I recall an elderly Siberian Orthodox woman saying something like this to me back in the late 1980’s:
You Americans are so shallow because you do not know how to suffer. You hide from suffering. If you do not suffer you cannot know God. We Russians know suffering well, and it makes us saints or demons, depending on whether we choose to love or not. Under Communism there are many demons because God has been banished and there is no love.
Love! Love, and not compromise with evil, is what transforms tragedy into hope. In fact, love that encounters evil and transforms it is what we call mercy. Mercy is our only hope!
Mercy! Such a beautiful word. Yet how easy it has become to define mercy as a “soft” virtue that resembles indulgent and libertine tolerance more than genuine charity. Genuine charity, in the face of fallen humanity, stoops down as mercy to raise us up toward an authentic fulfillment born of the union of truth and love. Mercy is not inimical to truth, but is its emissary in a world darkened by lies. Mercy, which is by nature fierce and unsparing, spares no sacrifice in seeking out disfigured humanity, transfiguring us into the image of Christ Crucified. Under the weight of tragedy, mercy does not offer compromise but compassion, as the merciful God is willing to suffer all of humanity’s self-degradation in order to restore us to lost innocence.
While an increasingly anti-Christian culture cries out to us, “Assimilate, assimilate!”; and an anti-culture Christian cries out, “Isolate, insulate!”; the Christian lover of culture cries out, “Remain in the middle, between two thieves, and do the truth in mercy! Love the world into life from the Cross with Christ the Merciful!” Mercy is a fulcrum at the heart of tragedy, a hearth that transforms loss into sacrifice, fear into surrender, despair into hope and death into life. Mercy, flowing from the Heart of the slain God, is a raging storm that leaves in its wake what Tolkien called a eucatastrophe, a “good disaster,” i.e. the Resurrection. Mercy keeps us restless until we rest in the Kingdom which is to come. As Chesterton said,
Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them both furious.
Mercy draws a new creation out from the midst of life’s tragic tensions, and gives rise to creation’s supreme work of art: the saint.
Final thoughts on redemptive aching
On Orthodox priest with whom I am friends once mentioned to me how much it grieved him to not be able to offer me Holy Communion when I came to Divine Liturgy. I agreed. He added a thought that I found utterly captivating as an insight into life’s tragic character:
But isn’t it appropriate, Tom, that our estrangement should inflict such pain? It mirrors the real and painful divisions that have broken the Body of Christ for a thousand years. Our embracing this ache of ex-communication, the pain of schism and wound of division and joining it with Christ’s prayer in John 17 is a powerful redemptive offering we can lift up to the Lord. If we remember this is the Eucharist of the Crucified One, it all means something powerful. Only by first embracing the Cross should we dare receive the Eucharist.
For the first time in my life, I suddenly saw the tragic beauty of being denied Communion in a sister Church. I saw that the ache and pain it gave rise to, when offered to God, becomes a prayer like that of Jesus himself at the Last Supper as he longed for the unity of humanity with God in love in the face of the Passion.
Let me leave you with the remarkable witness of Anthony Schefter, who suffers from bipolar and schizoaffective disorder. He lives this embrace.
My Catholic faith gets me through everything. I know that I am a human person who has value, despite consistently underperforming in almost every job I’ve had in the last 13 years, and there have been many. I am not a “mentally-ill person” or a “schizophrenic”; I am a human person who struggles with mental illness. My illness does not define me; my relationship with Jesus does. And Jesus, in our relationship, looks out for me. Those prison guards didn’t shoot me that day, though they were talking about it, as I learned later. My Disability and employment income is meager but Jesus sees that I have everything I need, with my Mom helping manage my finances – and, to Mom’s chagrin, there is always a little left over for pipe tobacco. I am very grateful to our Lord, to his Church, to my family and to the members of my community who have made an independent life possible for me despite the burdens of my illness.
And there is an unlooked-for silver lining to it all. You haven’t lived until you can truly appreciate getting a good night’s sleep, waking up and feeling rested. Because I cannot cope very effectively with work, I live mainly off Disability and have a lot of free time, which I use well. I take seriously the admonition to “pray constantly.” I am always in conversation with God, and I am aware that my trials are helping myself and others. I take nothing for granted, not my Disability check, not my doctor, not my family that has always been there for me. In many ways I am the most fortunate of men.
When this is all over, then there will be a life of blessedness in Heaven. My freedoms were taken away from me in this life—freedom to work, to have a family, to be healthy, to pursue what I most wanted, the Catholic priesthood; even to be myself in many ways—and so I know I will have a glorious and never-ending freedom in the age to come. To anyone who is newly diagnosed with mental illness, or to anyone who cares for someone who is, I have this to say: Never give up. It will get better. I cannot promise you anything but the most difficult of roads, but God has entrusted you with this burden because you can bear it, and bear it well for him; and he has something very good in store for you at the end of a lot of chapters that will make all of this more than worth your while. When this is all over, you and I will be able to say together: we wouldn’t have had it any other way. Have hope, trust Jesus, and never quit.
I will leave you with a beautiful reflection — the merciful love of a mother and son in the midst of tragedy: