Acquiring the Gift of Co-Suffering

By Archbishop Thomas Menamparampil                                                          

Jesus was Eminently ‘Human’

People often think of prophets to be so message-focused as to grow indifferent to the listeners’ feelings. Great philosophers and teachers are usually presented as persons who were above emotions. If so, this Rabbi from Nazareth was different. He delved deep into the hearts of those with whom he interacted. He entered into their world of emotions as he spoke. He himself was influenced. When he saw Mary weeping for the loss of her brother Lazarus and all the people with her, “his heart was touched, and he was deeply moved”. As he drew closer to the tomb he broke down. “Jesus wept” (Jn 11: 33-35). And people commented, “See how much he loved him!” 

Nor was this the only occasion. Sure enough, he was a prophet; but it was not a prophetic pose that characterised him most of all, but a ‘human touch’. He had a ‘personal’ tone in speaking to individuals, like the Samaritan woman, the woman taken in adultery, the one who washed his feet; the Syro-Phoenician woman, Martha and Mary, Nathaniel, Zacchaeus in his guilt feelings, Thomas in his unyielding stubbornness. 

His sympathy for those in pain stood out, and his concern for the suffering. He was anxious about the people who had forgotten their hunger, listening to him for three days.  “I feel sorry for these people, because they have been with me for three days, and now have nothing to eat” (Mk 8:2). He was “deeply troubled”thinking of Judas and the disaster that would befall him (Jn 13:21). He was not able to control himself thinking of the eventual destruction of Jerusalem. “He came closer to the city, and when he saw it, he wept over it” (Lk 19:41). The population of an entire city was destined to be overwhelmed, because they were not open to adopt the preventive measures God had proposed (Lk 19:42-44). Not a stone would be left on another!

When Suddenly Suffering Overtakes Us

The anxieties that surrounded Jerusalem and uncertainties that Coronavirus has imposed on the world today have similarities for the perceptive. We hear of thousands of people dead and dying, doctors and nurses collapsing, priests and religious departing; the aged abandoned, the poor forgotten;medical personnel exhausted, medical facilities running short, millions affected…with alarmist warnings for worse things to come. We suffer with the suffering.

We cry out with the psalmist, “Why have you abandoned us like this, O God? Will you be angry with your own people for ever?” (Ps 74:1). We plead,“Wake up, Lord! Why are you asleep? Rouse yourself! Don’t reject us forever! Why are you hiding from us? Don’t forget our suffering and trouble!” (Ps 44:23).Even ardent believers are shaken. “In times of trouble I pray to the Lord; all night long I lift my hands in prayer, but I cannot find comfort” (Ps 77:2). “Has he stopped loving us? Does his promise no longer stand…Has anger taken the place of his compassion?” (Ps 77: 8-9). We weep with the weeping.

Meantime on the world stage, the blame game grows louder as to the origin of Covid-19, and rhetoric grows shriller with regard to the irresponsibility of national leaders and unpreparedness of the medical cadre. What is even more shocking is the insensitivity reported from some situations of pain, due to casual neglect or sheer helplessness. A prayer rises to heaven from the abandoned victim, “During the day I call to you, my God, but you do not answer. I call at night, but get no rest” (Ps 22:2).

Coronavirus has Caught Society Unprepared

The prayers we have quoted above belong to an era when faith guided the search for answers. But today most people in society feel, “None of us knows what is going to happen, and there is no one to tell us” (Ecc 8:7). Self-interestguides global discussions. Health compulsions point in one direction, and economic and political interests in another. Multiple social-angers pull in other directions still. 

Moods differ, thoughts differ. Radical secularization trends are confronted by radical ‘fundamentalism’. Aggressive nationalism stands facing exaggerated styles of globalisation.Self-importance claims (national—"my country first”—cultural, sectarian) keep society partisan. At the same time, an erratic intermixture of cultures leads to an obscuring of identities, erosion of value-systems, questioning of beliefs and traditions, enfeebling of convictions, disorientation of the masses, and the pain of insecurity. 

Thus, Coronavirus has caught us unprepared, distracted by concerns and conflicts of diverse nature, and blinded by   proposals of half-truths, warped truths and ‘instrumentalized truths’.We have become like “children, carried by the waves and blown about by every shifting wind of teaching” (Eph 4:13-14). 

Did Coronavirus Catch the Believing Community too Unprepared?

When hard truths stare at us we need not be embarrassed to admit that. Were we not for a while lost as a Catholic community in merciless internal criticisms, proving ourselves victims of the same anger-virus that was harassing the wider society? Did we not over-concentrate on matters on which we differed than agreed, even when the matters were of minor importance, or could be studied further, making ourselves insignificant and weightless in the larger society? 

Meantime did we forget what the core of the Gospel message is: mutual concern, outgoing love, unbounded generosity, a capacity to forgive seventy times seven times, an ability for measureless sacrifice? Yes, we need to set out on a journey of self-evaluation in an age when even ardent believers are losing their faith and religious teachers themselves are shaken… and people have become “Worried and Helpless” (Mt 9:35).

Similarly, in our pastoral care, are we able to enter into the world of a weak and failing person, to sympathize, help, and heal, as Pope Francis suggests? Or are we eager to thrust ready made, pedantic and facile answers on people who are waiting for something more personal and profound? It will be only when we admit our inadequacies, that solutions will come from the Lord (Dan 9:4:23). Then we will be able to console ourselves, “Why are you cast down, my soul; why groan within me? Hope in God, I will praise him still, my saviour and my God” (Ps 42:5).

Difficulty in Accepting the Proposed Solution: Social Distancing

People caught unprepared usually have readymade solutions. Some insensitive statements of world leaders have been quoted. The media finds it hard to move away from their favourite themes: film stars, sports heroes, political bosses, TV personalities; suicide bombs, trade wars, army movements, weapons’ sales. Politicians want a speedy return to ‘business as usual’, others suggest the lifting of tariffs, some invoke the ‘collective will.’ All are right, but Health Experts have only one merciless formula: ensure‘Social Distancing’?

Christians are confused. They have always been taught to value togetherness: family, community, neighbourhood. They have never been taught that ‘Social Distancing’ wasa strength. Take care, what is really asked is not social distancing, but physical distancing. Human beings are social, and needto remain ‘social.’ Interactions through phone calls, digital communications, and video chats are still possible. Love manifests itself in many ways. Jesus merely looked at Peter, but it meant everything (Lk 22:51).The weak and the aged must not be made to feel neglected, lest they become lonely and psychologically traumatised. Humans need human affection which alone has the healing power. Co-suffering is a value.

Social Distancing Reaffirms Forgotten Values: Withdrawal, Solitude, Silence, Meditation, Prayer

The so-called ‘Social Distancing’, however, has brought some unintended blessing: it reminds the world of certain forgotten values. You are invited to remember,e.g. that ‘withdrawal’ was always a positive value in Christian tradition. Moses withdrew to the mountain to pray. So did Jesus; he was familiar with quiet places like the desert, Gethsemane. Monks withdrew to the mountains, hermits into caves, contemplatives into forests. They were guardians of the environment wherever they went, they protected nature, they respected the cosmic order. They believed that solitude deepens a person, silence has power, meditation keeps one close to God, prayer obtains whatever one seeks. 

Christians withdraw for a retreat, recollection, pilgrimages, days of reflection. People of other faiths too have similar traditions. In Christian understanding, the energies one gathers in solitude are not merely self-oriented, they are to be brought to the benefit of humanity as a whole. Even hermits who remained on in solitude, were firmly committed to the wellbeing of society and the future of humanity. 

Isolation has Made Us Think, Evaluate, Plan

The isolation that Coronavirus has imposed on us has made us “Think”. It has compelled us to sit back, relax, and evaluate our day-to-day life, and notice some of our superficialities: quick profits, overconcern for appearance, figure and form; hasty judgements, fatuous boasts, petty bickerings, negligence of courtesies, resentments over trifles. 

However, the calamity has stimulated a quick change in attitudes:  there has been an outburst of generosity from the most unexpected quarters: millions of maskes from China, $5 trillion from G20, donations from multi-millionaires, contributions from film stars. All of sudden we realize we can be generous, helpful, and reach out in collaboration…that we need each other, we are interdependent.

Some look deeper. They see in the unexpected arrival of the pandemic an indictment of our civilization, a re-evaluation of our priorities, a reassessment of our relationship with nature. Are other species calling for attention and claiming back lost space in a subtle manner? Are marginalized communities and marginalized people silently affirming their existence? Is the need for Social Distancing a condemnation of our disorderly nearness? We need to reflect, think; Rethink andCorrect. History is shaped not only through trade wars and nuclear experiments, but very specially in the brain-cells of responsible citizens and prayer-cells in contemplative houses. 

God’s Word Has Power

What Catholic believers miss most of all in Social Distancing is Liturgy, especially the Eucharist celebrated in community. Worship together is central to Christianity. Jesus had assured, “Where two or three come together in my name, I am there with them” (Mt 18:20). Early Christians “devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). 

With Social Distancing imposed, we shall miss the joy of coming together into the Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist as a community. However, our faith tells us in the same manner that he is present in his Word, to give us inspiration and strength.  In fact, he is the ‘Word’ (Jn 1:1). It is our obedience to the Word that makes us his true disciples. Jesus says, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples” (Jn 8:31). 

For generations, Catholics in Communist countries gathered around God’s Word and stood firm in their faith. In mission territories with vast areas under the care of every parish, the faithful would have the Eucharist only a few times a year. Their spirituality was nourished greatly on the Word of God proclaimed and explained by lay leaders and spiritual animators. They did not have opportunities as others do today of being able to watch the Mass on the TV. And yet, they sustained their spirit generation after generation.The small Christian communities that gather round the Word of God, experience this sustaining power of Jesus.

Someone commented, Coronavirus has been a great equalizer, a great leveller. See what the Magnificat, Lk 1:51-53, says. There is no high and low, the ruling and the ruled, the financial wizard and the plain ordinary worker, the more advanced and those left far behind. In fact, the ‘periphery’ seems to have been spared by Covid-19 for the moment. No doubt there is a divine plan “to uproot and to pull down to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant” (Jr 1:10). There is a new levelling taking place: the re-ordering and modification of ideas, ideals, ideologies, idolizations, and new forms of idolatry. He wants to make “all things new” (Rev 21:5). 

Co-suffering Has Power

Even if we have not been victims ourselves, we can readily suffer with those who suffer, just as family members participate in each other’s sufferings. That is our mission.During Social Distancing we have the unique privilege of taking the suffering of the rest of Humanity upon ourselves as Jesus did at Gethsemane.  We weep, not primarily over our anxiety and fear, but over the pain of the world. Lamentation has always been a part of the prophetic ministry, especially when we feel totally helpless before an evil or a tragedy that is too much for us to handle at a given time. The Church has lamented the victims of millions of abortions, euthanasia, violence in every form, moral distortions of every type;and today Coronavirus! Even silent suffering has an eloquence of its own. Jesus wept. I weep with him!

We ought to give special recognition to doctors, nurses, medical personnel, people attending to essential services, and a huge number of volunteers who risk their lives and reach out to help others. Several of them have died. In their regard, Pope Francis’ words take on intense meaning,  “Life grows by being given away... Indeed, those who enjoy life most are those who leave security on the shore and become excited by the mission of communicating life to others” (Evangelii Gaudium 10).“Entrust,” then,“your cares to the Lord, and he will support you” (Ps 55:22). 

April 4, 2020