Fyodor Dostoyevksy is one of my favorite novelists. In his final novel, “The Brothers Karamazov,” the sage monk Father Zossima, in response to the question, “What is hell?” responds, “I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.”The problem of pain and suffering is at the heart of the human condition, and any attempt to make sense of the world, and of God, must come face to face with this problem in order to remain grounded in the reality of human experience. Each person who reads these words has been touched by human suffering, personally and in the lives of others. Each has, no doubt, wrestled with the deeper questioning suffering provokes, with questions that often begin with the word, “Why?”
We “classify” our suffering as emotional or physical, economic or relational, spiritual or mental, and we “measure” the intensity of our suffering, or that of others, with words like great/little, extreme/ minimal, unbearable/tolerable. And we compare our sufferings accordingly. But the truth is that every human being’s experience of suffering, though certainly a shared human experience, is absolutely personal and unique. As such, it cannot be reduced to a measurement or a classification. Rather, human suffering is a mystery that transcends easy labels or categories, refuses to be reduced to simple comparisons, and calls on the deeper language of philosophy or faith to articulate its fuller meaning.
The invaluable role of mercy
Both Jewish and Christian traditions offer resources of language, story, ritual and symbol that offer believers a rich vocabulary and grammar for expressing the meaning of suffering and the role it plays in human life. At the heart of that vocabulary and grammar is the word and commandment of “mercy.” Mercy refers to divine love and compassion encountering and overcoming evil and the effects of evil. As such, mercy implies a divinely commissioned ministry of healing and restoration entrusted to the human race in the face of suffering and pain. This commissioning is reflected in the words of the Prophet Isaiah that Jesus quotes at the beginning of his own public ministry: “…to bring good news to the afflicted, to bind up the brokenhearted; to proclaim liberty to the captives, release to the prisoners.”
We might say the “good news” of such mercy is hope – hope for God’s healing, restoration, comfort and for the compassion-in-action of my godlike neighbor who, confronted by my suffering, walks with me by bringing me mercy.
Culture of hope, culture of mercy
When I worked at the Gift of Peace, Mother Teresa’s home for persons with AIDS in Washington, D.C., I encountered more suffering there then I ever had before in my life. What immediately stood out when I began volunteering was the culture of hope that permeated every facet of life. This hope, I can confidently assert, flowed from an equally palpable culture of mercy among the sisters who treated the suffering of others as a vocation to love, to care, to comfort. Even if the residents did not share the sisters’ Christian belief in the redemptive nature of suffering, they believed that their own suffering was not something to be shunned or feared, but rather was a cry to be heeded by a response of merciful love.
Returning to Dostoyevsky. Though I don’t think he ever read the novel, one of the residents seemed to echo Dostoyevsky when he once said to me, “Now I know that the worst suffering in the world isn’t physical pain, but it’s to not be loved. Here I’m loved. The rest I can deal with.”
Tom Neal, PhD is Academic Dean and professor of Spiritual Theology at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans, Louisiana and author of the popular blog Neal Obstat.