Throughout history, people have puzzled over fundamental questions: Why was I born? What happens after I die? Does life have meaning? In 2006, Every Day Catholic will address these questions and explore the fundamental beliefs of the Catholic faith.

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Why Do We Suffer?
By Michael D. Guinan, O.F.M.

Earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis. Wars, accidents, sickness and death. Natural disasters and those produced by human error or malice bring with them so much suffering. Some of the earliest literature known in history, from Egypt and Mesopotamia, attests that even then people called out, “Why?” In the lament psalms of the Bible, the psalmist, too, cries out, “Why, Lord?” (10:1). Our voices join an age-old chorus!

The problem of suffering is a difficult one. How can we understand the justice and goodness of God in the face of so much broken human experience? This struggle is known in theology as “theodicy” (Greek, theos = God, dike = just: Is God just?).

Perhaps the best example in the Bible of such a struggle is found in the Book of Job. Job suffers the loss of possessions and family, and is afflicted with a terrible disease. Three friends hear of his plight and come to console him. After Job’s cry of pain (Ch. 3), the discussion begins.

Why is Job suffering? One easy answer that surfaces right away is that Job deserves it, that he is suffering because of his sins (see 4:7-19; 11:4-6). When Job rejects this explanation, his friends counter, in effect, “Don’t give us that! All humans are rotten sinners!” For them, there is no such thing as an innocent sufferer. All suffering is somehow a punishment for sin. Sad to say, Job’s friends have vocal descendants down to our present day. While it is true that our sinful actions can and do have consequences, as an all-purpose explanation, this one is far too simplistic.


Problem or Mystery?

Even within the Book of Job, the situation is more complicated. We, the readers, know right from the start that the friends are wrong here. Job is righteous, and his suffering is allowed by God in order to test his virtue (Ch. 1-2). Other answers also appear in the book. Like any good ancient Near Eastern father, God disciplines us through suffering to make us better (5:17-18; 36:15; see also Proverbs 3:11-12). Or, suffering is mysterious, and who are we to understand God’s ways? (11:7-10; 15:8-9).

Although these responses may give some temporary relief, ultimately they are not terribly satisfactory as answers to the meaning of suffering. While we do seek to understand, perhaps this is not the best way to approach the problem. In fact, maybe the problem with suffering is that ultimately it is not really a “problem” at all. It is, rather, a mystery.

What is the difference? A problem is something “out there.” We can see all the pieces; we can survey all its dimensions. The question is, how do we put it together? How do we “solve” it? Problems are solved on the intellectual level. A mystery, on the other hand, is quite different. It is a situation in which I, as a unique human being, am so immersed, am so surrounded, that I can never get far enough away to see it all “out there.” Love is a mystery; so is death. And so is suffering.

Mysteries involve us on the deepest personal level of our relationships with ourselves, with others, with the natural world and with God. To be human is to be enmeshed in these relationships. When they grow into greater wholeness (through love) or when they come apart (through suffering), we are in the presence of mystery. We will never “solve” the meaning of suffering any more than we will “solve” the meaning of love.

‘I Am With You ’

Something more important remains to be said. At the heart of our Christian faith is the affirmation that in and through the Incarnation, Jesus has entered into these relationships as well. Jesus shared fully in our human condition. And when he faced his suffering and death, he too called out, “Why?” His final words from the cross were, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34; Matt 27:46; citing the opening verse of Psalm 22). We know that God did not forsake Jesus but raised him up in and by the Spirit of love to everlasting resurrection-life.

Nowhere in Scripture do we read, “Have faith in me, and you will understand all things, including [or, especially] suffering!” But we do read, whatever the suffering, “Do not be afraid, for I am with you.” We do not suffer alone. Together, we will survive all suffering, even death itself!

Father Michael D. Guinan, O.F.M., is a professor of Old Testament, Semitic Languages and Biblical Spirituality at the Franciscan School of Theology in Berkeley, California.

Next: Can the Church Change?

Questions for Reflection:

• Talk about a time when you have experienced suffering. What got you through it?

• What do you do when you feel isolated or dejected by life’s hardships? How does your faith play a part in your action?

God Is With Us
By Judith Dunlap

When I think about the question of suffering, two experiences come to mind. The first happened many years ago. The seven-year-old daughter of a friend became terribly ill. She suffered for days and finally died. I couldn’t believe the comments of grieving loved ones outside her hospital room: “God has his reasons.” “It’s part of his plan.” “God is just testing us.” Who was this God they were talking about?

God is a loving parent. Well, I was a parent, too, and I could not imagine any reason I would cause a child of mine to suffer that much. And what kind of a parent uses the suffering of his own little girl to test some grown-ups? Don’t we say, and believe, that God loves us even more than we love our own children?

My hospital experience was reinforced a few months later at a weekend retreat for women. One night I stayed up late, talking to a friend about saying yes to God. Her great fear was that once she said yes, terrible things might happen to her. “Weren’t God’s friends always getting some tragic illness or being martyred?” she asked. It took me a while to figure out what to say to my friend, but the answer I gave her has shaped my understanding of suffering ever since.

Suffering happens. It is part of life. No one, not the richest person or poorest, not saint or sinner, can get through life without suffering. God doesn’t cause it; God doesn’t plan it. God is just there to see us through it. When we say yes to God, God’s life becomes our life. And we open ourselves to the peace, courage and perseverance that God’s love offers. It can be so much easier to endure suffering when we know that our good and loving God is with us, as close as the next breath we take in.

For Family Response:

Ask family members to talk about the most difficult thing that happened this week. Pray together to let go of any uncomfortable emotions that are left over. Ask them to close their eyes and slowly breathe in and out. Imagine your breath is the Holy Spirit.

Media Watch
The Ant Bully
By Frank Frost

It’s difficult to miss the intended messages of the animated movie The Ant Bully, even if you’re a young child. These include: respect others, work for the common good, be the best you can be. And of course, neither a “bullier” nor a “bullied” be.

A star-studded voice cast including Julia Roberts, Nicolas Cage, Paul Giamatti, Ricardo Montalban, Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep, along with fine animation, can’t totally rescue a largely predictable moral tale. But the movie does have its moments of fun, especially the climactic “battle scene” near the end.

Lucas (voiced by Zach Tyler Eisen) is a small lad who hates it when his mother calls him “Peanut.” He is being victimized by a local bully, who intimidates simply because he can. “I’m big and you’re small,” he sneers. Lucas turns his consequent anger and frustration on an anthill, dousing it with his water gun, unaware that he is creating havoc in another universe.

Using a venerable conceit with a pedigree running from Gulliver’s Travels to The Incredible Shrinking Man, the ant kingdom manages to fight back. Slipping a potion in the ear of a sleeping Lucas, they shrink him down to their own size. Or smaller—he’s small even by ant standards. He is saved from death by the Ant Queen (Meryl Streep), who sentences him to learn what it means to be an ant.

Now Lucas is forced to see the world through other eyes. “How was I supposed to know that ants had feelings or families?” he exclaims in defense of his actions. Coached by a caring and idealistic ant, Hova (Julie Roberts), he must learn the lessons of the colony—be willing to work hard, as part of a team, putting the team ahead of his own interests. He must discover his “inner ant.”

Interest in his own preservation soon leads Lucas to become the colony’s champion in a mighty battle against a devilish human exterminator from Beals-a-Bug Pest Control (Paul Giamatti). This is an exterminator who is not only dangerous to the colony. He’s also a suitably gross buffoon the audience can root against.

In the course of his experiences, Lucas is transformed. He learns the ultimate lesson that “an ant will sacrifice himself for his friends.” On the eve of the great battle, Lucas and his one-time fiercest enemy ant, Zoc (Nicholas Cage), recline on the top of a leaf under the stars, looking out over the vast human city lights in the distance, and reflect at length.

Zoc dreams of a time when “all brothers are working together for a better colony.” Lucas contrasts this to his world where it’s “every man for himself.” “So primitive,” says Zoc, echoing the complaint of the ant Head of Council (Ricardo Montalban), “To attack without provocation, without reason, just because they can—it’s barbaric.”

If you like your movie morals loud and clear, this one’s for you.

For Media Watch:

What values do you find in this film?

By Judy Ball

St. Mother Theodore Guérin (1798-1856)

Trust in God’s providence marked the life of Mother Theodore Guérin, though she was tested again and again—beginning with the murder of her father when she was 15 as well as the early deaths of two young siblings.

Despite her desire to enter religious life at age 20, she needed to wait until her mother was ready to let her daughter go. Meanwhile, she used the time to grow closer to God through prayer. She entered the Sisters of Providence of Ruillé, France, and spent several years teaching.

Though in fragile health, she led a group of five sisters to America in 1840. The bishop of Vincennes, Indiana, had requested women religious to help in his growing diocese. Upon arriving they confronted a series of challenges ranging from fire to crop failures to prejudice. The sisters lived in a cabin that got so cold in winter that their bread froze. But Mother Theodore maintained the goodness, kindness and devotion for which she was known all her life.

Trusting in God’s providence, she faced her daunting tasks. Within a year the sisters opened Indiana’s first boarding school for girls (now Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College). In time, Mother Theodore founded 10 other schools in Indiana.

She died after 20 years of labor and love in her adopted homeland and was beatified in 1998. Today, the congregation she founded includes 465 women serving in the U.S., Taiwan and China. On October 15, Sisters of Providence from the U.S. and all around the globe—as well as friends, alumnae and spiritual companions—will celebrate her life in Rome when Pope Benedict XVI canonizes her. St. Mother Theodore Guérin’s feast day is October 3.

Phil McCord

Could it have been Mother Theodore Guérin who moved Phil McCord to stop and say a prayer in the Church of the Immaculate Conception in 2000?

He was returning from a meeting at the Sisters of Providence motherhouse in Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana, and heard organ music coming from the church where Mother Theodore is buried. The director of facilities management at the motherhouse complex slipped inside the door for a few minutes of quiet prayer.

He was burdened about his approaching eye surgery, potentially risky enough that he could lose his vision in one eye, he told Every Day Catholic. Once inside the church, his thoughts turned to Mother Theodore. “I don’t ask for a lot,” he remembers saying to her. “I try to handle things, but I’m not going to get through this by myself. Can you give me some peace with this? If you have any influence...”

Within a day, his right eye began improving. The cornea transplant was cancelled. After inpatient laser surgery, he had 20/20 vision in the eye. The pain was gone, too.

“That’s a miracle!” a co-worker told Phil on hearing the news. When Providence Sister Marie Kevin Tighe heard it, she immediately phoned him. As vice postulator and promoter of Mother Theodore’s cause for sainthood, she wanted to know every detail. Following a lengthy investigation, Rome judged the miracle to be authentic.

“I’m humbled by it all,” said Phil. “This is not about me. It’s all about God’s love and Mother Theodore’s intervention and caring. There’s not a day goes by that I don’t send up a thank you.” He’ll be sending up a huge one in October, when he attends her canonization in Rome.

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