Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

The Friendship of Christ: Chapter 11, Christ in the Sufferer; and Chapter 12, Christ Our Friend Crucified (Part I)

I think that "Christ in the Sufferer" must disappoint many who turn to it in hope, at least if the few comments in our little reading group were to be believed.  

Some of us, being sufferers ourselves, are looking for instructions on what to do with our own suffering.  We have been told that we ought to unite our sufferings to Christ's.  We may have been told that we ought to "offer up" our sufferings, perhaps on behalf of some other soul; for example, one person reported being taught that suffering should be offered "for the poor souls in Purgatory."

But exactly how one does this is always left unsaid.

Others of us, and I count myself among them, may be searching for help learning what to do with other people's suffering.  We may feel helpless faced by the suffering around us:  faraway suffering that we only read about, or a suffering person right in front of us, whether it is a stranger or a loved one.  Maybe it is our appointed duty to do something particular to help; it can be a relief to know it; but perhaps what we can do is useless or incomplete, and then we are still left with suffering we can't help.  Or maybe we don't know what to do:  to say "it's not my job" seems wrong, and yet the fear that we might make it worse if we don't understand what we are doing is not an ungrounded one (see:  book of Job)!  Faced with a third suggestion, that we should suffer-with the sufferer, com-passion-ate ourselves... if we are not naturally feelers of others' feelings, how can we make ourselves do it?

There seem to be no easy answers here either.

And Benson's chapter does not help us.  He remains distant from the sufferer.  He does not help the sufferer, and he does not help the one who would serve the sufferer.   What are we to make of this?
I did not feel quite as alienated by Benson's take on suffering as most of the group did, but this was not a chapter that resonated with the readership. Fortunately, Benson is about to move from a philosophical discussion of suffering to ground zero: Christ our Friend Crucified.


And the first word of our friend, crucified, is, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."

I. "...they know not what they do." This, Benson argues, is key, because it's very clear in the gospels that the various characters involved in the Passion thought they knew what they were doing: buying themselves peace by putting an innocent man to death. 

Drilling down even further, their error, and the error of all humanity, was that they thought they were doing it. The whole sordid soap opera of the Passion, all the tawdry human motivations on display, the strategies, the alliances, the manipulations, the key players the priests and Pilate, with Jesus as a pawn in their war: nothing more than surface-level dust. And deep underneath it all, on the cosmic level, God himself was willing each sacrifice and step of suffering to undo every tangled surface evil, undoing each deed as the people who thought themselves the chief players enacted them. They knew not what they did because they thought Jesus was truly weak and powerless. They knew they were hurting a man, but they didn't know they were hurting God. And because of that, he forgives them.

II. ...As we should forgive those who trespass against us. As Jesus suffered, so his body, the Church, suffers at the hands of the world. The Church suffers both for being Christlike and unChristlike. As it is unChristlike, as its members sin against each other and the community in ways both hugely evil and almost invisibly petty, this suffering is a purification. As it is Christlike, as it is persecuted even in the midst of providing Christ's love and mercy to a world that lashes out in its own pain, it suffers as Christ does -- which is, Benson points out, by forgiving its persecutors.
This prayer, then, is one which we can take upon our own lips.... We have abused the French Republic and the Portuguese revolutionaries, and the Italian Freemasons, and the Spanish anarchists, and the Irish Orangemen long enough. In the very point of our agony we must learn to pray: Forgive them, for they know not what they do.
I won't add any specific modern groups, because each person thinks the Church is being persecuted by his or her own enemies. The point is: pray for those enemies. Jesus thinks that they know not what they do, which must be enough for us.

III. And so we come to the real sting of the section: where Jesus forgives me, individually, not as his enemy, but as his friend.
We confess to a little sloth and lethargy, a little avarice, a little lack of generosity. We "know what we do," in part: we know we are not faithful fo our highest inspirations, that we have not done all that we might, that we have shown a little self-will, a little malice, and little pardonable temper. And we confess these things, and give an easy absolution. And yet we know not what we do. We do not know how urgent is the need of God how tremendous are the issues He has committed to our care, how enormous is the value of every soul -- of every act and word and thought that help to shape the destinies of such a soul. We do not know how here, in these minute opportunities of every day, lie the germ of new worlds that may be born to God, or crushed in embryo by our carelessness.

First of all, ouch, because Benson has just accurately and publicly dissected my last confession. 

Second, as a constant Friend, Jesus forgives us for repeatedly refusing his help in rekindling our first love for him. Benson sketches the arc of soul whose first ecstatic bliss who gradually grows colder and world-weary, letting its love for Jesus become a static memory rather than a living, changing, deepening relationship. But doesn't that same drama also play out moment by moment and second by second? Things are easy, and we see the future in a straight line from that moment, and rejoice, even just a little. Things turn harder, and we see the future in a straight line from that moment, and despair, even just a little. We create the future -- and the past -- in our own image, without knowing what we do. And as long as we relinquish that creation to Jesus and accept what he gives in return, we hold onto his friendship. And as long as we cling to our scripted joys or sorrows, we refuse the real opportunities to participate in his joy and suffering -- which is, in the end, the true work of a friend.


Next: the second and third words of Christ crucified.

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