Bro Duncan PBGV’s Thoughts on Suffering and Redemption

Bro Duncan PBGV on his pallet of pain
Bro Duncan PBGV on his pallet of pain

With Holy Week just around the corner, I have been thinking about suffering and redemption, especially in the light of my recent experience of acute pancreatitis. In case you don’t know about that, I was suddenly struck down and spent days vomiting and voiding uncontrollably — very hard for a clean boy like me — and even had to endure exile in the Vettery, where I was prodded and poked and had needles stuck into me and all kinds of horrors inflicted on me. I was a limp bundle of misery from nose to tail. But it set me thinking. I’m not sure if my thoughts are orthodox or not, but I offer them all the same.

One of the problems with religious people is that they get all misty-eyed about suffering. ‘It is redemptive,’ they say, as they put on a nice smile and edge away from the afflicted one. ‘It is just our Cross,’ they add, if one dares to demur, ‘a heaven-sent opportunity to exercise patience and show our love for God.’ I don’t know about that. I think nine times out of ten that kind of talk is just pious rot. People probably mean it, but it’s easier to mean it when one is not in agony as I was. There was nothing redemptive about my pancreatitis. It didn’t change the world. It didn’t make me a better dog, just a grumpier one. And I don’t believe God made me ill in order to test my love for him; he already knows I think he is the most wonderful being there is, much more wonderful than They are (but don’t let on I said that). No, I was sick, and I suffered; and I found it very difficult to do anything other than concentrate on my suffering. I think it’s probably the same for most humans most of the time. A few saints have probably managed to offer their sufferings up with a beatific smile, but I don’t know anyone like that. I ‘spect they wouldn’t be good with the messy bits, anyway.

Why do humans always link suffering and redemption and make the mistake of putting themselves at the centre of everything? If only they could think more like dogs! Jesus has to be centre stage; we have to be at his side. It is Jesus’ sufferings that are redemptive, and it is our job to try to keep close to him — go walkies with God, if you’ll allow me to put it like that. That doesn’t mean pretending. In fact, it means the reverse, being as honest as possible. Our little Lenten sacrifices, all the sufferings that come our way in the normal course of things, can unite us with him, but they don’t automatically do so. For a dog, that is all pretty plain. It’s humans who seem to enjoy looking at themselves being ‘good’ — and very often, being good according to their own notions rather than God’s. I give glory to God by being a dog and being the best dog I can. That means that at times I have to exercise self-restraint (not every McDonald’s in the hedgerow is good for doggy tummies, alas), and I have to be prepared to fail. What matters is my intention to follow the Master through thick and thin. He sees my heart and knows what is in it. He can turn everything to my good — and usually does, without my making any fuss about it.

Holy Week can be very demanding. We will all fail often. But if we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, we can’t go wrong. He suffered and died for us on the Cross. He has redeemed us. All we have to do is to trust him.

 

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Constant Failures

How is Lent going? Are you still full of enthusiasm, or are you ruefully beginning to count how many good intentions have fallen by the wayside? Has there been a little fudging on the fasting front, perhaps, or sudden blindness/deafness when confronted by someone in need? And all that extra prayer you promised yourself, where did that go?

Note I said, ‘promised yourself’. The trouble with Lenten resolutions is that very often they are about us. It is an old joke in the monastery that the Lent Bill written by God bears no relation to the one we ourselves write. We were going to do great things for God but, strangely, we find we can’t do the little ones he actually asks. Being patient with X or curbing the withering reply, no, that’s too much to ask. We are tired and hungry and our temper is uncertain. Let’s get on with the Bigger Programme we set ourselves and leave these trifling details to others. Well, NO.

I freely admit that my Lent has, so far, been a constant failure. Everything I set myself to do and be has collapsed around my ankles. I’m not proud of that, I’m certainly not happy about that; but I think it may be the lesson I need to learn — yet again. I am constantly failing, but the emphasis should be on the constant not the failure. What God asks of us is that we try, and go on trying no matter how often we fail. Today’s gospel, Matthew 7. 7–12, is one I find very challenging. To treat others as one would be treated oneself, yes, I can see how that would be not merely a Lenten programme in itself but, as Jesus says, ‘the meaning of the Law and the Prophets’. Pray for me as I do for you, that together we may arrive at the great feast of Easter, still failures in the ordinary sense of the word, no doubt, but definitely constant, standing firm on the rock that is Christ.

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Our Biggest Failure?

Most of us can probably recall an incident or action in our own lives that we think of as our biggest failure (and if we can’t, we either have severe amnesia or psychopathic tendencies). Many of us can pick out the faults and shortcomings of political institutions, big business, religious organizations or what you will with a keenness of insight and analysis that would leave the world breathless with admiration were it able to eavesdrop on our conversation. We cry ‘shame’ and point the finger of blame as we register yet another failure. But I wonder whether we are missing the biggest failure of all? Does our anger and negativity achieve anything, or does it merely add to the tide of anger and negativity that seems to be engulfing the whole world?

We are quick to state what is wrong, usually what is wrong with the other person/side, quick to hate and deride (though, of course, we prefer to think of it as ‘stating the truth boldly’ or ‘telling it how it is’) but we are often very slow to love and forgive. I think our biggest failure, both as individuals and collectively, is precisely this failure to love and forgive. We know how our own lives have been transformed by the love and graciousness of others, but we do not always stop to think how we ourselves could transform the lives of others in our turn.

In the last few years we have seen mounting political tensions across the globe, economic melt-down, violence and other horrors that defy expression. We have seen genocide and beheadings, the destruction of the world’s cultural heritage and its environment, children deprived of education and the common decencies of life. No one is suggesting that an airy-fairy ‘love is all you need’ approach would solve any of this; and yet, love is, in fact, the only possible solution. The problem, as I see it, is that we have a wrong idea of love. It is not necessarily romantic or warm and fuzzy feeling. Sometimes, there is no feeling at all: just a pure-hearted determination to invite God into situations from which he seems to be excluded. It is the strong, clear, sacrificial kind of love that nails us to the Cross and holds us there with Christ. There never could be any failure in that.

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Light in Darkness: O Oriens

Today’s O antiphon is

O Oriens, splendor lucis æternæ, et sol justitiæ: veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
O Morning Star, splendour of eternal light and sun of justice, come and illumine those seated in darkness and the shadow of death.

For those of us in the northern hemisphere, singing that antiphon on the day of the winter solstice seems especially appropriate. The darkness lasts so long, and this year, for those of us who live in Britain, there is the recollection of Lockerbie twenty-five years ago and the moral darkness we associate with violence and murder. Sometimes, when we look inside ourselves, we see darkness there also. Not, I trust, the darkness of violence, but perhaps the darkness of loneliness, failure (as we understand it), fear or despair. That is the darkness that keeps us imprisoned in the shadow of death, the darkness that the Morning Star comes to scatter with his wonderful light.

One of the small joys I experienced as a nun of Stanbrook was watching the dawn light steal over the sanctuary at Vigils. In the winter months we began and ended in inky blackness, but gradually, as the weeks wore on, the light began to pierce the gloom until finally, in summer, the great East window glittered and shone long before we went into choir. A similar rhythm can mark our sense of interior darkness. There are times when we think it will never end. We must hold firm and trust that it will lift. The Sun of Justice will rise with healing in his wings, as the prophet says, and they will be spread over us, too.

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