Thursday, March 15, 2012

Suffering and Sacramentalism

I've been thinking a lot about suffering lately. I think that it's difficult for humanity to see the good in suffering precisely because it does not understand the nature of material things and their relation to the metaphysical, namely God. The name of this blog is discovering the beauty of truth, and one of the most beautiful things that I've discovered about the Catholic Faith is the concept of the Sacrament. In the most absolute sense, the seven Sacraments of the Church are most properly termed Sacraments, and they are the physical means by which the Holy Spirit, through the words and actions of the Priest, brings Christ to us, into us, and thereby transforms us into His eternal Reality. The Sacraments supernaturally help us to leave behind the sinful world, which is ethereal and fades in your hands when you try to grasp it too tightly, and brings you to the place where this physical cosmos is sanctified in the universe that is Christ Himself.

This supremely Catholic concept of sacramentalism, however, applies beyond the sanctified and preeminently holy seven Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, the Holy Eucharist, Penance, Marriage, Holy Orders, and Extreme Unction, and goes to the heart of the essence of being Catholic, of looking at the world with Catholic eyes. The thing about the Sacraments is that, though all are holy and sacred, six of these Mysteries remain what they are, that is, normal physical material of this world that is sanctified and used by the Holy Spirit, in cooperation with the supernatural and metaphysical power of the Holy Spirit, to sanctify the Church of God. That is to say, in Baptism, the water is still water, though physically sacred and blessed by the Priest; the water and the Spirit of God brooding over the waters (Genesis 1:1-4) cooperate to wholly sanctify the man body and soul, transforming him into a new creation and enlightening Him with the Eternal Word. In Confirmation, the holy oil, though blessed by the Bishop and applied by the Bishop, is still oil, though sacred. The Holy Spirit is present over the oil, and through the oil totally fills and completes the Christian, and the Spirit works in cooperation with the physical reality. This is the same for all of the Mysteries, save one; that is, the Holy Eucharist. The Holy Eucharist is the only Mystery of the Church wherein the actual physical reality of bread and wine, which are sanctified and made sacred and holy by the Holy Spirit, is literally annihilated through the operation of the Holy Spirit working by the Word which spoke the universe into existence. So therefore, the other Sacraments are intrinsically subordinate to the Holy Eucharist, and are sanctified by the Eucharist, and the Eucharist is preeminent among the Mysteries.

This relationship between the Eucharist and the other Mysteries reflects, I believe, the relationship that the Sacraments have to the Church, and the relationship that the Church has to the rest of the cosmos. It also reflects the relationship every human being alive has to Reality Himself, Christ the Incarnate Word, and to nature His creation. The Mysteries as a group are preeminently holy and sacred in the Church of God, and are as a group the conveyer of God to Christians and are the Church's Sacraments. However, the Church itself is a Sacrament of God's presence to the world; a sacred means of grace to the world and a preservation of the same. You could even see mankind itself as a kind of contingent means of grace whereby God tends the natural order by us, the animals and plants, and in loving goodness uses us to convey his authority, power, and order in all of creation as we order it, subdue it, and often, love it and give it worth that it would not ordinarily have.

This all relates to suffering in this manner: when any man looks at material creation, and the suffering inflicted upon him by it in both body and soul, he must understand the nature of physical reality. Physical reality has a very much insubordinate and fleeting existence compared with God's eternal nature, which is TO BE, Being itself, the very Reason for His own existence. Even our own immaterial souls, though immortal and the image of God's own eternity (Wisdom 2:21-25), still are not eternally the reason for their own existence, in the manner God's is; we are wholly inferior in our existence to Being itself. In this way, when God allows suffering and emptiness to come into our lives, I believe that one of the lessons He is trying to convey to us is that all physical or temporal things, even other people, are valuable in and of themselves only if they are treated as Sacraments in which God is present. In other words, everything in your life, from your food and drink to your dearest friends, to your spouse, even your Priest, must be honored and reverenced and treated as a Sacrament of God's presence, and a means by which God sheds His love on you, and you love God.

You see, when you are surrounded by all that is good, when you have wonderful, large families and many friends, when food is plentiful and comfort everywhere, when life is so ordered that everything is good, it is nearly impossible for anyone save the Saints to not, in some fiber of their being, start to treat the temporal realities around them as good in and of themselves. This occurs more and more strongly the higher and more beautiful and more good the object of our affection is, such as intimacy with your spouse, or being surrounded by good Catholic friends. I see this strong bent in man's nature to honor the temporal objects around him more and more as the supreme goods in His life as nothing other than the bent of idolatry that St. John the Apostle earnestly warns us, his beloved children, against (1st John 5:21), by subconsciously replacing God with the temporal.

However, when your life is torn apart, when suffering abounds, when food is scarce and life is uncomfortable, nay, even painful and terrible, when friends are nowhere to be found, when family is nonexistent, when you have nothing to rely on, and no one to turn to; when you do not have the luxury of people to surround you and fulfill your emotional needs, when people abandon you or treat you terribly, when physical suffering and illness rock your body and soul, when those that you hold most dear die... all of these things only reveal the emptiness that is in ALL temporal things, if they are not to you Sacraments of God's presence, if you do not seek God through them and in communion with them without stopping in the things themselves. The emptiness and isolation and loneliness that you feel within these sufferings is not unusual or out of the ordinary; it is precisely the real character of all temporal things without God's Grace given to them, and the omnipotent strength of the Word, Christ, to sustain them. Even people themselves, in the Image of God, are nothing but the vacancy and nothingness of Hell if they, and you, do not cooperate to show the unseen God to your brother through yourself (1st John 4:11-13) so that in all things we may be shown, along with the cosmos, to be contingent upon and dependent upon God the Sustainer, and so that we may never fall into idolatry even regarding those people closest to us.

I say this as someone who has had my share of suffering in life, mostly of the kind of the absence of abandonment of friends and family, and that of isolation. In such a vacuum, I have realized this lesson from God. I have realized what He has taught me, and hopefully, will teach you as well. Looking out in absence and nonexistence and suffering around you teaches you more strongly than ever to rely only on God, who cannot be moved, and you must carry that lesson with you even if and when life becomes more pleasant and bearable, and people surround you, and love is everywhere, and comfort becomes preeminent, and thereby grow closer to Christian perfection even while life is comfortable. This is the way to view suffering, and to act while going through it. It is no accident that Our Lord prayed most passionately and most strongly during His suffering in the garden, and when abandoned by his disciples. As a model for us, He sought His Father in His humanity most strongly and most ardently when suffering and when utterly alone.