find this blog and discover that my dialogue with Cynthia was beneficial to others.
And no, Keely, I am a much more unenlightened Robert Perry than the one who teaches on ‘A Course In Miracles’.
Blessings from New Zealand.
Thanks for this dialogue on suffering. I have generally found suffering to be a mechanism for peeling away layers of illusion, an impetus for growth, and a gift that helps me focus consciously on spiritual development. More recently, the often-present pain resulting from a car accident keeps me focused on what is important and what is not. Strange how this works!
Also, the concept of “heartbroken Christians” caught my attention. After keeping my Sufi side hidden for over thirty years it is a delight to know there are others who, whilst still being Christians, keep their faith informed and enhanced by other sources. I don’t think this makes one a bad Christian, just a more enriched one.
This dialogue is a *gift*… my deepest thanks.
Maybe a tangential question, but..
Is this the Robert Perry who teaches on A Course In Miracles? I am currently working to weave together the transformative non-duality perspective of Christianity Cynthia teaches with the transformative non-duality teachings of Jesus through ACIM.
Cynthia, I think your answer to Rob’s question #1 can be strengthened by combining a key principle of contemplative prayer with wisdom from Isaiah 63:9 and Rom 12:21.
The Isaiah text proclaims a God who is (somehow) afflicted with us in all our afflictions. Might not such an astonishing claim be linked to the same mystery in which God’s spirit (as we believe) is the guarantee of contemplative realities?
Meanwhile Paul in Romans exhorts the Christian to the impossible-sounding task of overcoming evil with good. But can there be any other ready source of such ‘good’ in evil times than this same indwelling Spirit of the God who is all-good?
You say you want to avoid imagining that God consciously lays out sufferings as training devices – and you are right – I think that kind of micro-management is only the flip-side of ancient pagan beliefs that by ‘right dancing’ the gods might provide against a billion evil contingencies.
Instead I say, let the same gift of Spirit which makes centering prayer more than a mere dream also give us partnership with a divinity who knows our affliction and is able (if we are willing) to provide the grace to overcome it with good.
Not a protective shield against calamity that is passively hoped for in advance of the evil, nor an after-life assurance looked for only after suffering is done. This is a providence available in the very moment of calamity, when we seem to be literally swamped by the evil.
Where else but in the seeming ‘eternity’ of the present moment can God truly meet and provide for every time-space contingency in a truly Godly way? – with Himself, in his Son, and by his Spirit.
I think surviving victims of catastrophe and terrible loss, if they have witnessed any evil overcome by good, may vouch for this truth.
I am finding life beyond the heartbreak as a Christian. The heartbreak helped the scales fall from the eyes. Suffering is a mystical paradox and as Mrs Tweedie, a Sufi mystic says, all mystical things are paradox.
Hi Barbara. To read Cynthia’s previous blogs please see: https://www.contemplative.org/blog/
I am so thankful for your discussion on suffering with Robert Perry of New Zealand. It’s been a long time (if ever) since I’ve read about suffering as something fundamental and normal in our lives, rather than a naughty way to behave in the face of the goodness of God.
Barbara Huston , Seattle
ps How can I find your previous blogs while waiting for the next one?
I haven’t had contact with you for some time but this theme of suffering seems so universal and so intransigent in its refusal to be nicely tucked in some sort of discursive bundle.
It interests me that some sort of substitution whereby Jesus takes away our need to suffer is not corespondent to life as I experience it . To what extent then was the suffering of Jesus redemptive? Is there something about my suffering which is in some way also redemptive. It sure seems that there is no hiatus from it and in fact is sometimes feels like the gift that keeps on giving. The less I want the more I get and the more it seems like that refining fire separating gold from dross but what is in in the context beyond me. In what way is that egoic attack important in the context of others. Surely this was a primary thrust of Jesus’s suffering. but since there was a once for all element in it is there a vicarious dimension to our sufferings?
I am so grateful to open my email and find “Reflections on Suffering”. How timely for me today. I am printing it off to reflect on and be supported by.
Thank you for sharing this very deep and meaningful exchange. I look forward to more of the same. Your first paragraph, Cynthia, speaks of a group of “heartbroken Christians” of which I am one. Your books, most recently the book on Mary Magdalene, have been so helpful, insightful, inspirational for my spiritual pilgrimage.
Thank you, Cynthia. Suffering comes every day, even every moment, in many forms and some forms seem much more intense and mark us and transform us more completely. I lost my beloved son when I was a young father and watched him suffer terribly in his wasting body from the disease of Leukemia and the onslaughts of toxic chemotherapy. His unspoken question to me, that made me settle down from crazy resistance and rage, was this, “Are you going to go through this with me, or are you going to try to run away from it?” At that moment I began to focus on what I could do, which was to love him and walk with him right to the end, with all my strength. That was something I could do. And it’s something I have learned, i can always do. Thanks for sharing this dialogue.
thankyou so much for taking a grief stricken person into a new realm of divine love and goodness in the middle of the dark places. The dialogue is so helpful and I hope it can continue… I am pursuing the Mary Magdalen stories, how does the possibility of a child change the Christian stories. marcia
I love this. I love the dialogue. I also have so many questions that I am hoping this blog will answer. Thanks for doing this and God bless….