Sometimes religion appears to be presented as offering easy cures for pain: have faith and God will mend your hurts; reach out to God and your woundedness will be healed. The Beatitude ‘Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted’ can be interpreted this way too, but the Latin root of the word ‘comfort’ means ‘with strength’ rather than ‘at ease’. The Beatitude is not promising to take away our pain; indeed the inference is that the pain will remain with us. It does promise that God will cherish us and our wound, and help us draw a blessing from our distressed state.
S Jocelyn Burnell, 1989 – Quaker Faith & Practice 21.66
Sometimes it can seem almost as if we are minimising suffering, especially in other’s lives, when we speak of finding a blessing within suffering, and yet it is so. We dare not assume or prescribe this for another; and yet it is true, demonstrably so, in my own life, and so, presumably, it at least exists as a possibility for others,
The principle occurs in a number of places in Scripture, of course, the principal one being (for me, at least!) Romans 8.28: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (NIV) There are hints, too, in the Psalms, for instance: “If your law had not been my delight, I would have perished in my affliction. I will never forget your precepts, for by them you have preserved my life.” (Ps 119.92-93).
All this can seem an odd way of looking at things, especially in a time like ours, when suffering (unless perhaps it is the suffering of some officially sanctioned underclass, like immigrants, or those on benefits) is wiped away by analgesia and the promises of worldly comfort, and yet all I can say, from the times in my life when I have travelled through hard places, is that it seems to work that way.
Love, of course, is what underlies all this. At the very end, when all is said and done, love seems to be not only the quality of being, but of death itself. If, when we fall through all our careful plans and prudent insurances, we can “stand still in it” as George Fox said, then we fall into something we might well describe as the arms of God, or so it has been for me.
A while ago, I wrote a post in which I made what seems to me to be my best effort so far at summing up what I am getting at here:
To be close to one who is dying is to be close to something so right, so clearly, in Kathleen Dowling Singh’s words, grace out of tragedy. Or to know that, in Pippin’s words, “That isn’t so bad.” To have been faced with the great likelihood of one’s own death, as I have been blessed to be once or twice, is to know that that frailty is only one side of the coin. Reality is not what it seems. Our loneliness is in our separation, our differentiation. But once “the grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass,” then we know that really, in the end, truly, it’s OK. That in each of us which is love itself is beyond all the dimensions of time and matter, beyond the reach of thought, but there, at the centre of every heart.
We never were alone, and love is a very good name for God – for that Source and centre of all in which all things from galaxies to wood mice grow, and are held: that Ground of Being out of which, finally, we can never fall, but which will call us home to endless light, and the healing of all wounds.