SUFFERING AND THE CROSS
Suffering is inevitable in life. Each religion has to deal with this as a fact. The maximal intensity of suffering is death.
The pre-Christian attitude towards suffering and death sought to surmount them from an outside approach, and to the certain extent it could not ignore them, it would work out a stoic endurance and indifference to suffering, to withdraw from it into oneself and render it in regard to oneself as something external, as far as possible, and not to allow it into one’s inner life. Such was the attitude of the Indian Hindu mystics towards suffering, such was the attitude of the Stoics.
In Christianity, the attitude towards suffering and death is quite basic and definitive.
Suffering is the result of sin. And death likewise is the result of sin. Outside of sin, death would be a transfiguration. Man bears the result of sin, — and by necessity the result of suffering. It is impossible even to say, that God punishes man by suffering, but rather evil itself punishes through some irreversible law of its inner logic. In an epistle of the Apostle Paul this is thus expressed: “Just as God Himself is not tempted by evil, so also He tempts no one”. And together with this: “Blessed is the man, undergoing temptation”.
God does not only not punish by suffering, He even ameliorates the power of suffering by His mercy. And the utmost manifestation of Divine mercy — is the voluntary sacrifice of Christ for the sins of the world. It was in the redemption from them, in the warding off of inevitable and eternal suffering. The death on the Cross of Christ, the Only Sinless One, is a judgement of Christ from the inexorable logic of the world-edifice. He alone was forsaken by the mercy of God, namely so that no one besides Himself should be forsaken amidst murmuring. Subjected to suffering and death, He was a judgement of condemnation of this logic, rendering it unjust in regard to man in general. Suchlike was the history of the victory of Christ over suffering and death.
Suffering was defeated in its eternal projection, but it remains as an experience of human life. Here it not only is not negated, but the Gospel tends even to speak about its cleansing and salvific power (Mt. 7: 13): “Enter ye in by the strait gates, since that wide be the gates and broad the path, leading to ruin, and many thus go. Because narrow be the gate and tight the path, leading to life, and but few do find this”.
“Whoso taketh not up his cross and followeth after Me, is not worthy of Me. He that safe-guardeth his soul wilt lose it, but whoso loseth his soul for My sake doth save it”. And yet further: “Come unto Me, all ye that do toil and be heavy laden, and I wilt grant ye respite” (Mt. 11: 28). “Take up Mine yoke upon ye and learn from Me. For I am meek and humble in heart. And ye will find respite for your souls. For My yoke is good, and My burden light” (Mt. 11: 28-30).
In learning the truth of Christ, a man is not freed from suffering. The meaning of suffering in the life of the Christian is accurately expressed by the Apostle Paul: “And so that I be not exalted by magnitude of revelation, there was given me a sting in the flesh, the angel of Satan did smite me, so that I be not exalted. Thrice I besought the Lord, that it be removed from me. But the Lord said unto me: “Mine grace sufficeth thee. For My power is perfected in infirmity”. And therefore would I rather glory in mine infirmities, so that the virtue of Christ should have its habitation in me. For which cause I find peace in infirmities, in travails, in necessities, in afflictions, in vexations for Christ. For when I am infirm, then I am strong” [2 Cor. 12: 7-10].
I want to cite still another text, defining the proper attitude of the Christian towards suffering: “Then saith Jesus unto them: My soul doth exceedingly sorrow, even unto death; tarry ye here, and keep vigil with Me. And having gone a bit further, He fell down to His face, and prayed saying: My Father! If it be possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not My will, but Thine be done” (Mt. 26: 38-39).
Christianity teaches in suchlike a manner also the transformation of suffering in man, with acceptance, if God allows these sufferings. It is needful to relate to them with with humility and sobriety. It is completely unacceptable to exult in one’s suffering, to be boastfully proud of it. And God teaches not only by sorrow, but also by joy. The sorrowing one therefore has no claim of preference over the rejoicing. “Thou eatest not and dost give thanks to God, while another doth eat and giveth thanks unto God, — and both do well therein”.
The Optina starets-elder Varsonophii said: “Thou keepest the fast, but thy brother doth eat, what gloriest thou in this. Herein is but a doctoring for the soul. Thou however do but fast, that with the help of this treatment to attain to health, for which thine brother hath no need of such doctoring”. Humility and sobriety in the acceptance of suffering and even death — God hath granted, and God hath taken, — this is undoubtedly a characteristic insight with Orthodox ascetics.
The Catholics have a somewhat different attitude towards suffering. There exists there a cult of suffering, — St. Theresa’s to suffer or be put to death. There they count the blows, with which Christ was smitten, they note all the implements of torture, employed by the executioners, and they ponder their refined cruelty.
Angele de Foligno: “I beheld the God-man, when they took Him down from the cross. The blood was thick, fresh, red. It flowed from the open wounds. And in the lacerated flesh I beheld the taunt nerves and bared bones”. The Prayer of St Gertrude “O merciful Lord, mark by Your blood the tracings of Your sacred wounds upon my heart, so that the memory of Your sufferings live in it eternally, and so that I might suffer with You. By the power of Your pierced Heart pierce the heart of Gertrude with the arrows of Your love”. The cult of sacred blood. Angele de Foligno: “I was not asleep. Christ summoned me and allowed me to touch my lips to the wound in His side. I put there my lips and drank blood, and in this still warm blood I perceived, that there was a cleansing”.
From these states of mind arises the thirst for stigmata, a material sharing in the sufferings of Christ.
It is difficult to understand the correlation of these sensory-exultive attitudes towards the sufferings of Christ, towards His blood and flesh, as regards faith in the mystery of the Eucharist.
In the final end the one excludes the other. Either it is a genuine communing of the Body of Christ that is found by Angele de Foligno, who drinks the blood of Christ, — and then for her the Eucharist is unnecessary, or else in this attitude there is a tempting distortion of the sacrificial mystery of Christ, distorting the authentic meaning of the Eucharist.
In any case, the especial emotionality of Catholic Saints would be scarcely conceivable in the Orthodox East.
Monachina Maria (Skobtsova)
© 2002 by translator Fr. S. Janos
Stradanie i krest. Article included in Tom 1 of the 2 volume set entitled:
“Mat’ Maria (Skobtsova): vospominaniya, stat’i, ocherki”, by YMCA Press, Paris, 1992, p. 234-237.
Bibliographic notes indicate that this was a “first-time printing” for this unpublished ocherk-draft, and no date as to when written is indicated.