The wisdom of sorrows
The wisdom of sorrows
Whatever the reason for the sufferings that are sent us, they are all invariably sent for our benefit – for the salvation of our souls, for the remittance of our sins, and in the case of innocent Christians – to merit a crown in the Heavenly Kingdom. The elders Barsonuphius the Great and John say: “Everything that happens to a man serves to test him on the road to salvation, in order for him to endure and believe himself to be unworthy. It is a good sign that you are sorrowing. Do you not know that whenever someone asks the fathers to pray for him, or asks God to give him aid, then his sorrows and temptations are increased to test him? Thus, do not seek bodily rest if the Lord does not send it to you, for bodily rest is vile in the eyes of the Lord, Who said: In the world ye shall have tribulation (John 16:33). Know that those who wish to have rest in everything will hear at a certain moment: Remember that thou in thy lifetime received thy good things (Luke 16:25). The one who is unable to bear tribulation will not see glory. Do you not know that there are many sorrows for the righteous and through them they are tested like gold by fire? Therefore, if we are righteous, we shall be tried by sorrow; if, on the other hand, we are sinful, we will suffer sorrows as being worthy of them. Let us remember all the saints and what they endured in doing good: they were hated and reviled by other people until their very end. Accept the suffering of sorrow in everything, in order to be the descendant of saints, and whether you experience sorrow, or deprivation, or insult, or illness, or physical labor, – for everything that befalls you give thanks to God.”
Saint Isaac the Syrian writes: “God did not wish for His beloved to rest while they are in the body, but wished that they, while living in the world, live in sorrow, hardship, labor, deprivation, solitude, need, illness, insult, in sadness of the heart and exhaustion of the body. The Lord knows that those who live in bodily comfort are unable to remain in His love. However, when illness, need, bodily exhaustion or fear of bodily harm trouble your mind and deprive you of joy and hope in the Lord, then know that you are being ruled by the body and not by Christ. Therefore, concerning all sorrows that befall you openly or secretly, make a cautious judgment that this has happened to you rightfully and justly. And be grateful for everything.”
Thus, in all cases suffering is meaningful. But we can also speak not only of the wisdom of suffering, but also of its necessity for man. N. N. Fioletov writes: “The soul of a man who has never suffered, never gone through tempests, agitation or struggles, often becomes covered with the crust of vanity, banality, self-satisfaction; it faces the danger of becoming immersed in a state of inertia and dullness. We can see in everyday examples how often people who have not suffered through anything are unable to understand the feelings of others, remain indifferent to the suffering of others, how often they lose the realization of the higher purpose and meaning of life, and become immersed in a bog of triviality. This state of complete self-satisfaction and dullness is commonly mistaken for happiness.”
Thus, all suffering sent from God is not a violation of universal harmony, but on the contrary, in all cases suffering is the manifestation of one of the forms of God’s constant Providence over man, proof of God’s love and charity towards fallen mankind. In view of God’s benevolence and wisdom, it could not be otherwise of course. Holy Matrona of Zadonsk often said: “Sorrows in life are presents sent to us from paradise.”
A Christian must essentially reject the worldly understanding of the word “misfortune,” for “all sorrow, united with patience, is good and beneficial for us,” – writes Saint Peter Damascene. There is no “misfortune” in a world ruled by the benevolent Lord God, and that which people call misfortune is rather a merciful admonition from God the Father, a testing by Him of a Christian’s faith. Apostle Paul writes that, in a Christian, tribulation engenders patience, and patience – experience, and experience – hope, and hope does not shame us (Rom. 5:3-5).
Saint John of Tobolsk says the same: “If man’s will were directed towards virtue and were truly submissive to and in accord with the will of God, then hardships, illness, sorrows, and other misfortunes which each man encounters in life would not seem to him to be a punishment, for he would suffer them with a joyous heart and love for God, reasoning and believing that they had been sent to him by the will of God for an unknown, but obviously good purpose.”
Moreover, saints and righteous people reached a stage where they, understanding the beneficial meaning of sorrows for man’s soul, not only suffered them good-naturedly, without grumbling or agitation, but joyously, and even hoping for them and seeking them. Thus the wise Abbess Arsenia writes: “After the Lord helps you get rid of passions, then sorrows become the greatest joy in life for your soul; it rises above them, it is not overcome by them, but only realizes and feels God’s great help, which strengthens the spirit by means of life’s sorrows and tribulations; realizes the great wisdom of God’s paths, which through these sorrows lead man to freedom, purify him, and always place him on the right path. Then the soul feels power and joy, and gives thanks to God for these sorrows, which seem insignificant to the soul in comparison with the blessings which it receives from the Lord through these sorrows.”
And another righteous one said: “The greatest joy in the world is the joy of suffering.” The righteous priest John writes: “All of us can complain when we do not experience suffering, for nothing else makes us as comparable to the Lord as the bearing of His Cross.” The philosopher Eckhart provides the following spiritual aphorism: “A quiet and tranquil life, spent in God, is good; a life full of tempests, spent in patience, is better; but to find tranquility in a life full of suffering is the best.”
We must always remember that a good-natured endurance of suffering is possible only with God’s help, and is God’s gift to Christians. St. Peter Damascene writes about it thus: “To endure insults with joy and meekness, to do good to one’s enemies, to lay down one’s life for others, and similar qualities are God’s gifts, which are sent to those who yearn for them, and who earn them from God by means of suffering.”
Thus, only he cannot endure “trials” and “tribulations,” who does not place his trust in God, who is not aware of his sinfulness, who does not feel the need to purify his heart, to save his soul, and who is not aware of his powerlessness to achieve this solely through his own efforts.
Elder Siluan writes: “If misfortune befalls you, think of it this way: the Lord sees my heart, and if He so wishes, everything will be well with myself and others, – and thus your heart will always be tranquil. But if anyone should grumble: this is bad, and that is not good, – such a one will never have peace in his heart, even though he keep the fast and pray at length. Some people suffer greatly from poverty and illness, but do not become humble, and so they suffer in vain… If you humble yourself, you will see your woes turn into tranquility, so that you will say to yourself: why have I tortured myself and sorrowed so greatly up to now? But now you are joyous, because you have attained humility and the grace of God has descended upon you.”
The same elder also says that “sorrows invariably accompany love and grow in one’s soul just as Christ’s love grows in the soul. This is understandable: Christ’s love (in the soul of a Christian) encompasses the entire world, and painfully and ardently co-suffers with all the sorrows of the world, just as Christ suffered and shed tears, looking upon Jerusalem and foreseeing its forthcoming destruction.” Therefore, writes Schema-Archimandrite Sophronius, “whoever loves God, passes through sufferings which the one who doesn’t have great faith in God is unable to endure and spiritually falls apart.” But – “great faith and love engender great courage.”
St. Isaac the Syrian writes: “Whoever lives in virtue without suffering sorrow, will see the door of pride open before him.”
But the Lord’s care and aid to man in developing humility within himself permeates the entire world. Abbot John says: “All the facts and circumstances of earthly life are designed to humble man, to erase the pride of his feelings and his mind, enlightening him with an awareness of God’s mercy and suppressing his egoism. In this lies the meaning of innumerable illnesses, incurable ailments, humiliations, poverty, dependence upon others, feelings of impotence concerning one’s past, present, and future… At the same time this engenders gratitude to God and the collapse of all futile faiths, all vain hopes and false ideals.
How terribly would man’s pride grow were he not humbled by all that now humbles him on earth: death, illness, physical suffering, helplessness, frailty, moral torment, humiliation, labor, ingratitude, unreason, an ugly exhibition of inner passions, the judgment of one’s conscience…”
And Bishop Varlaam Ryashentsev adds: “Only then do we begin earning some merit in heaven when we, being innocent, undergo suffering with all humility, without grumbling, accepting it as God’s will and trial of us. In this manner the soul is cleansed of spiritual corruption. Without deep and innocent suffering, without a cross, no one can enter paradise. The path of God is a daily cross.”
Father Alexander Elchaninov writes similarly: “I often believe that all the thorns and brambles of our earthly situation are expressly set up by God to heal our souls.
Sorrows erase our sins. ‘Where there are no sorrows there is no salvation,’ – says St. Seraphim of Sarov. Not only the suffering that is sent by God, but all spiritual endeavors, all voluntary deprivations, all sacrifices are immediately exchanged for spiritual wealth within us: the more we lose, the more we gain. It is for this reason that ‘it is hard for the rich to enter the Heavenly Kingdom,’ because they do not undergo this exchange of earthly, temporal, corruptible benefits for heavenly, incorruptible benefits. Thus, woe is unto those who are satiated, laughing, merry – they will become deprived to the point of complete spiritual poverty.
Brave souls instinctively search for sacrifice and suffering, and become spiritually strengthened by tribulations. There are numerous proofs of this in the Gospel and in the writings of the apostles, especially Apostle Paul. Even non-Christian religions are aware of it: thus fakirs, yogis, and dervishes torture themselves with cold calculation.
We must ask God to send us trials, and we must feel concern when we live prosperously. Children who grow up in luxury and satiation grow up with spiritual emptiness, while those who go through illness and poverty grow up with great spiritual strength, for our light affliction, which is but for a moment, earns us a far more exceeding and eternal glory (2 Cor. 4:17).
The Lord pities us greatly, but sends us suffering: only if we are struck by misfortune and calamity can we produce some sparks, some holy fire. Therefore, endure your sorrows with patience: even lower creatures do not live without suffering, and the higher is man, the more he suffers.
Illness has taught me much. It has strengthened my understanding that whoever is with Christ lives with suffering, and that there is no other path for a Christian except through internal and external pain. And, thinking of the multitude of suffering in the world, I have come to the realization that it is by means of such innocent suffering that the invisible Kingdom of God is built up, and His suffering Body – the Church of Christ – is assembled. Great is the purifying power and the value of suffering. Our spiritual growth depends primarily on how we undergo suffering. Courage in the face of suffering, a willingness to undergo it – such is the mark of a true Christian soul. But we must not search for suffering or make it up.”
The Lord often sends great suffering before one’s body dies. In this we can also see the aptness of such suffering: the more suffering the soul leaves on earth as it passes into the other world, the greater joy it finds in that world of “blessed repose.” Here we must remember the Lord’s words: but woe unto you that are rich! for ye have received your consolation. Woe unto you that are full! for ye shall hunger. Woe unto you that laugh now! for ye shall mourn and weep (Luke 6:24-25).
It is for this reason that spiritual people pity those who sin in this world, who do not repent of their sins, and who live a life of amusement and vanity. It is said of such: “the Lord has abandoned them.” Of those who suffer tribulation it is said: “the Lord has visited them.”
Those who bask in earthly happiness lose their spiritual compass in life, they are the most miserable of men: their personal life is in danger. Thus, all wise men, both the ancients and contemporaries, and not only Christian, avoided earthly happiness, and their awareness of the world beyond prevailed over the visible world, and their sense of responsibility for their life was exceedingly developed… Wise people do not try to become comfortably settled on their earthly path, in order not to fall spiritually asleep and miss the Bridegroom’s coming at midnight…
Neither should a Christian’s mind be troubled at the sight of the suffering of innocent children. Even here God’s wisdom and providence are present. Most often the Lord wishes, through the suffering of such innocent children, to bring their parents or relatives to their senses, to impede the latter from stepping onto the path of sin and to place them upon the path of repentance. The children themselves will be subsequently exalted by God to a much greater degree than the temporary duration of their suffering.
At this point we should recollect the Lord’s words to St. Anthony the Great. St. Anthony once ruminated at length about the multitude of trials and afflictions which befell children, about the suffering of innocent children, and about other matters that were difficult for the human mind to comprehend. Then he heard the following words: “Anthony, such are the fates that are sent by God. It is detrimental to the soul to investigate them. Look rather to yourself.”