Pope John Paul II on preparing ourselves for suffering

I’ve been reading Pope John Paul II’s remarkable 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life). One of John Paul II’s chief concerns in this encyclical is the legalisation of euthanasia, against which he is (unsurprisingly) uncompromising in his opposition. However, I don’t want to discuss that issue as such – no, really, I mean it – but rather to look at what the late Pope has to say to those of us who are in the blessed (but fragile) position of knowing that our suffering in life lies in the future rather than the past or the present.

In particular, I wanted to look at what John Paul has to say about our attitude, as a culture, towards suffering – because it’s hard for those of us who have known little real suffering in our lives to presume to discuss this subject, knowing how unqualified we are for it; but the result of that is to leave us unprepared for when suffering arrives, with our mental and spiritual muscles atrophied.

So this is very much a personal reflection, from someone who knows he has had, and is having, a remarkably easy life so far, but who knows how undeveloped, as a consequence, are those areas of understanding, belief and character that will be needed when suffering does arrive – as it must. No doubt to those of you on the other side of that arrival what I say will seem naive at best and grotesque at worst, but please bear with me. And please believe me that when I say “we” in this post, I mean “I”.

The first point to make about “the easy life” before suffering is that it comes to feel like our birthright, like something which it would be an unimaginable affront to have taken from us. We become very conscious of our “quality of life”, conceived in terms of “economic efficiency, inordinate consumerism, physical beauty and pleasure”:

In such a context suffering, an inescapable burden of human existence but also a factor of possible personal growth, is “censored”, rejected as useless, indeed opposed as an evil, always and in every way to be avoided. When it cannot be avoided and the prospect of even some future well-being vanishes, then life appears to have lost all meaning and the temptation grows in man to claim the right to suppress it. (para 23)

This can tempt us to see death – the loss of life itself – as preferable to suffering: the loss of our quality of life:

In a social and cultural context which makes it more difficult to face and accept suffering, the temptation becomes all the greater to resolve the problem of suffering by eliminating it at the root, by hastening death so that it occurs at the moment considered most suitable. [...]

All this is aggravated by a cultural climate which fails to perceive any meaning or value in suffering, but rather considers suffering the epitome of evil, to be eliminated at all costs. (para 15)

Hence the prospect of suffering becomes something we dread, something we find pre-emptively intolerable:

When the prevailing tendency is to value life only to the extent that it brings pleasure and well-being, suffering seems like an unbearable setback, something from which one must be freed at all costs. Death is considered “senseless” if it suddenly interrupts a life still open to a future of new and interesting experiences. But it becomes a “rightful liberation” once life is held to be no longer meaningful because it is filled with pain and inexorably doomed to even greater suffering. (para 64)

But what “meaning or value” can we find in suffering? Supremely, love:

Love also gives meaning to suffering and death; despite the mystery which surrounds them, they can become saving events. (para 81)

For Christians, this experience of love leads us to a greater identification with Christ:

Living to the Lord also means recognizing that suffering, while still an evil and a trial in itself, can always become a source of good. It becomes such if it is experienced for love and with love through sharing, by God’s gracious gift and one’s own personal and free choice, in the suffering of Christ Crucified. (para 67)

However, for all of us, suffering involves a yearning for love and relationship with others, rather than for extinction:

The request which arises from the human heart in the supreme confrontation with suffering and death, especially when faced with the temptation to give up in utter desperation, is above all a request for companionship, sympathy and support in the time of trial. It is a plea for help to keep on hoping when all human hopes fail. (para 67)

So how do we prepare ourselves for this experience? Partly, this is intellectual: simply being aware that suffering is something in which others (whether Christians or otherwise) have found meaning and value, and consequently knowing that this possibility is there for us also.

But more than that, it is a question of how we look at the world now:

[W]e need first of all to foster, in ourselves and in others, a contemplative outlook. … It is the outlook of those who see life in its deeper meaning, who grasp its utter gratuitousness, its beauty and its invitation to freedom and responsibility. It is the outlook of those who do not presume to take possession of reality but instead accept it as a gift. [...] This outlook does not give in to discouragement when confronted by those who are sick, suffering, outcast or at death’s door. Instead, in all these situations it feels challenged to find meaning, and precisely in these circumstances it is open to perceiving in the face of every person a call to encounter, dialogue and solidarity. (para 83)

Above all, this outlook “arises from faith in the God of life, who has created every individual as a ‘wonder’”, “discovering in all things the reflection of the Creator and seeing in every person his living image”. But I don’t think that this steady commitment to the “gratuity and beauty” of life, and to the call to find meaning and solidarity in every circumstance, are the unique possession of Christians or of those of any other religion.

For Christians, though, there are specific aids to developing and maintaining this outlook:

Particularly important in this regard are the Sacraments, the efficacious signs of the presence and saving action of the Lord Jesus in Christian life. The Sacraments make us sharers in divine life, and provide the spiritual strength necessary to experience life, suffering and death in their fullest meaning. (para 84)

Family life, too, is critical to forming this understanding of life, above all through the practical and concrete realities of family relationships across generations:

The parents’ mission as educators also includes teaching and giving their children an example of the true meaning of suffering and death. They will be able to do this if they are sensitive to all kinds of suffering around them and, even more, if they succeed in fostering attitudes of closeness, assistance and sharing towards sick or elderly members of the family. (para 92)

In short, the message is one which is difficult for the head to accept when we live in comfort, and I expect ten times more difficult for the heart to accept when suffering comes to us in all its terror, but one which we need at least to have some grasp of if we are to prepare ourselves at all for its arrival:

[S]uffering and death … are a part of human existence, and it is futile, not to say misleading, to try to hide them or ignore them. On the contrary, people must be helped to understand their profound mystery in all its harsh reality. Even pain and suffering have meaning and value when they are experienced in close connection with love received and given. (para 97)

Faith and hope in the midst of suffering and on the threshold of death: a hard truth of which Pope John Paul II not only wrote eloquently in his 1995 encyclical, but over the following ten years (and especially in his final appearances during March 2005) would became a living demonstration.