This is a little bit more personal, and a lot longer of a post. I just had my last Theology 449 class, a seminar on Saint Augustine. About midway through the semester we were asked to right a paper based on the Confessions by Saint Augustine. The prompt was:
"Reflect on some moment of your life and illuminate it in a typically Augustinian “style”—contextualize your chosen moment in terms of your life’s story, in the context of a prayer with some theological lesson and challenge that seems to accompany every one of Augustine’s scenes in the Confessions. In such a paper, what is important is not the “rawness” of your confession (don’t try to shock your reader), but the theological depth and profundity with which you meditate an on otherwise mundane moment of your own narrative."
So I decided to share my reflection, in the hope that this experience and writing will help others deal with the pain and suffering they experience as well as help us realize that we are all on this journey, in joy and in consolation, together. The struggle is one.
If anyone speaks, we should do it as one speaking the very words of God. If anyone serves, we should do it with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised (1 Peter 4:11). God, let these words only turn back praise to you. For whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—let us think about such things (Phil. 4:8) in order to glorify the one who has created us and given us the ability to share our thoughts, words and experiences. I know I cannot capture your wonder or majesty in such simple words, for who can proclaim the mighty acts of the Lord or fully declare his praise? (Psalm 106:2) Yet let these words serve to shed some light on the glory of your presence, on the profoundness of encountering you in the world you have created and to allow it to help us view all things as a way to encounter you and turn back to the goodness of our Creator.
I struggle to pinpoint a time when the light of heaven flashed around me (Acts 9:3) but have found to encounter you in the gentlest of whispers (1 Kings 19:13) , constantly nudging me closer and opening my eyes in the little ways to reveal your workings in my life. In these next few pages, I hope to share a part of myself woven into the story of an encounter with pain and suffering in this world. I was home for the summer from college, enjoying the clear skies and warm sun shining down on me and a few of my friends. We wanted to take advantage of the perfect weather and decided today was the day we were finally going to make it to Fugitive Beach. The park was newly opened and boasted bright teal waters, soft beaches and multiple cliffs for jumping. After getting our gear settled on a nice patch of sand, we finally got to jump into the cool refreshing waters. It had been a perfect day yet all of that was about to change.
Within a few minutes of our initial jumps in the water, a loud horn blared across the park. We were informed that we should exit the water because a little boy, Noah, who was there for his sixth birthday party, had gone missing. The events following were a blur. A mother crying out in agony, the entire group of people at the park searching the property, yelling out “Noah! Noah!” with no response, and watching a few of my friends be called search under water. As we drove off, after having been dismissed once the police had arrived, we quietly discussed possible scenarios, praying and hoping for the boy’s return to his family. When we arrived home, we learned the boy had been found, having drowned a little ways off shore. A wave of emotions and the eerie feeling of grief flooded over me. I could not put into words the feelings I felt, nor could I explain to my family what events had taken place that day once I arrived home. I grieved for the boy, overtaken by the emotion one feels when they have lost someone they knew and loved. That was the strangest part. I did not know this boy, yet I felt the grief of losing an integral person in my life.
Why, God, did I weep for a child I had not met? Did I weep for the loss of a life, the pain of a family, or the horror of a child’s friends learning they lost a companion? If one had looked upon me, they surely would have said, “See how [s]he loved him!” (Jn. 11:35). Reflecting upon this experience, I came to understand two integral parts of the human experience: 1. True solidarity requires us to identify with others to the point of feeling the pain of their suffering and 2. God does not allow bad things to happen, but does turn bad situations into powerful ways of experiencing Christ’s love in our lives.
How many times did I hear about tragic events on the news and try continue on with my day without concern? How many times did I walk past a homeless person on the street and try not to make eye contact? I found my heart ached from the pain of others so strongly at a young age, and I felt alone. Lord, how I wanted to detach from the world around me and focus only on my personal growth and love for you. Yet, could I really truly love you without seeing you in all people, all places, all things? If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing (1 Cor. 13: 1-2). God, I desired to be a clanging symbol, even when I knew that it was love that pulled my heart to encounter you in the brokenness of the world.
Through experiencing the loss of Noah, as well as many other nudges and whispers along the way, you showed me something, Lord. Grieving over the pain of others humanizes us, but as we share in suffering, we also share in joy. Dean Brackley, SJ wrote, “Unless we share the suffering of the world, its beauty cannot heal us and solidarity cannot fill our void.” “The focus is not on the pain, but on being with the one who suffers” (178). Your Only Son taught us this, and you prove your love for us in that while we still were sinners, Christ died for us (Rom. 5:8). Jesus came and shared in our suffering, an act of solidarity and love, to transform hearts and to produce life. When Jesus shared in the suffering of the world, he also brought the most abundant joy it has ever received.
However, even in knowing that pain and sorrow open up room for your love, I still struggled with questions of why- why would God allow an innocent child to die? Why would God allow pain and evil in the world she created? It was in those moments of questioning, that you made me understand how I had erred (Job 6:24). Genesis 1 tells us the story of your creation, a creation with no evil. God, you made creation perfect yet granted us the beautiful gift of free will. This free will allowed humanity to freely choose to love you or to live for itself instead of how you intended us to live, beginning with Adam and Eve. This original sin, as St. Augustine named it, changed the course of your creation and allowed our world to be affected by sin which you had not intended. In many ways, Lord, this explanation did not satiate my desire to understand why the evils of this world exist. However, I know you declare “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways” (Is. 55:8). God you bless those who are faithful, even if those blessings do not come in the ways we always imagine. Has anyone trusted in the lord and been disappointed? (Ben Sira 2:10).
As a child attending a church camp, I heard John 10:10 read aloud for the first time. “The thief comes only to steal and slaughter and destroy; I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly” (Jn. 10:10). In my youthful innocence, I revisited this verse countless times, opening my bible alone and rereading your words. Throughout my childhood, I could not tell you why I kept coming back to it, but you later gave me the grace to understand. A life in Christ is to experience the fullest life possible. It does not say that it will be free of hardships, for your Son has said “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). These crosses, sometimes in the form of pain or evil in the world, allow your presence to be heard, felt, seen, and experienced as powerful transformations in each of our lives. I sometimes wonder if we would yearn for a relationship with you so strongly if we did not experience pain and then seek the grace you so freely give us to overcome it. However, these crosses were not given to us by you to teach us something, but how awesome and powerful you are, O God, that you can take the suffering you did not intend and turn it into something beautiful. We hear your voice resonating within us, saying, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). Lord, you constantly amaze me with how, even in the darkest of times, goodness can be found if one only remembers to look for it through the eyes of your grace.
There is a new world coming in which there will be no more tears or pain because all things will be made new (Rev. 21:5). This hope for the kingdom to come sustains us in times of hardships, but we ask you to help us to remember our purpose you have given us here and now. Let us not pray for you to grant us courage to overcome temptation later, but for you to “stir us so that praising you may bring us joy, because you have made us and drawn us to yourself” to be your hands in the world in this very moment (Conf. 1.1).We place our trust in you, good and gracious God, to guide us as we strive, through the power of your grace, to live how you created us to be. Dean Brackley said, “Yes love is possible. A different world is possible. On the one hand, things are far worse than they seem. On the other, they are far better. Sin abounds- but grace abounds even more” (253). The abundant life you have created us for is possible, if we have the courage to open our hearts to the grace you long to give.
Clap your hands, all you nations; shout to God with cries of joy (Ps. 47:1). You have shown us that in the midst of pain and suffering, we need each other to stay strong. In the midst of pain and suffering, sharing and identifying with those around us is what helps us experience you powerfully in the world you created. In the midst of pain and suffering, “life is beautiful and worth living and meaningful. Despite everything” (Brackley, 177). Jesus Christ showed us that true love of God does not mean that suffering will be nonexistent, but that in the midst of it all, we can still feel the joy of an abundant life in Christ. However, at the end of the day, Lord, “Only You can be asked, only You can be begged, only on your door can we knock. Yes indeed, that is how it is received, how it is found, how the door is opened” (Conf. 13.38.53). We humbly come to you, broken, but in seeking first your kingdom, you direct our hearts into your love and Christ’s perseverance (2 Thess. 3:5). We pray, that in the times in each of our lives when we are called to go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord and are asked, “Why are you here?” (1 Kings 19:13), we may respond, with the confidence your grace has given us, and say, “Only to do justice, to love goodness, and to walk humbly with you, God” (Micah 6:8).
The Confessions by Saint Augustine
A Call to Discernment in Troubled Times by Dean Brackley
The Lifeteen Catholic Youth Bible