Perhaps the greatest source of human joy is the love that we have for another person. Certainly this is the most enduring of our human joys, because this is one gift that we will carry with us into eternity. But it is also true that deep love of another is the source of some of the greatest human suffering that humans endure. There are many forms of suffering and many underlying causes even within the one source, but it seems to me that today’s liturgy invites us to consider the purifying suffering that occurs when humans love much.
First of all, the feast; today, the Church invites us to celebrate with and pray with Therese of Lisieux. One of the most popular of all the Saints, this young French woman is held up as an exemplar of one who loved greatly through the ordinary and small tasks, “the little way.” Therese, who lost her mother as a very small child, followed a beloved older sister into the Carmelite religious life, one of the more ascetic lifestyles of the Church, when she was only fifteen. Even in the 19th Century the Church was not comfortable accepting such young teens into the severity of the cloistered religious life, but Therese pestered her bishop and finally asked the Pope for permission to join. In addition to her youth, Therese suffered from ill health including tuberculosis and depression, but offered the sufferings attendant upon such diseases for the salvation of those who had lost faith, or had never been formed in faith. She loved with the passion of God, but with the ability of a very frail human – which itself is, perhaps, one of the greatest sources of suffering. Among those who love others (and that includes most of the human race) who has not been frustrated that they can’t express that love adequately, or that the love is “not enough” to conquer other problems? Many of us have struggled with the sense that “if only” we could have loved more we could have protected a beloved from some difficulty or even saved them from some great harm. This is the suffering of a vessel inadequate to carry the fullness; the bucket that attempts to hold the ocean.
The first reading might help us to make some sense of this paradoxical suffering of the one who loves. The text is drawn from the book of Job. It is Job’s second speech given in response to one of his theologian friends who is attempting to convince him that he has done something wrong and the suffering he is enduring is God’s attempt to get him to recognize his sin and repent. Job is confident that he has not sinned, but he is unwilling to say that God is unjust in causing or allowing the innocent to suffer. Here then, is another suffering of finitude that can glimpse but not grasp the infinite. Just as Therese could glimpse but not grasp or express the fullness of divine love in her frail human body, so Job recognizes the pain of his finite capacity to perceive the infinite wisdom and creativity of God.
What both Job and Therese help us to appreciate is that there is not only a quantitative difference between divine and human abilities, there is a qualitative difference. It is not just that God loves infinitely more than humans do, it is that God’s love is infinitely different from human love. It is not just that God knows more (content) than humans do, it is that the character of God’s knowing and God’s power to understand reality is infinitely different from human’s. When God’s shares God’s powers with us, then, there will always be the suffering of not being able to bear the infinite weight of the gift in our finite humanity.
I think this is a terrifying mystery for most, if not all, humans.
For some the answer is to run from God and hide in the consumption
of things or in human activities that consume us but are themselves
limited. The Gospel from today’s liturgy brings us a better
way to grapple with this incredible mystery. It calls us to risk
all for the sake of God’s reign, even if we do not, no cannot,
fully understand what we are doing. If we dare to respond to the
invitation to collaborate with God in the creative and redemptive
work of the Kingdom, we must be prepared to place our love and loyalty
for the mysterious way of God (which is to say, God’s self)
ahead of human reason, human affection, human loyalty, and we must
be prepared to fail – in human terms. This is a tremendous
challenge in our world that wants to understand, and calculate the
cost, before we commit, and to be seen to be successful. The truth
is, we rarely understand even ourselves, so how could we hope to
understand God? But we can trust that God understands us –
and will remain faithful to us, even if our loyalty falters. So
we pray with the psalmist in confidence:
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