In his book, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Thomas Merton writes, “I refuse to believe that the spiritual life, as willed by God, is nothing better than organized masochism.”
One of the most ingrained feelings we Christians carry around is that suffering, pain, grief, and discomfort are marks of a properly cultivated spiritual life. Are we not indelibly stained with enough guilt that we have to add self-incriminations about loving You but feeling no pain?
Actually there’s something to this. The natural inclination of humanity toward suffering is to avoid it. In our concept of the perfect world, utopia, or paradise (all of which seem realistically unattainable) pain, grief, suffering, and sorrow have no place. But in the factual human condition they are unavoidable – an inevitable part of life itself. That being the case, we still try to avoid them. How then have they come so prominently into play in the spiritual life? Maybe psychologically what we try to avoid, but simply cannot, is mollified by giving it value.
Looking to Your life as our model, we do not see (in what we know of it) daily pain, sorrow, and discomfort. Furthermore, when these things did pop up in Your life, they were not sought by You. If there was any source of suffering, apart from Your passion and death, it was brought about by disappointments in those around You – but You were patient through it all. But, patience notwithstanding, in our lives, more often than not, we equate Your pain and suffering with the manner of Your execution. We look upon Your willing acceptance of this as leaving us with a debt to join our sufferings to those You endured for our redemption. Thus we give our own sufferings a redemptive quality. But we are already redeemed. How can we be more redeemed than we are?
I have maintained (and still maintain) that the value of suffering in our lives is that of a teacher – a pedagogue of life and love. It is from this professor that we should take notes while class is in session. It is not that we should masochistically seek it in Merton’s terms, but patiently accept it as You did. Thus, if I experience no pain, suffering, grief, or discomfort during a day, I should not feel sad or disappointed, nor should I zealously seek it – it will find me. And, if I’m patient, quiet, and accepting, it will teach me.