John Chapman on suffering

I’ve discussed this letter before, but think it worth quoting at length: John Chapman’s letter to a Benedictine nun, on the subject of how to regard suffering in the Christian life.

What I particularly like about this is how Abbot Chapman inverts our usual view of things, arguing that to experience suffering as suffering, as something intolerable, is actually a higher path than rising serenely above it.

The quote starts after the fold (I’ve not blockquoted it, so as to ensure it retains the formatting):

Do not think that the right way to bear a trial—or many trials together—is to love God so much that you can bear the trial with joy; so that it ceases to be a trial. On the contrary, it is obvious that the essence of a suffering of any kind is that we suffer from it! We hate it. We long to be rid of it, or even we feel life impossible, or even the goodness of God incredible, so long as it lasts.

1. If we can say, quite calmly and with the whole of our self, that we are glad of the suffering, then (of course) it has ceased to be a suffering; we have arrived at a sort of superhuman courage and firmness, which makes us despise it, and it is of no more importance. This is an excellent human, physical perfection; we should aim at it, no doubt. But it would be ridiculous to expect to attain it. In all serious cases it is impossible. It is desirable, just as good health is desirable,—but not necessarily attainable.

2. Besides this human (or superhuman) and physical contempt of suffering, which we ought to aim at but cannot expect to get, there is a higher and better method. It is, to recognise that we are meant to suffer, and that it is our nature to resent the suffering and to try to get rid of it, and that this worry and anxiety about it is the chief part of the suffering.

Our Lord has taught us this very plainly by His example. In the Agony, He did not say :— “I suffer, and I rejoice; I only want to suffer more” (as Saints have sometimes been inspired by grace to say). But He prayed that the Chalice might be taken away,—to show that the feeling of hating suffering, and feeling it unbearable, is a part of perfection for us, as it is a part of our weakness of nature. We have a right and a duty, when we feel this, to tell God what we feel, and ask Him to remove the pain; but we must add, as our Lord added:— “Not my Will but Thine”.

Consequently it is not against perfection that we should feel suffering to be intolerable, and tell God it is intolerable; only we must add with the highest part of our soul that we trust in God, and are willing to suffer as long as He chooses, and that we know He will give us the necessary grace.

Now this ‘apex’ of the will, or ‘centre of the soul’, or ‘base of the soul’ (‘apex’ or ‘fine pointe‘ in St. Francis de Sales,—base, ‘fundus‘ in Blosius,—’centre’ in many writers,—but all mean the same thing) is not perceptible, or scarcely perceptible.

When mental suffering clouds our soul, it seems as though we were not making any effort to unite ourselves with God. That is the culmination of the trouble. We feel utterly floored, cowards, incapable of prayer; and we want to say:—”My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?”

This again is obviously a perfection. Only if we did not feel it to be almost like despair (because the giving ourselves to God is not perceptible) it would not happen.

It is better for us, and more perfect, to suffer, feeling our weakness and helplessness, bearing up somehow, half-heartedly, feebly, than to suffer courageously and magnanimously! We have to aim at this last, but not to expect it.

We aim at it, and quite rightly:—

1. By trusting in God with the whole of our self, as far as we can; usually we can’t! But so long as the apex of the soul sticks to God, it really does not matter how little we feel that we trust.

2. By despising the suffering, whenever we can: trying to forget it, to throw ourselves into whatever God sets before us to do; by living for others, not for self; by remembering that so many have much worse to suffer, without so much help from God.

But we need not expect to be successful in these efforts! We have only to repeat that we want God’s Will.


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