Joseph Ratzinger on Suffering

“Pain and disease can paralyze one as a human being. They can shatter one to pieces, not only physically, but also psychologically and spiritually. However, they can also smash down complacency and spiritual lethargy and lead one to find oneself for the first time. The struggle with suffering is the place of human decision-making par excellence. Here the human project becomes flesh and blood. Here man is forced to face the fact that existence is not at his disposal, nor is his life his own property. Man may snap back defiantly that he will nevertheless try to acquire the power that will make it so. But in so doing, he makes a desperate anger his basic attitude to life. There is a second possibility: man can respond by seeking to trust this strange power to whom he is subject. He can allow himself to be led, unafraid, by the hand, without Angst-ridden concern for his situation. And in this second case, the human attitude towards pain, towards the presence of death within living, merges with the attitude we call love.”

Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology, 95-96.

Trauma, Suffering, and the Community

On the Mere Orthodoxy blog Patrick Stefan has written an appreciative critique of an article recently written on trauma and Reformed evangelicalism by Paul Maxwell. I want to weigh in with a question for Patrick. But before I get to this, I need to give a quick fly over of the discussion.

First, Paul’s piece was a reflection on his experience within evangelicalism and particularly at Westminster (Philadelphia). Paul was connecting a general observation about the culture of Reformed evangelicalism—its divisiveness and in-group vs. out-group dynamics—with the tendency of the traumatized to re-create trauma. He writes, “abused boys can be attracted to militant contexts that recreate their own emotional abuse.”

Not only is this re-creation a recipe for perpetuating abuse, but it is also a pretty terrible context for working through trauma. He writes, “But currently, and I say this in spite of all the books that have been written for ‘survivors’ and ‘healing’ by evangelicals, there is no place for corporate or public healing of trauma in evangelicalism . . . I simply don’t believe there is space for a traumatized person to be their full selves in this community.”

Patrick Stefan builds on Paul’s article by telling his own very moving story of trauma. He suggests his narrative has two stories: “there’s the well-rehearsed one that demonstrates my theological acumen and ability to find truth, then there’s the back-story of a boy in an unsteady world looking for some semblance of certainty.” He gives his own account of Reformed evangelicalism highlighting the doctrine of the fall, the nature of trauma within this doctrine, and biblical examples of coming to terms with suffering.

While generally building on Paul’s article, he thinks “Maxwell has painted Reformed Evangelicalism with too broad a brush.” I wish Patrick had said more about this. Frankly, I am not sure he’s even talked about Paul’s most significant complaint, not about Reformed theology (Paul’s dissertation is on this), but the culture of the community.

It strikes me that Patrick has actually unwittingly contributed to Paul’s point by talking about the two narratives of his life. This leads to my question for Patrick: What kept you from telling your story to your church community? He says, “Behind the closed doors of my home I struggled with anger, hyper-vigilance, and sleeplessness, though I put on a good face in public.” This is precisely the point the Paul was making.

What struck me most about this piece—knowing Paul pretty well—is that it signaled a break with a sort of protective pretense. The fact is, this is remarkably courageous for a person in Paul’s position (Who wants to hire “damaged goods”?). The fact is our church communities do have informal in-groups and out-groups, those who are qualified for “leadership” and those who are not. There are the sufferers and the helpers. Emotional stability is a sign of spiritual maturity, and vice versa–circumstances notwithstanding.

I want to suggest that the reason that the community does so poor a job of supporting sufferers and the reason why Patrick was hesitant to show his suffering is precisely because we still tend to assume that negative emotion is a direct and simple manifestation of sin. Negative emotion, especially statements of anger, regularly disqualify people from being “in.” This creates a devastating catch-22 where people want to communicate strongly and risk rejection for doing so.

Many thanks to both Patrick and Paul for their vulnerability. I applaud them both for their courage. But perhaps, we could bring about a community where courage isn’t necessary for sharing suffering?

 

John Calvin on the Body, from Psychopannychia

We are better taught by the Sacred Writings. The body, which decays, weighs down the soul, and confining it within an earthly habitation, greatly limits its perceptions. If the body is the prison of the soul, if the earthly habitation is a kind of fetters, what is the state of the soul when set free from this prison, when loosed from these fetters? Is it not restored to itself, and as it were made complete, so that we may truly say, that all which it gains is so much lost to the body? Whether they will or not, they must be forced to confess, that when we put off the load of the body, the war between the spirit and the flesh ceases. In short, the mortification of the flesh is the quickening of the spirit. Then the soul, set free from impurities, is truly spiritual, so as to be in accordance with the will of God, and not subject to the tyranny of the flesh, rebelling against it. In short, the mortification of the flesh will be the quickening of the spirit: For then the soul, having shaken off all kinds of pollution, is truly spiritual, so that it consents to the will of God, and is no longer subjected to the tyranny of the flesh; thus dwelling in tranquillity, with all its thoughts fixed on God. Are we to say that it sleeps, when it can rise aloft unencumbered with any load? – that it slumbers, when it can perceive many things by sense and thought, no obstacle preventing? These things not only manifest the errors of these men, but also their malignant hostility to the works and operations which the Scriptures proclaim that God performs in his saints.