Great love and great suffering

Lynne Smith, OSB Building Community, Living in Community, Spirituality Articles 8 Comments

alone-by-martine-debaisieuxThe people of east Aleppo have been in my prayers and on my mind this fall as they undergo the siege of their city. They are especially on my heart because a couple of years ago, a husband and wife and their triplet sons worshipped with us at Sunday Assembly for some months after they had fled Aleppo. In one conversation I had with Nael, he said, “Pray for us, the Syrian people. We don’t understand why this fighting is going on. We want to live in peace.” The images in the news of the destruction of the city keep his words alive in me.

Closer to home, I recently presided at the memorial service for two infant twin boys who died at birth. Their parents and family loved them greatly and are now suffering at their loss.

At midday prayer this Advent, we are reading from Richard Rohr’s Preparing for Christmas: Daily Meditations for Advent, written in 2008. The reading for Thursday of the second week of Advent included these lines: “Without great love and/or great suffering, human consciousness remains largely at the fight-or-flight, either/or, all-or-nothing level….It is largely great love and great suffering that create spiritual listening and larger seeing.”

As I ponder how to make meaning out of suffering, Rohr’s thought has remained with me. I consider how great suffering and great love have helped move me to a consciousness that seeks to integrate all that happens in life rather than dividing experience up into the dualistic categories of right/wrong, good/bad. I see that integration happens when I move through suffering rather than trying to deny it or avoid it.

On a personal level, I begin to see that some of my strengths were developed in response to great suffering. Though I still think what caused the suffering shouldn’t have happened, I can no longer say the suffering was categorically bad. I see that acknowledging and integrating suffering into my life with the help of others has made me a person of perseverance and hope. The grace of God working through prayer and other people helped me develop the resources of my inner life—that spiritual listening that Rohr mentions.

Great love accomplishes the same spiritual listening and seeing in us. Children who are greatly loved grow up with a sense of confidence and knowledge of their gifts that enables them to see and draw out the goodness and gifts of others.

As we prepare to celebrate the incarnation at Christmas, we see the world is still a place of great love and great suffering. That hasn’t changed since Jesus’ time. What we do with the suffering of the world can contribute to a change in consciousness which could move us to end the suffering. When the Twin Towers fell in 2001, the Rev. James Forbes, senior pastor emeritus at Riverside Church in New York City was asked what the United States should do next. I don’t remember his exact words but he said something to the effect of: I don’t know yet how we should respond. But the first thing we should do is get very, very quiet. His response was a contemplative one that could help us to see and hear the call to life in every event. How can we respond in a way that brings life out of great suffering and even death?

At the first anniversary of 9/11 this is what the Rev. James Forbes said. “…this is what I heard God say to me, and I think it may appeal to all of us: Love my children; that’s all I ask of you. Love my children; it’s the least that you could do. If you love them as I love them, we shall see them safely through. Love yourself, love me too. And whatever else you do, love my children.

God’s answer to great suffering is to send us God’s love in human form that we may also become that love for a suffering world.


Comments 8

  1. Thanks Lynn! This reflection is an affirmation to responding to the suffering that occurs from the continual gun violence in Milwaukee.

    Love, peace and prayer

    1. Yes, the gun violence in Milwaukee and Chicago and other cities is causing untold suffering. May you find strength in the deep source of God’s love as you minister to the suffering in Milwaukee.

  2. Thanks, Sr. Lynne. Blessed Christmastide to all at Holy Wisdom Monastery! Hope to see you at the retreat in February.

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  3. Lynne, Your reflections reminded me of my own experience/response to 9/11. As a minister serving in a parish where we were grieving the death of four of our community here who worked for Cantor Fitzgerald, I was, to my own surprise, struck by a deep sense of gratitude. I was grateful for the courageous, overwhelming generosity of the first responders. Grateful for the hundreds who escaped with the selfless help offered, each to the other, in such a devastating horror and chaos. Grateful that I, along with the entire community of the world, was in such deep mourning and grief….”Blessed are those that mourn, they shall be comforted.” Along with Rev. James Forbes I too kept having the verse from Gregory Norbet’s ( a monk from Weston Priory in Vermont) hymn/song, resounding over and over in my mind and heart: “All I ask of you is to forever to remember me as loving you.”

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      Dennis, thank you for sharing your experience. May you have a Blessed Christmas season and know God’s deep love surrounding you.

  4. With “great love” and “great suffering” juxtaposed in the title of your essay a “play” of opposites comes to mind. To my way of thinking opposites are something like fraternal twins. They are conceived together, grow together and enter the world together, and often fraternal twins are opposites, one female and one male, yet there is an interaction, a relationship. Opposites define each other. How can I know “light” if I don’t know “dark”, and how can I know “dark” if I don’t know “light”. Each tells me about the other. Thus, I think of opposites as two halves of a whole. To know or to come to wholeness I must know each half, each opposite. And so it is with great love and great suffering.
    Great love and great suffering, to me, are like the “yin-yang” of The Tao, a circle that is half dark and half light defined with a curving boundary as though to show motion, a dynamic wholeness. In the dark field there is a spot of light, and in the light field there is a spot of dark. Thus, each opposite is to be found in the other.
    We humans seem to have a predisposition to avoid “bad”, anything painful, messy and even make attempts to try to prevent “bad” from happening. However, because great love and great suffering are “twins”, within each is contained a bit of the other. To avoid or prevent great suffering is to also avoid or prevent great love. If I focus solely on the suffering I can’t see great love.
    As Christians are we called to wholeness, which means we will embrace opposites that are oneness? Isn’t faith a process of trusting this dynamic movement and choosing to enter into the movement and embrace the Oneness made of opposites? Embracing great suffering seems to present an obvious challenge to our faith/trust, especially given our predisposition to avoid and prevent “bad”, but I think embracing great love also presents a great challenge to our faith/trust process, which makes a faith community so important in the individual choice I make when entering this dynamic wholeness (another “play” of opposites).
    Christmas is a time when we remember a child who was born into this dynamic of great love/great suffering and walked with it all of his life. Christmas then becomes a reminder to us of our call to walk with this wonderful/terrible dynamic of great love and great suffering. How grateful I am that there is a community to walk with me!

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