Sunday, 15 February 2015


Intellectually it is impossible to explain suffering. Intellectually it is impossible to see a meaning for suffering.

To find meaning in suffering we must listen to music, stare at a work of art, stand beside the raging ocean in winter, or cower under a tree in a massive lightening storm. - or see the world with non worldly eyes.

There are only certain people we can talk to about suffering:

- A dying cancer patient who is not afraid and is not asking: "Why me"?

- A priest who offered his life in exchange for another's man's life in Cell 18 in Auschwitz.

Maximilian Kolbe - Auschwitz

- A mother who wants to die in order that the baby in her womb might live.

There people are the only people who can really speak to us about finding meaning in suffering. 

Peter Abelard was getting at something in the 12th century:

Peter Abelard


Peter Abelard lived in the twelfth century, and is considered one of the greatest thinkers of his time. Abelard produced great work as a teacher, a church historian, and a theologian. Among his most well known articles is a list of 158 philosophical and theological questions, to which he posited arguments along the lines of yes, or no.  So for example one question is:

  1. Must human faith be completed by reason, or not?
Abelard’s teachings were controversial. The Church challenged him because Abelard used reason to reconcile the inconsistencies of doctrine. 

Here is one of his stories, which portrays his view of what God is doing in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. 

"From somewhere near them in the woods a cry rose, a thin cry, of such intolerable anguish that Abelard turned dizzy on his feet, and caught at the wall of the huts. 'It's a child' voice,' he said.

Thibault had gone outside. The Cry came again. 'A rabbit,' said Thibault. He listened. 'It'll be in a trap. Hugh told me he was putting them down.'

'O God,' Abelard muttered. 'Let it die quickly.'

But the cry came yet again. He plunged through a thicket of hornbeam. 'Watch out,' said Thibault, thrusting past him. 'The trap might take the hand off you.'

The rabbit stopped shrieking when the stooped over it, either from exhaustion, or in some last extremity of fear. Thibault held the teeth of the trap apart, and Abelard gathered up the little creature in his hands. It lay for a moment breathing quickly, then in some blind recognition of the kindness that had met it at the last, the small head thrust and nestled against his arm, and it died.

It was that last confiding thrust that broke Abelard's heart. He looked down at the little draggled body, his mouth shaking. 'Thibault,' he said, 'do you think there is a God at all? Whatever has come to me, I earned it. But what did this one do?'

Thibault nodded.
'I know,' he said, "Only, I think God is in it too.'

Abelard look sharply.
'In it? Do you mean that it makes him suffer, the way it does us?'

Thibault nodded.
'Then why doesn't he stop it?'

'I don't know,' said Thibault. 'Unless it's like the prodigal son. I suppose the father could have kept him at home against his will. But what would have been the use? All this,' he stroked the limp body, 'is because of us. But all the time God suffers. More than we do.'

Abelard looked at him, perplexed. 'Thibault, do you mean Calvary?'

Thibault shook his head. 'That was only a piece of it - the piece that we say- in time. Like that.' He pointed to a fallen tree beside them, sawn through the middle. 'That dark ring there, it goes up and down the whole length of the tree. But you only see it where it is cut across. That is what Christ's life was; the bit of God that we saw. And we think God is like that, because he was like that, kind and forgiving sins and healing people. We think God is like that for ever, because it happened once, with Christ. But not the pain. Not the agony at the last. We think that stopped.'

Abelard looked at him, the blunt nose and the wide mouth, the honest troubled eyes. He could have knelt before him.

'Then, Thibault,' he said slowly, 'you think that all of this,' he looked down at the little quiet body in his arms, 'all the pain of the world, was Christ's cross?'

'God's cross,' said Thibault, 'And it goes on !


  1. Do you recall Canon Sidney McKeown if I am splling his name correctly. I believe he was in Summerhill College back in the day. He recorded Suffer little children. This hymn usually surfaced at Holy Hours when I was growing up and everyone belted it out with gusto. Suffering is a necessary consequence of human free will. Never an end in itself or a way of gaining brownie points with God. Suffering is a red trafic light inviting in the healing grace of Gods Goodnes which I hope we can cooperate with in bringing relief to the situations in which we find ourselves. Sean

  2. I am forever amazed at the mental gymnastics of deists massaging the realities of human existence, particularly suffering, into a god centered belief framework.

    According to their beliefs, the innocent child suffers because some ancestor, whether neanderthal, homo sapiens, erectus or ergaster ate an apple, allegorical or otherwise, in some way contrary to the creator's instructions. And of course the tsunami disaster and ebola deaths etc are all down to that apple eating ancestor too!
    So for our ancestor's misdeed, the supposedly benovelent god washes his hands of we humans leaving us to endure the cleansing pains of suffering. It's good for you we were continually told! And if you don't behave you'll get an eternal dose of suffering in hell. Or maybe if you're not too bad, you'll get spruced up by a bit more suffering in purgatory before joining the saved club in heaven.
    Frankly, in relation to explaining suffering away, it makes me cross when we're fed this absolute load of rubbish, or all the other variations on the same theme.
    MourneMan Michael

    1. Dear MMM,

      Thank you for your comment and the thought, integrity and passion behind it.

      One of the issues that has made thinking men question over all the years and centuries is the theme of suffering and its meaning - on indeed lack of meaning.

      If you believe in God you have to question how suffering ang God can co exist.

      Of course if you do not believe in God you will have to seek your answers elsewhere - or have no answers at all.

      I have been trying to be a Christian for decades and I have tried to be a THINKING and CRITICAL CHRISTIAN for some decades also.

      I think a lot about the issue of suffering in the context of my own life - but more so in the context of the lives of the many I minister to as I try to be a caring and compassionate pastor. I could opt out of the "hard questions" by telling people that I have no answers. But I prefer to struggle with trying to find an answer and a meaning.

      I do NOT believe in what they call ORIGINAL SIN.

      But I am forced to think about the conflict that exists between the thoughts of a "perfect" world - a world where there is no suffering - and the very "imperfect" world we inhabit where there is so much suffering.

      And as a "desist" I feel challenged to make some meaning of all of this.

      I do know that the sufferings I have endured in my own life have produced a number of fruits:

      1. They have tempered my arrogance.

      2. They have made me "compassionate" and understanding to others.

      3. They have made me stronger internally.

      4. And strangely enough they have deepened my faith in God.

      However - like all aspects of my faith - I do not have the least desire to impose my beliefs on anyone else.

      I sat last Thursday evening in a Belfast hospital with a relatively young woman who is soon to die of cancer. I listened. She spoke of her sadness about leaving her family. She spoke of her hope that she would not suffer too much. She spoke of her absolute belief in meeting God and entering a paradise.

      As I say I listened - and loved. I felt no need to offer her answers from either theology or science.

      But I cam away feeling that I had spent time with someone special.


  3. He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.

    Friedrich Nietzsche