Severe Mercy

.......and do not put us the the test! Maybe that's the wrong prayer?
by Kathryn M. Cunningham, MAPS | Source:

           As we go through life perspectives change.  Friends leave us, our experiences multiply and hope takes on a different definition.  The other day I had an all too infrequent dinner with a beloved friend.  She is still in the “work world”, frequently traveling and I have been retired a while now.  My friend has a lot of contact with the elder community and she posed a question that I bet has been asked millions of times; “I don’t get suffering…why, what’s it for? I see a lot of suffering.”  The question was plainly something that drained her energy and left her sad and perplexed. I’m in on the perplexed part.  We hear those “old saws” like; “The good die young.” “Offer it up.” “Do it for the sake of Jesus.”  But none of these leave us with any logic or “ah-ha moments” that give we who are left behind any kind of comfort.

            I don’t claim to be a theologian or exegete or philosopher.  I am certainly not the scholar, saint or martyr who had a completely clear understand of suffering.  Since I have been retired my prayer time is priority and some things in my head, though, have changed especially concerning my view of suffering.  Let me share my observations.

            As we grow in age and wisdom it becomes abundantly clear that what life is really all about is the choices.  On any given day we are faced with hundreds of them.  If you have any kind of morning prayer discipline your petitions for the day most likely include requests for blessing and help for yourself as well as others to assist you with those myriad decisions during the day.  Is the Lord’s Prayer part of your prayer time?  Remember the last line; “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” is the most familiar version.  However, translation experts tell us that the most likely text was: “And do not put us to the test, but deliver us from evil.” (Jerusalem Bible, Mt. 6: 13)  Somewhere in the land of “let’s soften the message” the more popular text morphed into “lead us not into temptation”.  What test, you say?  My guess is that it’s different for everyone but the result is the same, something that is hard to abide, some kind of suffering!  I think that in a lifetime, no one escapes suffering but that’s not necessarily a bad thing!  It’s just another form of God’s severe mercy.  You may or may not realize it, but God asks us, without ceasing, to advance to become the best version of ourselves possible.  He does not do this as a form of amusement or just because he has the power, but because the best version of ourselves is the one which will enable us to become the most capable of love.  God is eternally hoping for our undivided love.  We have choices, though and love of God often gets pushed to the background in favor of more important things like our appearance, texting, gossip or what’s most convenient at the moment.  How is that merciful, you ask?  God never gives up on us from the day we are born to the day we die and his severe mercy never closes the door on love, but he keeps asking and inviting, asking and inviting no matter what we say, do or think.  Pretty extreme don’t you think?

            So where does suffering fit into all of this?  Suffering has a tendency to strip away all the stuff that is the “fluff of life”.  The stuff that makes no difference in the long run, possessions, appearance, what someone said, decades old insults that still have hold of you.  The friend I dined with and I just lost a mutual friend.  We watched her struggle for years with breast cancer and return to the hospital over and over again for one more remission, one more diagnosis, and one more round of chemo.  I was frequently in touch with her while my dinner partner got the info that I relayed.  My friend poignantly asked; “…and what about Cecelia, all those years filled with suffering, did she know what it was for?”    I’m not positive but I know that as she got sicker and all the treatments finally failed the conversations that Cecelia and I had changed dramatically.  She became calmly focused on attention to God and completely let go of all the superficialities in her life.  She would tell me; “You know, anything someone said or did is not important, it’s peace, you have to keep your peace and let no one interfere with it.”  Choices, it’s all a matter of our choices.  With any luck, as we proceed in life, our choices change. Saint Bernard says: “In the way of God, to stand still is to go backward.”  Don’t let yourself be fooled by “holy complacency”. 

            “We are born children of wrath and enemies of God; but God gives us the whole span of our lives to make our peace with him, to receive his grace and, in the end to attain glory.  But, alas! there is nothing to which we devote less attention.”  (Saint Lawrence of Brindisi † 1619, Doctor of the Church) God continually offers us a generosity of “severe mercy”.  The fact that He is always nudging us forward is a great gift that allows a continuous second chance no matter what sin of omission or commission we have chosen.  The thing about severe mercy, though, is that sometimes it’s hard.  The spiritual journey is unique for everyone and is driven by our woundedness whether self imposed or caused by others.  Sometimes suffering is part of the healing.  As scores of theologians have taught; “suffering is a mystery”.  We really can’t explain the why or the how or the justice of it.  Sister Rosemary Connelly, director of Miserecordia in Chicago points out that; “We all have to live with mystery.” No one knows it all!  Suffering really can’t be perceived from the outside with any degree of logic.  God’s son was perfect and the bible tells us that he was without sin. Yet his suffering was beyond imagination.  The physical on the cross was one thing, but my attention is always drawn to his dialog in the garden.  As the son, he knew what the Father asked, yet he pleaded not to have the experience!  So much so that he sweat blood!  Unimaginable!  Why, what for, he was innocent on all counts for his entire life.  The bible also notes that Jesus was like us humans in all things except sin.

            The why of Jesus’ suffering was literally God’s severe mercy.  Jesus had the option to choose a sacrifice so great that he would open the doorway to forgiveness and eternal life for every human who ever existed in all of time. To our great benefit he said yes to an unbelievable series of events.  In suffering without bitterness there is an “ultimate generosity” that can’t be expressed any other way.  Saying yes to suffering is trust, without limits, in the generosity and constancy of God.  In our world gone mad, the result of our aggressive work to eliminate the “interference” of God in the world results in “unintended consequences”, things we never even thought of.  This frequently comes in the form of suffering of one type or another. If you truly believe in God and his Son and their love for us how can suffering or any other situation, for that matter, alter your belief?  If we know that God is constant how can we possibly practice situational faith?

            How in the world did Abraham manage to head up the mountain knowing that God commanded him to sacrifice his most beloved child?  Only an unwavering belief in God’s severe mercy could have accomplished this.  True love is self giving in the extreme and our God is a God of extremes.  Consider a flaming bush unconsumed,  an entire sea standing like frozen glass while the pathway is dry, food for seven thousand from one loaf and a few fish, a catch of fish so vast that nets break, choice wine from water, an innocent Son cruelly tortured. Choosing the life of a Christian is not a selection that guarantees safety, peace, or freedom from suffering.

            We’ve all heard the aggressive televangelists: We have to imitate Jesus, become more like Jesus, love God like Jesus, and the world would be a better place.  All true statements but I never hear the “rest of the story”.  Jesus’ love of the Father included yes to everything the Father asked, including his ultimate suffering. He was not offered “multiple choice”.  Suffering without wrath, ire or bitterness is the ultimate tool of salvation.  When the son said yes, it gained the possibility of eternal life for the entire human race in all of time.  It is true that none of us is Jesus but when offered suffering, we have the choice to focus on the suffering as a pariah or a tool.  If we choose to use the tool things can be created for us, in us and for others which we never imagined.  All a mystery and known only to God until we get to heaven, of course.  We do have the choice to say no or demand justice or to be rid of suffering.  If Jesus rejected God’s severe mercy, though, where would we all be right now?  Don’t be fooled into making the suffering the focus or the enemy, you could wind up with a lost opportunity that will not come again.  Like it or not God’s severe mercy is one of His greatest gifts to each of us.

Copyright © 2011, Kathryn M. Cunningham, All Rights Reserved

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Post a Comment
Published by: Antonella Garofalo
Date: 2011-09-23 18:50:46
Beautifully said.I would say that there is a huge difference between "Do not put us to the test" and "Do not lead us into temptation".Sometimes I want to be led into temptation. It's a test to my faith.But I don't want to be put to the test if it involves suffering, although I know that suffering is what makes us grow.

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