I have a pair of spectacles from my deceased brother that remain powerful to me long after his death. His death and the premature death of others close to me have challenged my faith in God as a pre-adolescent well into adulthood. Unexpected, unfair, violent, and premature deaths jolt our very core of an all-powerful God. I have been at times defenseless to cope with senseless loss and tragedy. I certainly did not accept these adversities with a Christian attitude of God’s will be done – much less embrace my pain and suffering with the courage and dignity of carrying my Cross.
Dietrich Von Hildebrand He knew Sorrow by the millions and evil by its first name (Adolf). There were millions of glasses on the ground.
There is no doubt that his theology and philosophy was influenced and perhaps formed his deep-seated faith and Catholic writings. Dietrich is our author of Transformation in Christ and he fought Hitler with his pen and his mind. Here is a quote on one of his books:
“In My Battle Against Hitler, covering the years from 1921 to 1938, von Hildebrand tells of the scorn and ridicule he endured for sounding the alarm when many still viewed Hitler as a positive and inevitable force. He expresses the sorrow of having to leave behind his home, friends, and family in Germany to conduct his fight against the Nazis from Austria. He recounts how he defiantly challenged Nazism in the public square, prompting the German ambassador in Vienna to describe him to Hitler as “the architect of the intellectual resistance in Austria.” And in the midst of all the danger he faced, he conveys his unwavering trust in God, even during his harrowing escape from escape from Vienna and his desperate flight across Europe, with the Nazis always just one step behind.[i]
This is a man who knew suffering, injustice, and sorrow. It is not surprising that he is able to deftly handle its mystery of Holy Sorrow in Chapter 17 of Transformation in Christ. It is also not surprising that this chapter is near the end of this work leaving only two remaining chapters. Human suffering and sorrow is as real today as it was in Nazi Germany. It is not orderly, it is not fair, and it exceeds the ability of the written language to capture horrors past and present:
You don’t need to go back to the Holocaust to see grief, starvation, and genocide. We are confronted with 3 billion people today living on less than $2.50 cents a day, 15 countries war-torn countries have United Nations inspectors and others ranking and tallying fatalities,[ii] and the refugee crisis created by these conditions is wreaking havoc on the rest of the world. Nations are turning back the clock on humanitarian aid and intervention. Walls are being built. Refugees are being depicted as animals and monsters unsafe for any nation to help.
And this does not even address our personal suffering from losses of those we love, material devastation, declining health, serious physical, psychological, and soulful injury at the hands of another, and perceived or real alienation from God.
Dietrich takes on the issue of suffering in 23 brief pages. Here are some highlights for consideration:
Irreconcilable Opposites: Our human metaphysical situation calls on us to be able to hold irreconcilable opposite forces at the same time like having patience combined with zeal for social justice.
Tension of becoming: We are at once actualized and still developing holiness, continually hopefully being drawn closer to Holiness through joy and suffering.
Act and potency (or potential): This tension is always present between what we are today and what our potential is to become until we humanly no more.
Valley of Tears: Despite the gift of redemption given to us by Jesus Christ we are still “Wanders in the valley of tears” with all its suffering, diseases, and calamities.
Running: Deniers of evil, escapism in materialist gains, hopeless optimist or hopeless pessimist, addictions are forms of evading the reality of our metaphysical situation, the reality of suffering, and the answer to handling sorrows with dignity and strength and celebrating life joyfully.
Duality: The duality joy evil and good, sorrow and joy, and all the deviations of life’s situations we continue to challenge us as long as we remain mortal.
Redemption: Despite redemption these dualities still exist. And Jesus’s sacrifice for us redeems our sins today and tomorrow as it did two thousand years ago.
Overlook hope: We can overlook hope in God’s omnipotence, omnipresence, and mercy in the midst of our greatest suffering. We know only our human pain and loss, not the greater picture of a spiritual design beyond our capacity to grasp any good that can come from our misfortunes.
React inadequately: When confronted with duality of life we are often ill-prepared to confront evil, bear loss and mourning, or on the positive side appropriately use graces given to us (wealth, intellect, power, artistic talents, etc.) for the advancement of God’s will. We collapse into our ego-centric vision, detached from our spiritual core, and are set adrift on a raft of misery or self-inflated sense of being the master of our own destiny. If we were spiritually grounded and truly living in proximity to our God, neither great success nor great tragedy would take us away from our faith.
Mourning: The greatest thief of our internal harmony. We are a death-defying culture despite it being rampant around us from heroin use, drunk driving, cancer, heart disease, natural disasters, war, and countless other means. As of 2014 the actuaries have my life expectancy as 2040. Anything short of 2040 upset me greatly. But life and death is not an actuary table. I have only this moment. My two brothers died way before their life expectancy charts as did my Mom and Dad. And yet others that I thought would surely have died a thousand deaths continue to live on. I am unable to comfort the parent who has lost a child with any degree of true compassion. As I read this section on mourning I felt the echoes of many people who have lost loved ones before their time. Only a few were able to truly carry their cross, at least initially, with God as their guide with utmost confidence and security in an eternal life for their departed and a sense of harmony for their own loss. The faith that we carry our whole lives can sometimes be lost of found with the death of a loved one.
Blessed are they who mourn: Aside from developing a deeper relationship with God during times of great mourning and loss we are in a state of mourning continually as long as we are living as we have not achieved the beatific vision of being one with God. The more we become aware of God, the greater our thirst becomes. I cannot have enough grace and consolation. The Sermon on the Mount beatitudes in their simplicity are impregnated with a greater wisdom that escapes the eye.
Spiritual awareness and scripture: In a leisurely fiction book I am reading the author mentioned there are two types of Christians: the first reads the bible to check off superficially they are meeting the required standards of a holy life while the second reads between the lines diving in and looking for their personal failings. This is not from Dietrich’s book, but the moral applies as to how one line from the bible can consume hours of contemplation and soul-searching.
Love so little loved: The greatest gift we have is to love and receive Christ love and we as people, regardless of denomination and faith, do not cherish this capacity to love and be loved with the respect it deserves.
Mourn the suffering Jesus: As followers of Christ we are called to mourn his life and suffering, to understand his sacrifice for us.
Mourn suffering humanity: We cannot ignore the suffering of humanity even if we ourselves are relatively left unscathed.
To evade our cross is to evade Christ: Take up the cross without being a martyr, Take up the cross properly and with God-given strength and perseverance.
Rejoice in Gods redemption: Rejoice in redemption, in God’s grace, and in all the gifts and natural beauty you experience in this life. Rejoice more than you suffer.
These are tall task that Dietrich presents on Holy Sorrow. They can defy human logic and are perhaps unexplainable to the non-believer. I equate Dietrich’s statement that “All suffering when we pick up the cross rightly is transformed to a ray of light” with the mysterious transubstantiation (turning of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ). They are linked these two ideas through the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Christians must interweave life with true sorrow and even greater joy.
May you find God in your times of sorrow and times of great joy. May you confront evil and show mercy whenever you are afforded the opportunity to do so. May you have the strength and fortitude to persevere when it seems as if God is absent and no one is there for you.
Never forget those in need and our calling to fight injustice: