Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Problem of Suffering

I recently read CS Lewis' The Problem of Pain. It is a well-reasoned and cogent apologetic for the Creator's abiding love. I have some trouble with Lewis' evolutionary view of the human species, but find his conclusion compelling: pain too is in the service of God's love.

This is the conclusion of many great figures of history: Abraham, Joseph, Moses, St. John Chrysostom, St. Augustine, Kierkegaard... and George Herbert. Herbert's poem Affliction continues to be a powerful statement of the endurance of love, not simply in the midst of pain, but by virtue of pain.

How counter-intuitive it is to even speak of the "virtue" of pain! Yet human experience tells us there is value in suffering. The suffering of the olympian preparing for the trials of competition. The pain of the soldier as he pushes the limits of his physical and mental endurance. The grief of parents who have lost a child and who reach out to parents suffering similar loss. And in the face of devastating loss it is only our sorrow that reassures us that we are alive. George Herbert tells no tales.

Use Herbert's Poem in the Classroom

I've used the following poem in both Philosophy class and in Creative Writing class. I tell the students about George Herbert and read his poem to the class. I then ask the students their impressions. Then I request that each think about the most painful experience they have had. Then I assign a stanza to 11 student volunteers and work with them so that they will read their assigned stanza expressively and with understanding. The students read the poem aloud in class, the different voices representing the suffering of all humanity. Finally, those who didn't volunteer are asked to share their impressions.

George Herbert

When thou didst entice to thee my heart,
I thought the service brave:
So many joys I writ down for my part,
Besides what I might have
Out of my stock of natural delights,
Augmented with thy gracious benefits.

I looked on thy furniture so fine,
And made it fine to me:
Thy glorious household-stuff did me entwine,
And ‘tice me unto thee.
Such stars I counted mine: both heav’n and earth
Paid me my wages in a world of mirth.

What pleasures could I want, whose King I served?
Where joys my fellows were?
Thus argu’d into hopes, my thought reserved
No place for grief or fear.
Therefore my sudden soul caught at the place,
And made her youth and fierceness seek thy face.

At first thou gav’st me milk and sweetness;
I had my wish and way:
My days were straw’d with flow’rs and happiness;
There was no month but May.
But with my years sorrow did twist and grow,
And made a party unawares for woe.

My flesh began unto my soul in pain,
Sicknesses cleave my bones;
Consuming agues dwell in ev’ry vein,
And tune my breath to groans.
Sorrow was al my soul; I scarce believed,
Till grief did tell me roundly, that I lived.

When I got health, thou took’st away my life,
And more; for my friends die:
My mirth and edge was lost; a blunted knife
Was of more use than I.
Thus thin and lean without a fence or friend, I was blown through with ev’ry storm and wind.

Whereas my birth and spirit rather took
The way that takes the town;
Thou didst betray me to a lingering book,
And wrap me in a gown.
I was entangled in the world of strife,
Before I had the power to change my life.

Yet, for I threatened oft the siege to raise,
Not simpring all mine age,
Thou often didst with Academic praise
Melt and dissolve my rage.
I took thy sweetened pill. Till I came where
I could not go away, nor persevere.

Yet lest perchance I should too happy be
In my happiness,
Turning my purge to food, thou throwest me
Into more sicknesses.
Thou doth thy power cross-bias me; not making
Thine own gift good, yet me from my ways taking.

Now I am here, what thou wilt do with me
None of my books will show:
I read, and sigh, and wish I were a tree;
For sure I then should grow
To fruit or shade: at least some bird would trust
Her household to me, and I should be just.

Yet though thou troublest me, I must be meek;
In weakness must be stout.
Well, I will change the service, and go seek
Some other master out.
Ah my dear God! Though I am clean forgot,
Let me not love thee, if I love thee not.


poetreader said...

Father Damien at his Leper Colony on Molokai was once asked what gift he would pray for for his patients. Without even a pause, he answered, "Pain."

You see, Hanson's Disease (formerly called leprosy) is a disease of the nerve endings that destroys the ability to feel pain. The lack of pain allows the sufferer to do himself serious damage without realizing it, thus the horrible deformities of the disease. Pain is what alerts one that there is a problem.

Yes, pain is indeed a gift of God.


Alice C. Linsley said...

Thank you for reminding me of Father Damien and the lepers. When I was a child I traveled with my parents through India and saw lepers. I was deeply troubled by their deformities, poverty and ill-treatment.

Jesus' story of the healed lepers where only one returns to give thanks, reminds us that there are more serious afflictions than physical pain.