Back in the late 1980’s, I attended an Orthodox church for Sunday liturgy fairly consistently. The congregation was composed of a wide variety of ethnic groups, including Arabs, Greeks, Georgians, Serbs and Russians. The vast majority were first or second generation immigrants from the Soviet Union, and many of these had fled religious persecution. The priest was second generation Russian. Being Roman Catholic, it was for me like being in another world each week I was there, both in terms of the lavish Eastern liturgy and the ethnic-cultural distance between me and them. And for all that I was greatly enriched.
One thing that came up frequently in conversation was the character of Christian faith in countries where belief was tagged with a high cost. People, especially the older women, would make me vividly aware of how different their view of life was because of all they and their families had to endure back in the U.S.S.R. I especially remember one conversation I had with an elderly Siberian woman. That day there was a visiting priest who was newly ordained, and he had preached a fiery homily on the upcoming Great Week (their Holy Week). I, for one, thought it was brilliant. After the liturgy in the social hall, I was speaking with this matushka and asked her if she liked his preaching. She said, with steely eyes looking straight into mine:
It was pretty. Yes. But he does not know of what he speaks. He has not yet suffered. You Americans, no offense, but you do not know how to suffer. You seem to see pain as something to run from. That makes you shallow. Pain is unavoidable and depth of soul requires suffering. It digs down, no? We Russians, we know suffering. And it makes of us both angels and demons, one or the other depending whether you have love or not. And we have many demons in Russia now because there is little love with the Communists.
Although at the time I found her words off-putting, over the years I see more and more the radical truth of what she said. I myself stood and stand indicted. I later shared her words with the Orthodox pastor at this parish and he said he considered this woman to be a staritsa (wise elder) and a saint. He said, “If you want to learn how to pray, ask her. She is prayer. I sought her out when I first arrived here, on the advice of the deacon, and she told me: ‘Father, when you can make your pain a prayer, when you learn to groan with the Spirit, to pray in agony with Jesus, you know pure prayer. Everything is to become prayer, but pain speaks to God most eloquently. Like arrow prayers. Don’t pray always your pain away. Pray out of your pain. Through your pain. Don’t fear it.” He then shared with me the quote from the Russian saint deeply loved in the Orthodox world, Silouan the Athonite: “Keep thy mind in Hell and despair not.”
Fr. Walter J. Ciszek was a Jesuit priest who suffered unspeakable hardships during the 23 years he endured forced hard labor, psychological torture and abuse in Russian prison camps. His autobiographical book, He Leadeth Me, is a stunning spiritual treasury that I recommend to all who are trying to relate faith and suffering. I will leave you with a few of his words as a concluding meditation in keeping with the treasury of Russian spiritual wisdom:
Although, as God, he needed no glorification, as man, he did bring about the glorification of his human body through his final suffering. He rose because He died; he was glorified because he suffered. He could have had the glory and the peace and the unending joy in his body at any time, because he was God and he had a right to it. But the fact remains that he had none of these things until after he suffered. We have many, many examples from the life of Christ, but there is none greater than his suffering. He taught you and me how to live with it. If he cried, cannot we? If he showed hurt in his life, cannot we? If he begged to be relieved, cannot we? If he even complained to God, will God punish us if, in the midst of our hurt or pain, we complain to him, Our Father? No.
If we can surrender to such a prayer in truth, we can dare pray Psalm 22 with the Jews: