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.