“We live in a crazy world,” I told my class near the beginning of a class period.
“One of you asked if I had heard of the truck bombing and I thought I had, but I wasn’t sure if it was from last week or this week. Then I looked it up. Two hundred and seventy people died and it just sounded an awful lot like several other events. We live in a world where it is possible to be uncertain if a tragedy like this is news or something from a couple of weeks ago.”
This particular class period, we were reflecting on the Ignatian theme of finding God in all things. It is easy to find God in bits of beauty–in the sunset, the splendor of fall foliage, or the smile of a newborn. The difficulty is found in seeing the face of God in tragedy–the shooting in Las Vegas, the 9/11 attacks, or the truck bombing in Somalia.
Practice makes perfect, though, right? Or, at least, better?
So our class time was spent in small groups brainstorming a few tragedies and then considering how we can see God in the midst of these situations. I challenged them to go beyond the cliché lines they hear or the standard Theology class answers. Instead, I wanted them to delve into these painful situations and to truly seek the face of God.
This class period had the most somber tone of all my classes and I found myself telling them that I viewed this exercise in a hopeful way. Yes, we were talking about a loved one being diagnosed with cancer, terrorist attacks, natural disasters, and struggles in relationships, but we were doing so because we believe God can be found even there. Perhaps, especially there.
After a group presented how they found God in a particular situation, I opened it up to the entire class. Time after time, I asked, “Anything else? Any other ways you can see God in that situation?” There wasn’t a particular answer I wanted from them, I just wanted them to deeply reflect on all the possible ways God could be found in difficulty. My hope was that if they did this while a bit removed from some situations, they will be able to try to do it in the midst of suffering. I want them to remember that God can be found in all suffering. And I want them to know it in a visceral, heart-wrenching way and not simply a pat answer on a Theology exam.
A few looked near tears and one girl is branded in my memory as she held her hand to her heart for most of the class, eyes a bit red as she tried to remain composed. I was well aware that I was not introducing them to the experience of suffering. Sometimes we think young people don’t know the “real world,” but I made certain to tell them that I knew they had experienced profound suffering. I was simply trying to show them how Jesus was and is present in those very moments of aching.
Christianity does not eliminate suffering in our lives. Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something. It is a bit damning to our faith if people present Christianity as something that makes all our pains disappear. They might accept that for a while, but soon they will encounter a pain that faith did not shield them from and they will wonder why they bought this “religion thing” anyway.
Rather than convince them of rainbows, I told them that following the Lord would not mean they did not suffer or that struggles would not cause them pain. The question is not “Will we suffer?” but rather, “Will we suffer alone or with Someone?” We have Someone who enters into the suffering and shows us a way to make it a sacrificial offering. We have Someone who took this pain on before we did, so that we could have a Companion who already knew what we would suffer. It maybe doesn’t sound as lovely as the no-pain Gospel, but it’s a more accurate Gospel, one that coincides with my authentic experience of reality.
The witness of the saints shows me that suffering will come, but that it can be beautiful and it can be transformative if we allow it. Bl. Chiara Badano, a teenage girl diagnosed with an aggressive bone cancer, accepted her suffering and told Jesus that if He wanted it, she wanted it, too. The Fatima children, Sts. Francisco and Jacinta, chose to go without water for periods of time so they could offer their thirst for the salvation of souls and in reparation for the sins of the world. St. Faustina said that if the angels were capable of jealousy, they would be jealous of two things: that we are able to receive the Eucharist and that we are able to suffer.
In the midst of pain and suffering, the saints are excellent examples of striving to find the face of God. Even if they were unable to specifically find how God could bring good from tragedy, they were confident that in some mysterious way He would. I want my students to develop that same ability. I want to have that ability. In our darkest moments, times that are certain to come, I want to know that the Lord has not abandoned me but, rather, has drawn so close I cannot see Him.
This knowledge of the Lord’s presence will only come with practice. It isn’t developed by ignoring suffering or pretending it doesn’t hurt, but by piercing into the suffering and finding Christ. This is a cause for rejoicing and a reason for great hope.
We live in a crazy world, yes, but our God is with us in the midst of the craziness.