Suffer Little Children

With the recent visit of my parents I went along to Sunday Mass. This was something I did every week without fail up until the age of eighteen. For some years I was an alter-boy, and when in primary seven, after hearing a rousing speech by a priest, I almost went off to join the priesthood. The visit back to church again aroused many memories, although the service seemed far longer in duration as a child. My father enjoys the service deeply, as a person with introverted spiritual interest, whereas my mother prefers a more extroverted crying out to God. Although she participates sincerely, she will regret the absence of hymns, a choir and a certain charismatic dynamism. I guess neither is the exclusively right way to worship, but rather just the introvert and extrovert at prayer.
In the reading of the Psalms I was struck by the rationalisation of the personal suffering of the faithful in the way it was described. No doubt every religion struggles with this question: why do those who have turned to God continue to suffer? However, the explanation given in Hebrews 12:5-7, 11-15 was exactly akin to that within the theology of the Bhakti school. The reading was as follows:

My son, when the Lord corrects you, do not treat it lightly; but do not get discouraged when he reprimands you. For the Lord trains the ones that he loves and he punishes all those that he acknowledges as his sons. Suffering is part of your training; God is treating you as his sons. Has there ever been any son whose father did not train him? Of course, any punishment is most painful at the time, and far from pleasant; but later, in those on whom it has been used, it bears fruit in peace and goodness. So hold up your limp arms and steady your trembling knees and smooth out the path you tread; then the injured limb will not be wrenched, it will grow strong again.

When religions offer the alleviation of suffering, the practitioner by a certain point notices that she/he is still suffering, perhaps even more than others. So why continue? Well passages like the above assist us to make some sense of our suffering, even to the point where may we refer to it as ‘mercy’. As with the loving father ideology of the church, the bhaktas see all of their suffering, not as impersonal karma, but rather the direct intervention of God in their life. In the Bhagavata Purana (10.14.8) it describes that those who embrace or manage to tolerate such suffering while always bringing their hearts to God, are the rightful heirs to God’s abode. Although in the verse itself it is indicated that the origin of suffering is in a person’s past misdeeds, the commentators elaborate that it no longer can be categorised as karma. What they teach is that it is God’s intervention, where he is utilising a person’s karma, out of his kindness, to eradicate any traces of material interest that remains in them. Therefore it is not categorically and only a natural and impersonal law of reaction, but rather the intervention into the system by a supreme person acting in our interest. Here is an excerpt from the purport:

The word su-samīkṣamāṇa indicates that a devotee earnestly awaits the mercy of the Supreme Lord even while suffering the painful effects of previous sinful activities. Lord Kṛṣṇa explains in the Bhagavad-gītā that a devotee who fully surrenders unto Him is no longer liable to suffer the reactions of his previous karma. However, because in his mind a devotee may still maintain the remnants of his previous sinful mentality, the Lord removes the last vestiges of the enjoying spirit by giving His devotee punishments that may sometimes resemble sinful reactions. The purpose of the entire creation of God is to rectify the living entity's tendency to enjoy without the Lord, and therefore the particular punishment given for a sinful activity is specifically designed to curtail the mentality that produced the activity. Although a devotee has surrendered to the Lord's devotional service, until he is completely perfect in Kṛṣṇa consciousness he may maintain a slight inclination to enjoy the false happiness of this world. The Lord therefore creates a particular situation to eradicate this remaining enjoying spirit. This unhappiness suffered by a sincere devotee is not technically a karmic reaction; it is rather the Lord's special mercy for inducing His devotee to completely let go of the material world and return home, back to Godhead.

In simple terms the above passage is saying that even after the surrendering to God, some lessons still have to be learned. Therefore the gracious parental figure sets about his work. For those who see their greatest suffering as the grace of God and a lesson to be learned, the ultimate freedom from suffering is to be had (after death?).
Whatever the rational, both the faithful and the unfaithful suffer through the entirety of their lives. Perhaps one form of suffering is tolerable in the fact that we attribute meaning to it and presume an end to it. Such faith sustains our optimism. However, more than this there may be a sort of pleasure in it for the faithful, perhaps she or he feels themselves to be the object of interest, love and concern. I believe that child psychology do recognise an inner content within the punished child who feels cared for. Perhaps when all is said and done, that is the sense of what lies behind the above said: ‘it bears fruit in peace and goodness’. The Bhakti commentator Visvanath Cakravarti offers that God tops up the heart with joy (rasa) in proportion to the adversity. In both cases there is recognition of some positive emotion or position amidst or following the experience of suffering.
Certainly what can be said is that for the Christians and the Bhaktas suffering does not end in this life. It is both false and misleading to allure others by insisting that it does. What does change is that religion interprets it in relation to a paternal God’s kindness and correction, and remains forever the optimist. In the height of suffering there may be a certain pleasurable experience, that of either the masochist feeling pleased at being chastised or a supernatural reciprocation that uplifts us.
Well where do I stand on all this and in my meagre life’s experience? l I certainly can say for sure that I suffer. At times it has been so intense that I could have become embittered toward God, like a son who has been overly punished. However, in recovering from the shock of it I continue to rationalise it as grace and a lesson to be learned. Perhaps I still lack in thankfulness or request that such lessons come in doses and not downpours. Whether God’s intervention or karma, I can’t help but resolve that somewhere in the past, or a past life, I have wronged nature and its inhabitants. The suffering has begun with me and in one sense ends with me. With faith I accept the rationalism as is taught by the church and the Bhaktas, it is an explanation in the absence of a better one. And in the absence of us truly knowing, the best interpretation that saves me from the absence of meaning and absolute pessimism will have to do.
The rationalisation of suffering is important for religions and the faithful, because it can be said for sure that there is no tangible end to it in this life.

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