These notes, thinking out-loud on paper, are the early formations of some study I'm currently engaged with on human suffering and the traditional thinking of the Church (Christianity), written to be shared on March 13, 2012, with my community as we study together The Life of Saint Anthony.
Br. Kenneth asked me to specifically address the question of "long suffering", as the object of my study now seems to have evolved into addressing human suffering and the Churches' (read Christianity) apparent inability to address suffering as the prime concern among humanity. Why is the Church (and religion in general) losing ground of validity and relevance in the modern world? The inability to deal with suffering is the answer, I believe. In the pressing needs of this world, salvation is nice, as is heaven, bliss and nirvana, but what about the suffering now?
I don't believe religion and the Church do a very good job in directly addressing human suffering as a concern. Many religions deem suffering to be a consequence or an end, and Buddhism, which most directly addresses suffering does so by making it the result of illusion and desire and chooses to use detachment as the means around the problem of suffering; it seems if we become enlightened enough, we won't be subject to suffering. If we do or don't do something, we'll be spared suffering. The Church spends a lot of time either saying "we deserve suffering because we're retched sinners" or would rather side-step the issue and talk around it and the mystery of it.
As a matter of fact, in my study of and experience with shamanism, it leads me to believe shamanism does a better job of addressing suffering, in that in my experience, the community holds itself accountable for the suffering within the community and the individuals who are suffering and work as a whole to address and remedy the suffering... but that's another story.
But I'm getting off track in describing my interest in the Church and suffering, and there will be plenty of time to share my studies and thoughts on the subject. The subject directly here is that Abba Antony speaks to "long-suffering" (which ultimately has implications in the world's sufferings), I think, in this sense, he is more concerned with inner-suffering, the suffering which reveals to us that we are indeed doing the real inner work required of us to grow in God's Spirit and love.
My first thought about long-suffering is that I would generally prefer short-suffering. If suffer I must, then mostly I would rather not suffer at all. But as I think on that, it occurs to me that no-suffering would also mean no-breathing and no-living, for if I stop suffering, then I must be dead... unless I've become Buddha, who while no longer suffering, I would then have to be wary of meeting Zen pilgrims on the road who would just as soon leave me dead on the road, should they meet me...
The point here being, the very fact that I am alive means I must suffer. Along with taxes and death, suffering is one of the things we all must experience, including suffering fools, beginning with my own foolish self. Yet, there are choices to be made about suffering, as it is a given that suffer we will, we can choose to a certain degree what we shall suffer and in doing so, actually diminish the totality of our suffering, while also gaining the illumination to help others in this world suffer a little less, and if we are blessed, maybe help a few suffer a lot less. Suffering is the mythic hero's lot, the means beyond the illusion of victory and glory, and rather to true happiness and peace found finally at home. Suffering is too the shaman's way, the means to learning the healing way as the wounded healer. Suffering the cross, death, and hell, is the Savior's way to resurrection and the way to our healing, or salving.
I think this is what Jesus may have been alluding to when he said his followers must take up their crosses to follow him. I hear Jesus telling me that if I make the right choices towards my suffering ("take up my cross"), then those things which cause me to suffer may then die-off (doing the inner-work) and a new me, transformed and restored me, may be resurrected form the depth of my suffering. I think that it's likely that until we begin to shape our suffering, our suffering will continue to shape us, or rather misshapen us. Could it be that this is the power Christ offers us when he invites us to take up our crosses and follow him. I believe for me this has been the case, continues to be the case, and will be for the rest of my life: this is the way for me to fully embrace my humanity and my life. This also means letting go of the idea I can control all that happens to me which brings suffering, and I can't end the suffering but that I can sure as hell embrace it as part of the fullness of my humanity and that this can serve as the springboard for more mature spirituality.
The first choice towards my suffering is realizing I will suffer, do suffer and am suffering. Thank God, not always, 24-7-365, but suffering is my companion. Someone famous once said death is my sister. Yep, it was St. Francis who spoke of "Sister Death". Perhaps we could view suffering as part of the family of experience too, "Brother Suffering", with us always. Of course with Brother Suffering being part of the family, we have to accept him and love him too unconditionally. Long-suffering this is indeed. And many tears, the holy tears of healing, holy tears cleansing The Wound we all bear.
Which leads to choice two, doing the inner work regarding "my" suffering. The questions for us then is: why do I suffer, and what cause me to suffer? This is the hard part because this means we have to accept the suffering in a deep and personal way. I have to examine the wound, probe it, examine it, wash it with soap and water, and maybe alcohol... ouch. Ouch! Ouch!! This hurts... I'm going to cry now. Maybe scream some too.
But, without the probing and cleaning, healing of The Wound will not occur. The Wound will remain and fester, and slowly poison the whole of me, and will kill me, heart and soul (or even physically), making me numb, the walking dead, or maybe even a raging horrible monster.
The next part is harder still, it means I have to be willing to take up my cross, willingly to let die the part of me which is attached to the cause of suffering, to let die the part of me which is hurt, angry, resentful, bitter, addicted, the part of me which would choose this hell and choose to make my hell part of your hell, the part of me which would strike out from the place of my suffering. Ironically, I must be willing to suffer the sorrows, deep deep sorrows of my suffering, to overcome my suffering, and the suffering I cause others in vengeance for my suffering, or in defending against suffering (an impossibility!). I must descend into my hell.
I must endure the harrowing. Fortunately there in hell Christ endures too. Christ descends into our hell, my hell, your hell, as well. Love is there too. The greatest leap of faith for me is into the pit of my hell, trusting that even in the hell of my making, God's love is present there too. And it is. I must be willing to open the gates of my hell, and let God in, you in, my friends and family in, trusting that I will be loved anyway. Even if no one shows up, I know love is present, within myself, in the act of the willingness to be vulnerable, loving God in spirit and in truth. But, I've yet to be abandoned. And if I honestly look around, I can see beyondme, and my suffering and see love is present in the world. If love is still present in the world, then I know the hope of God is present still.
Suffering forms us and depending on how we're taught to relate to it, forms us either into beings of compassion, for others and ourselves, or as beings desensitized as mis-shapened creatures forever self-imprisoned and alone to some degree, bitter, spiteful and harmful in the vain illusion that one can escape suffering. Depending on our understanding of its tension, in ourselves and others, determines whether the process is ultimately creative or destructive: the confrontation with our sufferings in each other is not something to be afraid of, friction is the natural sate of the universe creating heat and light: life; tension, when properly understood and tuned, leads to the music of life: proper tension in the lips is music for brass and woodwinds, proper tension on strings is music in piano, guitar and the string section, proper tension on drum heads is the joy of being in the percussion section... none of these are possible without tension.
Our suffering, our embracing of it, of our full humanity, brings us closer to our full divinity in Christ, in God's love and Spirit. Our suffering, our willingness to companion it, provides a place for new growth. Indeed, the companionship of our suffering is the only way to the next life; the healthy, centered, fully aware life, which embraces all, for better or worse, with compassion, joy and peace with all experience. All people share suffering in common with each other, and in suffering, all share the magnificent capacity of love. We have before us the grace of God's love born through our suffering, the liberation of suffering pioneered in bearing our own suffering Jesus in his (and therefore our) empathy and compassion... wisdom true and divine.
It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. Hebrews 2:10