Doubt and The Silence of God

In 2012 I wrote that good fiction can help us grow in wisdom by inviting us to grapple with the pain, confusions and ambiguities of human experience, including experiences that we may be very different to our own. We grow into richer and deeper people by living through these experiences, even vicariously through fictional characters.

I was reminded of this recently as I’ve been reading 20th century Catholic novelists who portray the crisis of doubt. For me, two of the most intriguing works in this genre have been Silence by Shūsaku Endō, and The End of the Affair by Graham Greene.

Silence is a novel Endō wrote in 1966 showing the progression from belief to apostasy in the tumultuous context of 17th century Japan. The End of the Affair (1951) chronicles a journey in the other direction: from unbelief to faith. Both books present agonizing spiritual dilemmas for the characters, and both conclude with the faith of the main character still unresolved for the reader.

Silence, like Psalm 13, struggles with God being completely quiet in the midst of the soul’s agonizing quest for Him. But unlike Psalm 13, which ends in praise of God, Silence ends on a deeply discordant note. By contrast, The End of the Affair explores the turmoil that arises when we want God to be silent and yet He palpably and inconveniently invades our world, demanding commitments from us that seem to only bring pain and loss in their wake.

In 2016, Silence was made into a movie by Martin Scorsese, himself a lapsed Catholic who wanted to do justice to the book’s spiritual themes. The film is an amazing work of artistry that remained true to Endo’s book, although watching it is no substitute for reading the book.

Pain, Suffering and Resilience, Published by St. Sebastian Orthodox Press

St. Sebastian Orthodox Press has just released a new book Pain, Suffering and Resilience: Orthodox Christian Perspectives.

This collection of peer-reviewed essays explores the mystery of human suffering along with the spiritual and psychological resources that enable us to achieve resilience in the midst of pain.

The publisher explains how the work

“includes eminent scholars, clergy, physicians, and psychotherapists seeking to serve people in their respective fields, through their respective disciplines informed and guided by the depth and riches of the Orthodox Christian Faith. This is the unifying thread for each of the contributors who bring this ancient Christian perspective into dialogue with the contributions of modern psychology and medical science as they seek to address the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual dimensions of pain and human suffering in a variety of contexts.”

I was privileged to be asked to contribute a chapter to this volume on the topic of practicing gratitude during times of suffering. My essay  develops material I began exploring in my chapter on Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Saints and Scoundrels. By drawing on classic spiritual texts (i.e., The Way of the Pilgrim, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Dorotheus of Gaza’s Saying and Discourses, etc) and integrating them with recent developments (i.e., advances in cognitive psychology, neuroscience, the twentieth-century prison literature, etc.) I make a case that suffering and gratitude are not related like two sides of a zero-sum transaction where an increase in the former entails a decrease in the latter. Rather, by receiving our sufferings rightly, we can use them as opportunities to actually grow in the cognitive, behavioral and emotional dimensions of thankfulness. From the essay:

“…true gratitude is not merely compatible with an acknowledgement of pain; it presupposes it. To be truly grateful is to acknowledge that life is difficult while framing that difficulty within a context of thanksgiving…. Gratitude releases us to lean into the pain, to stand face to face with the ambiguity and complexity of life and not to despair. In contrast to stoicism, cynicism and sentimentalism, gratitude-based reframing does not involve detachment from suffering; rather, it provides the inner resources for genuine engagement…. In so far as gratitude enables us to lean into pain, to be realistic rather than escapist, it provides the resources to engage with others who are suffering instead of insulating ourselves from their pain. In our comfort-oriented culture, many people’s default response is to avoid those whose lives are lonely, messy or filled with pain. Instead of going through people’s pain with them, we often numb ourselves to the suffering around us in order to protect ourselves. However, when the pursuit of comfort causes us to numb ourselves to the impact of suffering, what we are doing is numbing away the capacity to empathize, to feel love, joy and gratitude. This is because it is impossible to selectively numb emotion. When we harden ourselves as a defense against fear, grief, disappointment, shame, rejection or vulnerability, we are inadvertently reducing our capacity to feel the emotions that are important for our wellbeing, including gratitude.

Gratitude enables us to look pain straight in the eye and not to despair. Gratitude enables us to derive genuine enjoyment from small blessings even when evil, suffering and pain are crowding in upon us. This is important, not only so we can have the resources for weathering life’s storms, but so we have the inner resources to engage with others who are going through hardships. Instead of pushing people away because we cannot deal with their pain, and instead of numbing ourselves in order to be insulated from other people’s grief, a grateful person has the inner resources to empathize with those who are in pain and like the Apostle said, ‘rejoicing with them that rejoice, and weeping with them that weep.’ (Romans 12:15)”

What I don’t share in my chapter, but which I would like to share here, is that the research behind this essay was prompted by a very painful set of circumstances in my personal life. The Lord brought me to a point where I was ready to dig deep in ancient spiritual teachings on contentment and pain. What I found is the spiritual paradox encapsulated by Elder Alexander of Gethsemane who observed that “The amount of suffering that the soul can accommodate is also how much it can accommodate the grace of God.

The best chapters in Pain, Suffering and Resilience: Orthodox Christian Perspectives, are actually the ones written by others, including a contribution by His Grace, Bishop Alexander (Golitzin), who serves as Bisohp of the Diocese of the South for the OCA and ruling bishop of the Bulgarian Diocese of the Orthodox Church in America.

I hope all the essays in this book can prove an encouragement to ordinary men and women facing struggles and pain.

I would be grateful for people to buy the book on Amazon and then write a review (Amazon always privileges reviews if the person writing the review has bought the book through them).

You can read more about the book on the St. Sebastian Orthodox Press website.

Further Reading

Plato’s Cave and Christian Desire

From Coventry Kersey Dighton Patmore’s 1895 book The Rod, the Root, and the Flower:

Plato’s cave of shadows is the most profound and simple statement of the relation of the natural to the spiritual life ever made. Men stand with their backs to the Sun, and they take the shadows cast by it upon the walls of their cavern for realities. The shadows, even, of heavenly realities are so alluring as to provoke ardent desires, but they cannot satisfy us. They mock us with unattainable good, and our natural and legitimate passions and instincts, in the absence of their true and substantial satisfactions, break forth into frantic disorders. If we want fruition we must turn our back to the shadows, and gaze on their realities in God.

It may be added that, when we have done this, and are weary of the splendors and felicities of immediate reality, we may turn again, from time to time, to the shadows, which, having thus become intelligible, and being attributed by us to their true origin, are immeasurably more satisfying than they were before, and may be delighted in without blame. This is the ‘evening joy,’ the joy of contemplating God in His creatures, of which the theologians write; and this purified and intelligible joy in the shadows–which has now obtained a core of substance–is not only the hundredfold ‘promise of this life also,’ but it is, as the Church teaches, a large part of the joy of the blest….

“‘Detachment’ consists, not in casting aside all natural loves and goods, but in the possession of a love and a good so great that all others, though they may and do acquire increase through the presence of the greater love and good, which explains and justifies them, seem nothing in comparison.”

Your Life is Not as Bad as You Think

Gregg Easterbrook

During the presidential election cycle, American politics feeds on fomenting the public’s sense of dissatisfaction and highlighting problems that each candidate claims to be the answer for.

Unfortunately the public tends to buy into this doomsday rhetoric.

Every four years I have at least one or two friends who tell me “This is our final chance – this election will determine whether or not our nation even has a future.”

Various Christian end-times scenarios have contributed to the same pessimism about the future, so that it takes only a strange weather pattern or a report about a tragedy somewhere in the world to justify the pronouncement that “This surely proves we’re living in the end-times!”

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Reading Habits of a Recovering Pragmatist

Paul Johnson makes reading history feel like reading gossip.

Paul Johnson makes reading history feel like reading gossip.

I’d like to take this opportunity to recommend some good novels that have recently blessed me.

But first, a few words about my approach to reading in general.

As far as my reading habits are concerned, I’m a recovering pragmatist. That is, I used to choose which books to read based on a rational calculation of how they would benefit me, rather like someone whose eating habits are based entirely on calorie counting and health considerations. So instead of reading Paul Johnson’s enjoyable books in which history comes alive and almost feels a bit naughty (he makes history seem like gossip) I might read a boring monograph instead.

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Why Household Appliances Haven’t Made Life Easier For Women

vacuum-cleaner-editedOne of the things I said I would do with this new blog is to give my readers regular updates on what I’m reading. I’ll start the ball rolling by sharing something I was reading last night.

Last night I was reading Nicholas Carr’s 2008 book The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, From Edison to Google. Having enjoyed his earlier book The Shallows, I thought it would be fun to read one of his earlier works. The Big Switch is particularly enjoyable because of all the fascinating comparisons and contrasts he makes between the rise of electrification in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and computing in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

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