Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Ravasi: God’s presence in innocent suffering

Autumn rhythm

4092 words, 21 min read

The following is my rough, English translation of Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi’s opening talk, given during the meeting of the Courtyard of the Gentiles in Lecco on 14th June 2016, entitled “Innocent suffering”.

My reflection will be made up of, if you will a kind of diptych, two panels. One dark, sombre panel, and one that is a little bit more luminous, while not being able to remove the darkness altogether. But, before turning to these two, I would like to make a premise, if you will, the binding that holds together the two panels. And, I would like to label this premise with the title of a book by an American writer called Susan Sontag. This American writer, who was a Hebrew non-believer, of non-believing origin, was diagnosed with cancer around 1975. And in 1978 she published a book, significantly entitled “Illness as Metaphor” in which she represented and interpreted in her own flesh, but also in her experience as an intellectual, precisely this event that she has experienced, the event of being ill with a tumor. And the title is significant. [...]

So, illness as a metaphor, that is illness as a symbol, because of which it is not only a physiological, biological, psychophysical question. It is something more. The patient lives through an experience that is existential, sapiential, and also philosophical; it is fundamentally anthropological. Because of which, when facing illness, and more specifically a sick person (illness being an abstract term), what is not sufficient - it is necessary but not sufficient - is medical science. There is a need also for the humanities. Anatomy is not enough, there is a need also for spirituality, understood in the most general possible, non-denominational sense. Therapy is not enough, there is a need also for a more global vision of the person, a metaphor, because it is the representation of the human being that is limited, frail, fragile, imperfect. It is the experience of an entire being. So, this is what I would say is the binding that allows also for a Courtyard of the Gentiles like this one to happen, that has a welfare dimension and a scientific one, but that is - above all - a human experience.

Well, now we arrive at the two panels that I would like to call forth. The first panel, I have said, is the dark one. That is, illness in general. Suffering in general. But above all this: innocent suffering, which brings about a crisis of sense, a crisis of meaning.

It is curious to note, and maybe this is not sufficiently developed, not even among theologians, that theology as such is born as theodicy, which, literally, means to justify God. Why? Because of the question of suffering, of evil, of the world. This was the function of theology, because such an absence of sense is something we see represented very well - and here I will have to appeal more than once to the experience of those witnesses, who are believers or non-believers, who are - I would say - the most profound witnesses, who delve ... poets, writers, who live this experience. I started precisely with Sontag.

You all, I believe, have read that novel, which for this topic is fundamental: “La peste” [The Plague] by Camus.[...] You remember Camus’ La peste, but I would just like to remind you of that moment in which Dr. Rieux holds in his arms the child who has caught the plague, and he says: “I could never believe in a creation and in a creator God for as long as I hold in my arms a child sick with the plague.”1 We could say sick with cancer. The parents who embrace their child, sick with an illness that by then is making their life drip away towards its end, cannot but express this crisis of meaning. As I said, it is precisely like this that theology came about.

I would now like to share the curious witness of a philosopher, whom you all know at least by reputation, Epicurus. As far as Epicurus is concerned, his writings are not preserved, except as quotes or as fragments. Here we have a 4th century Christian writer, Lactantius, who was the tutor of Constantine’s son, quoting this syllogistic sequence, which fundamentally is an irresolvable contradiction, put by Epicurus as follows - and I’ll summarize it here, as it is a bit more articulate in Latin: “If God wants to remove evil, but can’t, he is impotent and therefore isn’t God. If God can remove evil but does not want to, he is “hostilis et invidus” - hostile and envious with regard to us. Third, if he wants to remove evil and can do it - as befits a God - then why is there evil?”2

You can see how the interweaving of these questions is consequential and it is this experience of the absence of sense, of darkness, that can be found, paradoxically for the believer, in the Bible itself. We have a book, like the book of Job, among others, one of the literary masterpieces of humanity, that poses this problem of innocent suffering. Job is caught up in this storm, and his theologian friends, to justify God, affirm the principle that is characteristic of many cultures, not only of the culture of the Bible, of the Old Testament, which is the principle of retribution. You have sinned, therefore you suffer. Crime - punishment. Which is a very simple explanation. But, obviously it clashes with a rising up of reality, with a rising up of this person who is aware of not being guilty. And this brings us to his challenge, and I am quoting from among the many possible pages of this protest against God. “I,” says Job, “would speak3 with the Almighty; I want to argue with God.” (Job 13:3).

You can see how it is courageous that a sacred text, which for believers has the seal of God, presents itself with this attack against God. It is also true that at a certain point, Job, slowly as his dialogue progresses, strays into cursing. And this blasphemy, in that moment, is a paradoxical profession of faith. Because he, once more, returns to that fundamental node, which is a theological node, in fact he accuses God: “But you are like a sadistic archer who pierces me in my heart and my kidneys. You are like a leopard who fixes his eyes on me to devour me. You are like a triumphant general who crushes my skull.” (cf. Job 16:12-14, Job 10:16).

As you can see it is a representation of the divine God as an enemy, as a monster, because of which, in his commentary on Job, and we say this in an ecumenical spirit, Luther uses a phrase that is truly dazzling from this point of view. [...] It is a phrase that is based precisely on Job: “God is pleased much more with the blasphemous cries of a desperate person than with the composed praises of a conformist on Sunday morning during a service.” This phrase is significant, because God listens more to Job than to his theologian friends, those perfect, impassive, impeccable theologians, as will be said at the end. Because, you know, at the end God says: “Job is the only one who spoke rightly about me.” (cf. Job 42:7)

That is why, at this point I think that innocent suffering is the highest, or most profound, point of the silence of God, of the incomprehensibility of the divine mystery. This is the first panel of the diptych.

The second panel, which, as I have said, is more luminous, but without being totally solar [...]. And this panel is that even in such pain, in pain in general, there is a revelation of sense, of meaning. [...] I don’t now want to present the history of humanity that has continuously been clashing against this citadel, this well-defended citadel that is the citadel of suffering, not even thinking of its heart, which is the citadel of innocent suffering. It has tried many explanations, ranging from the totally pessimistic ones, where what in the end becomes difficult to explain is the good and not evil, this being our condition. Here we can think of certain ideas at the margins of Buddhism, for example, where, practically, evil is the fundamental substance by which we are permeated.

On the other hand, there are entirely optimistic perspectives. Here let’s take a look at a very approximate, simplistic example, [...] the Hindu idea where we are part of the great ocean of God, an ocean that on the surface may have storms, but in its abyssal depths there is serenity, there is calm, there is peace. And therefore it suffices to enter into this kind of mysticism of depth.

Then there are these explanations, already in the Greek world, where Aeschylus says: “Wisdom is conquered only through suffering.” But he himself, Aeschylus, in The Persians, puts these words into the mouth of one of his characters: “Is there a God who answers from the shadow to the breath of pain that rises from the earth towards heaven?”4 And the question was left unanswered, that is, [the answer was] negative. And then he also maintained that pain has a paideic, cathartic function, but this is very problematic in the case of innocent suffering. I don’t want to enter here into the history of the hermeneutic, the interpretation of pain ...

The book of Job itself, to tell the truth, isn’t an attempt at an explanation of pain. It isn’t. If you pay attention to its conclusion - and I can’t now show what it actually is about - and if you see the last words that Job pronounces, leaving aside the final part which is a framing narrative quoted by the author and which was already known in previous literature ... No, let’s pause above all at the point of the true final poetry. Job is in front of God and God simply tells him: “All you see is just a small horizon of the mystery of being, of existence that is immense, and like one who, when looking at a painting, only sees a detail made of small brush strokes, of colors that don’t make sense, then it is obvious that it doesn’t have meaning.” Only God, and we too, when looking at the painting in its entirety, can succeed in understanding its meaning. Also this is an attempt at an explanation, that, however, has some very specific preconditions for acceptance. But, I wanted to say that Job, at the end, makes a statement that is substantially of another kind, of faith: “By hearsay I had heard of you, but now my eye has seen you. Therefore I disown what I have said, and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:5-6)

So all is again as before, expect that he had now met God. And this is why it is possible to make a reflection, that I only sketch out here as it is very complex, about the Christology of suffering. That is, about a Christian explanation of suffering, which, naturally, has as its starting point a fundamental given for Christianity. The real, effective, concrete intertwining of the transcendent and the immanent, of the divine and the human. That great masterpiece that is the prologue of the fourth Gospel, the Gospel of St. John, as you know, has those fascinating verses [...] from 1:1 to 1:14. The Logos, which is perfect, which is the beginning, which is God, which is the cause of all being ... and the Logos became flesh. Precisely using the verb “to become.” Therefore here we have the specific concept of the entrance of the divine into the human, which is very well represented by the account of the Passion, where you can see that Christ traverses the full, dark spectrum of pain. The full range is there on purpose, from the fear of death (Father, take this cup from me, which in Biblical language means this - I am afraid of dying), then passing through the sweating of blood, then solitude, which is one of the great sufferings, the great pains; the betrayal by his friends, and then also physical torture, and then ascending that hill, ascending the cross, he, as God!, passes through the silence of God (My God, my God, why have you forsaken me), and then - at the end - death. Death, which is our ID card. Together with pain, but above all death, because God - by definition - is eternal, does not die. There, instead, and it is curious that the Gospels of Matthew and of Mark present the death of Christ, unlike those of Luke and John, who see divinity already shining through the corpse, the crucified corpse, they represent the death of Christ as an ugly death. He “cried out again in a loud voice, and gave up his spirit” (Matthew 27:50). The cry of a hand that raises up again and tries to grab the air one last time, while he is suffocating to death.

Here we arrive at the fundamental component of the Christian explanation. [Outside Christianity] God doesn’t die, does not suffer, (The suffering of God is something theologians have elaborated, but it has another meaning.) because these are human characteristics. Christianity says that God isn’t he who bends down like an impassive emperor and holds out his hand towards the suffering person, at times even healing them. Instead it is he who traverses the non-sense of dying. He as God, enters our horizon.

St. Paul has an expression in 2 Corinthians, chapter 5, which is very suggestive in this sense, even though it does not refer to suffering: “For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” (2 Corinthians 5:21). You see that he takes on himself another of the fundamental human characteristics: guilt, therefore not only pain but also guilt, and in that moment, naturally, he, when he is reduced to a corpse, when he has finally assumed all our identity, also in that moment he, however, does not cease to be God. And it is because of this that he plants in suffering, in evil, in guilt a seed of the eternal, of the infinite, a seed of redemption. And this is the meaning of the resurrection. It is simply to remember that the passage of God through human reality isn’t a passage that leaves it unaltered. And it is because of this that there is a tension towards redemption which is that of a divine that has traversed, while preserving its identity, our own identity, which is transient and weak.

You have surely heard about Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was one of the famous theologians of the last century and was eliminated by Hitler. Note well the date of his death: 9th April 1945, when the Nazi monster was already in agony and it seems that the order came directly from the top to have him hanged at the camp in Flossenbürg where he was detained. During his imprisonment, he wrote [...] many notes among which there is this one, which is significant and which may seem - at first sight - a bit paradoxical. He said: “God in Christ does not save us by virtue of his omnipotence - otherwise he would remain above, in his prefect transcendence, in his golden horizon - God saves us in Christ by virtue of his impotence, because he enters and takes on also our quality.”

At this point it can be understood also that at the center of the heart of Christianity there is a problem. Certainly, as you see it is an option, an option of faith, to recognize the center of the incarnation, the word that makes itself flesh, flesh that is fragile, transient, weak. And, let’s think of those words, and I’ll only quote a few lines to you from “Il dolore” (“Grief”) by Ungaretti, which he wrote because of the death of his son Antonietto:5

Christ, brother, you who immolate yourself
perennially to rebuild
man humanly
Holy, Holy, Holy6 you who suffer
And it is in this way that brotherhood with us comes about. [...] I would say that all believers and non-believers can take on the subtle, implied component that justifies this Christology of suffering. God does not want to - we can’t say that he can’t, but he doesn’t want to, he does not manage to as the rabbinic tradition says, impede that which is also structurally required. The creature as such must be limited, finite, transient ... [...] Beyond this, in the interior of this incarnation, there is a fundamental dimension which is one that can be put into practice also by us. At the basis there is, as Ungaretti said: “Christ, brother, you who immolate yourself to rebuild man.” There is solidarity. There is love.

And here I would like to remember, above all, a miracle. Usually we look at miracles as if they were magical gestures. Let’s never forget that Christ, instead, requires for them to be done in silence, hiding their spectacular aspect. The miracle I have in mind is that of the leper. Hansen’s disease is an illness like many others, but in the oriental world it is seen as the compendium of all suffering, because it wasn’t only a physical suffering, the flesh that would disintegrate, but it was also a social and moral condemnation. It was an excommunication. The leper had to have committed such a terrible transgression that this is the punishment they received. It was thought to be the most infectious disease - even though that is not true - because of which they had to live separately from the community. The book of Leviticus says that the leper has to signal their presence to others, because it is a polluting presence, and has to shout so that the other would not cross their path. What does Christ do? And this is underlined by the Evangelists. Not only does he go to meet the leper, he goes to speak to him - asking him what he wants - and then Christ touches him and tells him: “I will do it. Be made clean.” (Matthew 8:3). He touches him. You see, it is the gesture of assumption. The gesture of fraternity. The gesture of love. [...]

I’d like to conclude by giving the word to two people, whom I’d ideally summon here, two figures of history, of culture of the last century. Different from each other, one a believer the other a non-believer.

Let’s start with the believer, the poet Paul Claudel [...]. He writes: “God didn’t come to explain suffering, but to fill it with his presence. God, therefore, doesn’t protect us from suffering, but sustains us in every suffering.” Because he too entered there. Also he, with his human impotence, but precisely because he does not cease to be God, sustains us. And the other, and this is why I say that this act of solidarity, can be performed by all and can be a principle of - in quotes - “healing”, not necessarily of physical healing.

When doctors enter a corridor, a hospital, the room of a patient - and it was Susan Sontag who noted this, when she said: “They arrived and all stood there in front of me and I was lying in bed.” You see the profound difference between the two positions, because, standing up is the position of the living, lying down the position of the dead, of the absolutely impotent. It is also true that standing up has been the hallmark not only of the living, but of the greatness of the human person. From evolution we know that it is much more logical to walk on all fours like animals do, also for the distribution of weight. Humans, as a result of evolution, use their posture, that is rather improbable from the point of view of statics - to carry all of their weight on such a small base. But they have done it so that, from this position, they could dominate the horizon of all other living beings and of all being.

So, in that moment comes this profound difference, because of which - evidently - the gesture of love, of solidarity that isn’t just a matter of bowing down but of bringing one’s own understanding and one’s alliance, one’s harmony, one’s closeness, even if the sick person is burdensome and pedantic, because their horizon is deprived of meaning and they are in their world, looking for sense. We must accompany them without sneaking glances at our watches.

So, this act of solidarity is possible for all and it is represented well by the last person whom I’d like to summon here, ideally, and whom I quote often. He is an agnostic, lay, anticlerical writer - Ennio Flaiano, also the screenwriter of some of Fellini’s movies.

During his life it was specifically this topic [innocent suffering] that was before his eyes, because one of his daughters was born with an epileptic encephalopathy. This daughter survived him. He would never speak about her. He also saw her as a metaphor, a symbol of guilt. [...] But, he never spoke about her. After his death, among his papers, they found a text, a rough draft and it wasn’t clear whether it was for a novel or a screenplay.

This text is truly significant, because it is written by a non-believer. He imagines that Christ returns to earth. And, as soon as he returns and the news spreads, he is surrounded by a crowd of the sick who huddle around him and ask for miracles. They ask for healing. And he is uneasy, because now there is something that wasn’t there before - there is television, cinema, the press, advertising, which he doesn’t want. He’d like signs of a different kind and even though he cures them, he does so unhappily. One day he finally manages to free himself from the crowd and retreat along a path. And as he walks along this path to find solitude and pray to the Father, he sees the outline of a strange couple on the horizon. A father who drags his shaky daughter by he hand, as she walks beside him. When Christ sees them, he is ready to perform. He says to himself that he’ll do it one more time, but at least this one is in solitude. However, when this father and his daughter are in front of Christ, and Christ is about to perform his miraculous gesture, that father says: “No, I don’t want you to heal her. I would like you to love her.” And so, Christ takes this little girl, kisses her, and say this phrase, which is the concluding phrase: “In truth, in truth I tell you, this man has asked of me that which I truly want to and can give.”

1 Cardinal Ravasi may be paraphrasing this sentence from The Plague: “I have a different notion of love; and to the day I die I shall refuse to love this creation in which children are tortured.”
2 The full text of that quote is: ““God,” he [Epicurus] says, “either wants to eliminate bad things and cannot, or can but does not want to, or neither wishes to nor can, or both wants to and can. If he wants to and cannot, then he is weak and this does not apply to god. If he can but does not want to, then he is spiteful which is equally foreign to god’s nature. If he neither wants to nor can, he is both weak and spiteful, and so not a god. If he wants to and can, which is the only thing fitting for a god, where then do bad things come from? Or why does he not eliminate them?” Lactantius, On the Anger of God, 13.19”
3 In the Italian translation quoted by Ravasi, the verb is “accuse” or “incriminate” rather than “speak”.
4 Maybe a reference to the following lines:
“Hears the honour’d godlike king?
These barbaric notes of wo,
Taught in descant sad to ring,
Hears he in the shades below?”
5 Since I couldn’t find an English translation of “Mio fiume anche tu” from which Ravasi quotes, this is my attempt at a verbatim translation - a crime when applied to poetry but it will have to do in the absence of anything else.
6 Ravasi here adds an extra “Holy” that is not in Ungaretti’s text.