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Fr Ray Hemingray has shared his thought for today, Sunday 20th September 2020.

‘Suffering’

I expect few people escape completely from suffering of one kind or another during their lifetimes. Suffering can result from, for example, an injury (temporary or permanent), or sickness (physical or mental), or the loss of a loved one, or a final illness.

How do we cope with suffering? Some people cope better than others. The Greek storyteller Aesop (born 620BC) wrote a lot of short tales containing moral truths. A collection of such tales has come down to us as ‘Aesop’s Fables’. Here is one of his little tales entitled ‘The Oxen and the Axle-Trees’ (axel-trees are the wooden axles on the wagon he writes about), from a translation by George Fyler Townsend:

‘A heavy wagon was being dragged along a country lane by a team of Oxen. The Axle-trees groaned and creaked terribly; whereupon the Oxen, turning round, thus addressed the wheels: “Hullo there! why do you make so much noise? We bear all the labour, and we, not you, ought to cry out.”’

The moral of the story is that often those who suffer most cry out the least. I expect many of us have known brave people who have suffered and/or died without complaining about their suffering.

Whilst thinking of the Greek storyteller Aesop, there is a Greek proverb which says that, ‘He who suffers much will know much’. Usually, we cannot really know or understand fully someone’s suffering, the nature of the experience they are going through, unless we have undergone a similar experience ourselves. For example, it is difficult to appreciate how someone suffering from severe depression feels, unless at some time in your life you have experienced it yourself. (Trust me, I know from experience!)

Sometimes, suffering can be infectious – if someone very close to us is suffering, then it can have a negative impact on those with whom they live. The writer C. S. Lewis, the author of ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’, married late in life (at the age of 58). Shortly after the marriage, his wife was diagnosed with bone cancer, and she died two years later. During those two years Lewis experienced much pain in his legs, and he told a friend that he put it down to his wife’s pain being transferred to him. He said: “It was crippling. But it relieved hers.”

Jesus endured suffering for others. It was his mission: “… the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” He had to suffer, so that he could reveal his true divine nature by rising from death.

For us, suffering can sometimes be a means to an end. Sometimes suffering can make us better, make us stronger. St. Paul wrote: “ … we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

We can learn or gain something from all experiences in life, whether good or bad. I feel sure that many Christians who have travelled down the dark tunnel of suffering, and have come out at the other end, will have found that the experience has increased their faith and hope and made them feel stronger in body, mind and spirit.

Sadly, we are presently living in a time when many are suffering, and many more are living in fear of suffering. But faith in the one who suffered for us all can have a transforming effect on how we cope with it as individuals. The late Michael Ramsey, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote about the effect of the Gospels on people’s lives and their attitude to suffering. He called this effect a ‘transfiguration’. We might also use the word ’transformation’. He wrote this:

‘Recall just a few ways in which this Gospel of transfiguration is for us a great reality. Suffering is transfigured. That is something that every priest has the joy of seeing, again and again, in the lives of people he meets. People who suffer greatly and yet, through their nearness to Christ, something different happens. They suffer still, but yet there is a sympathy, a gentleness, a sweetness, a power of love, a power of prayer that makes all the difference to them and to those who know them. Suffering transfigured. Situations transfigured. We find ourselves up against something that completely baffles us in any kind of rational terms. We are completely perplexed, and we cannot, as it were, get through the situation or get round the situation, or retreat from the situation. But see it in the larger context of Jesus crucified and risen, and while it goes on being the painful situation that it was before, somehow it is in a different light, and a different light comes to us, and it was wrong for us to be making hasty judgments about it before we took it into the context of Jesus crucified and risen. Then human lives are transfigured. That is what we have all seen happening in human lives, where by God’s grace the mingled experiences of sorrow and joy bring about a transforming, the growth in grace, the growth in Christlikeness is a reality.’

Let us pray today for all whom we each know to be suffering from sickness or injury, that God may grant them his transforming comfort, healing and peace. Amen

Fr. Ray