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Friday, 29 October 2010

The Bizarre Idea of Suffering and Martyrdom

On the beautiful and interesting blog: “Cross of Laeken” there is a quotation from the Belgian Queen Louise-Marie, who was undoubtedly a saintly and ‘good’ woman, who had the best interests of her people at heart. She wrote - quoted from that blog - : “We live in hard times...we must be able to suffer and think only of those dear to us.” (Please see http://crossoflaeken.blogspot.com/2010/10/claremont-house.html for the whole story).

This is not at all about criticising any royalties or others of the past (or present) who dedicated themselves and risked their lives in service of others; it is about seeking to understand what drove these people and why their lives turned out as they did. It has been an age old question for all of us, “Why, if there is a loving God, do good people suffer?” and it becomes more apparent all the time, that so many of the most religious or devout people suffer more than any other group of people. How many who spent their lives in service of others became martyrs? (Check out any dictionary of saints and count the martyrs!). How many of the most admirable royalties came to a horrid or rather sad end? So many of the loveliest, most saintly people – and this is particularly noticeable among the most dedicated royalties of past centuries – seemed to have an almost subconscious idea that martyrdom or suffering was inevitable and holy, and in this they seemed to create their own sad fate. I do not believe they actively sought martyrdom but on some level they had absorbed the idea that suffering was a necessary part of holiness and the more one suffered, the holier and closer to heaven one was.

If I may give a personal example, my point will be easier to explain. I, for some strange reason, grew up obsessed with saints’ lives. I read and copied and absorbed quotations such as: “We must suffer in order to go to God. We forget this far too often.” (St. Madeleine Sophie Barat) or “We can only go to heaven through suffering...” (St. Vincent de Paul) or “If God causes you to suffer much, it is a sign that he has great designs for you...” (St. Ignatius Loyola) or “Jesus gives his Crown of Thorns to his friends....” (St. Bernadette) - and there are hundreds more such quotations! Even though these ideas were no longer generally taught as I grew up, (they were far more prevalent in the 18th and 19th centuries and earlier), I worked often in Lourdes – one of the loveliest places in the world – and found there that the sick and suffering are exalted. I appreciate how contentious that sounds but it is my experience. I wrote in an earlier post of the way in which everyone is roused to a hope and a cure by the litany of wonderful quotations from the Gospels but it always ends with the rather sad and resigned, “Thy will be done.” as though the will of God is something nasty. For years and years it never occurred to me that this was absolute nonsense but when it did occur to me, it was like a Damascus-road experience! Good heavens! From a Christian perspective, if suffering is good, why did Jesus heal the sick? Why didn’t he bless them instead and say, “Oh, this is good...this is the will of God! You are blessed!” ? He spent 3 years telling people: “You are the Light of the world” and “You are the salt of the earth” and “every hair on your head has been counted” and “the works I do, even greater works will you do....” But somehow, someone wanted power and rather than concentrating on his 3 years of good news about how brilliantly beautiful we all are, twisted it to concentrating on his 3 hours of suffering...and since then, particularly in the 18th/19th centuries, holiness was synonymous with suffering. The very opposite, I contend, is true. Suffering is our own creation. We believe in it and we experience it and then either blame God for it, or see ourselves as holy because of it.

Here are some examples, which are open to debate. Queen Victoria’s second daughter, Princess Alice – one of my favourite royalties – was profoundly spiritual. Like her father, Prince Albert, she was deeply aware of the poverty around her, and wrote, “Life is not pleasure...it is duty...” She went on a spiritual search, denied herself pleasure, and died of diphtheria at 35 years old. Grand Duchess Elizabeth, her daughter – and someone I admire still more – was also deeply spiritual and dedicated her life to the service of the poor. She wrote many times of the ‘need to bear the cross’ and was eventually murdered. Tsarina Alexandra had the same mystical sense of suffering (read Princess Marie Louise’s touching account of her), as did Nicholas II – both devoutly religious people (Nicholas often mentioned being born on the Feast of Job, the long suffering – and both were murdered. Karl of Austria, sickened by war, and deeply devout, died so young and so sadly. Louis XVI of France, Henry VI of England...on some level there was a belief that they had no right to happiness as long as others were suffering and they met a lot of suffering and were murdered. They believed in martyrdom, and so it came upon them.

It doesn’t seem to demonstrate any idea of a loving God, beyond the idea that what we think about, we become. The happy truth, to my mind, is that through these ‘martyrs’ we learn the lesson that suffering is nothing to be revered. It is absolutely the opposite of Life and holiness. Life isn’t about duty or suffering or anything of the sort....You are the Light of the world...I came that they might have Life and have it to the full! As for the martyrs of the past, it is again like the wonderful quotation from Lady Constance Lytton’s book "Prisons & Prisoners" :

"Have you seen the locusts, how they cross a stream? First one comes down to the water's edge and is swept away. Then another comes and another, and gradually their bodies pile up and make a bridge for the rest to pass over." She ended by saying, "Well, perhaps I made a track to the water's edge."

3 comments:

Matterhorn said...

Thank you very much for the kind link and comments. I hesitated to leave a comment here, because it is a huge topic, as you say. And I am concerned that I will merely be repeating things you have already heard.

I still don't think, though, that Christianity (or, at least, Catholicism/Orthodoxy) really reveres suffering in itself. After all, Hell is the ultimate suffering, and there is nothing holy there; whereas Heaven is seen as the ultimate joy, beauty, fullness of life and happiness. I think it is more the manner and purpose of the martyrs' suffering that is revered. They are honored because they were willing to suffer rather than betray God, the truth, the good.

Then there is the idea of suffering as atonement for sin or as a means of moral purification. Christians are taught to believe that their desires are apt to be wayward, as a result of Original Sin, and that they therefore need to "deny themselves" as a kind of spiritual discipline. I think that is the point of prayers like: "Thy Will be done, not mine."

But I agree, the role of suffering can (and probably often has) been over-emphasized in religious circles. I am thinking especially of certain unduly grotesque paintings of the Crucifixion...One has to keep in mind that the ultimate point of everything is, as you say, the fullness of life.

Christina said...

Matterhorn, I deeply appreciate your thoughtful comment, and, as you say, this is too large a subject for discussion on a blog. I feel that the whole notion of atonement has become so distorted and it has played a major part throughout history in the lives of some of the kindest and loveliest and most well-meaning people of the past. At-one-ment with Love/God/Life could never require suffering as it would completely contradict ‘Its’ own essence. The message of the Gospel – or the message of all the great mystics - is surely to uplift humanity but so often religion has turned Mankind’s image of ourselves as squirming sinners constantly having to confess our sinfulness...that we were somehow bad just by being born – the abhorrent notion of original sin! What kind of parent would want his children to come daily or weekly or monthly or ever to say, “I am unworthy of you and will suffer to atone for it.” ? What kind of parent would condemn his/her child simply because for being born...and somehow born not quite right? I think this has been such a dominant thought in the minds of so many of these beautiful royalties (and others) that they have somehow, without even being aware that they were doing it, brought about their own martyrdom. They thought on some level that penance and suffering would help humanity and bring it closer to its Creator/Source. If you are ingrained with the notion of the need to atone for your unworthiness, it is a small step to martyrdom. I write this with great compassion and admiration of those who were prepared to devote themselves totally to their beliefs and their faith....and I think as time moves on we lean from them. This is so short a response butn already too long for a blog comment and I trust I do not offend anyone else's beliefs, all of which I totally respect.

Christina said...

Matterhorn, I deeply appreciate your thoughtful comment, and, as you say, this is too large a subject for discussion on a blog. I feel that the whole notion of atonement has become so distorted and it has played a major part throughout history in the lives of some of the kindest and loveliest and most well-meaning people of the past. At-one-ment with Love/God/Life could never require suffering as it would completely contradict ‘Its’ own essence. The message of the Gospel – or the message of all the great mystics - is surely to uplift humanity but so often religion has turned Mankind’s image of ourselves as squirming sinners constantly having to confess our sinfulness...that we were somehow bad just by being born – the abhorrent notion of original sin! What kind of parent would want his children to come daily or weekly or monthly or ever to say, “I am unworthy of you and will suffer to atone for it.” ? What kind of parent would condemn his/her child simply because for being born...and somehow born not quite right? I think this has been such a dominant thought in the minds of so many of these beautiful royalties (and others) that they have somehow, without even being aware that they were doing it, brought about their own martyrdom. They thought on some level that penance and suffering would help humanity and bring it closer to its Creator/Source. If you are ingrained with the notion of the need to atone for your unworthiness, it is a small step to martyrdom. I write this with great compassion and admiration of those who were prepared to devote themselves totally to their beliefs and their faith....and I think as time moves on we lean from them. This is so short a response butn already too long for a blog comment and I trust I do not offend anyone else's beliefs, all of which I totally respect.