by John F. X. Harriott, S.J.
Uses of suffering-3
APOLITICAL prisoner awaiting execution wrote to his fiancée: "I now realise why man at certain times in his life must descend into the depths. First that he may learn to call upon and cry out to God; second, that he may recognise his sins; and third, that he may undergo a change of heart." If it is true that one function of intense and unavoidable suffering is to reveal qualities of character which had previously lain dormant, it is also true that it can strip away illusions and reveal unsuspected flaws. It is all too easy for us, when things are going well, to create an illusory self. We fall victim to a kind of folie de grandeur, and begin to think that we have no need either of God or our fellow-men.
We like to think that we can stand on our own feet, that we can succeed in anything we turn our hand to. This kind of arrogance and self-sufficiency can he terribly destructive. In detective fiction the totally self-possessed, invulnerable, omnicompetent private eye who asks favours of no man may seem an impressive and even romantic figure: in real life he is more likely to be a kind of Frankenstein. If the strengths we possess never reveal themselves or find expression, the world may be a poorer place as a result; but if we trust in strengths we do not in fact possess other people are likely to get badly hurt.
The fact is that a sane humility is an essential part of real human maturity. And usually it comes only through the experience of suffering, the humiliating discqyery that we are not totally self-sufficient. The experience of failure, the discovery that there are some battles we are bound to lose is as necessary for our growth as is the experience of success. It is also important for us to learn that when we make mistakes it is not the end of the world; that neither God's love, nor genuine human love, is lost as a result. The discovery that we are not perfect, and that neither God nor anyone else expects us to be, far from being a humiliation should he a liberation. When we are rid of illusions about ourselves, we can enjoy the relief of not having to pretend, either to God or to men. We can be honest: and to be honest is to be free.
While we suffer, while we are afraid or helpless or bewildered or in pain, our complacency is shattered, and we are opened up to God. When we think we have nothing to learn, when we think we can rely entirely on ourselves, God cannot break through to us. We live within the small, dark, impenetrable world of our own self-sufficiency.
When that is splintered, his light and grace can pour in, not least through the compassion and generosity of others. The Christian has to learn, however painfully, not only how to give, but how to receive.