COVID-19 has put us in visceral contact with the reality of suffering. While the realm of suffering may not be entirely new territory for many of us, I wondered if some reminders about suffering might help us to walk through it together. Here are three things that we might remember and consider during Holy Week, a time when we can allow suffering to serve as a bridge into greater solidarity, with God and with one another.
1) Suffering is bewildering. It has the capacity to disorient us, completely… to dull us to the beauty of life, to cloud our vision entirely, to entrap us in a vice of anguish, dread and despair. There is a certain mystery to suffering, and we need to be careful how we speak about it. Now is not the time to fall back on platitudes—trite and simplistic words about how suffering ennobles us, for example, or how it aligns with God’s will—if only because acute suffering actually has the capacity to break us. We must treat suffering with the healthy respect that it deserves, even as we cannot succumb to the bitterness and despair that it can wring out of us. Wisdom, as it comes to us through suffering, is hard earned, and I hope that, with time and humility, it will come to us. Now, as we enter into the eye of the storm, we can at least reflect on the reality that suffering is, in no way, foreign to our God.
2) We can allow suffering to help us turn toward God, to meet and be met. We ought never bear suffering alone. We need not. Any and all moments of suffering are precisely the moments in which our instinct, our habit, our discipline should be to turn directly to God, humbly asking for whatever grace God already knows that we need. Julian of Norwich, the English anchoress who helped hundreds of her contemporaries through cycles of Black Death in the medieval period and whose wisdom is piercingly instructive today, said very simply that there are some times when all that we can do is “seek, suffer and trust.” One of the few ways that we might be able to honor God in this time of tremendous challenge is to confide to God our anguish and despair and allow the creativity of Love incarnate to guide us in our fears.
3) Both the sharp scourge of suffering and its dull ache are alleviated when we share their burden. We are already seeing that this virus is not affecting all of us equally. And it is not going to. As you become aware of the suffering of others, be creative in your solidarity and connectedness. Here is where, like the servant described in Isaiah 42, we can still reach out, “not crying out and shouting in the streets” but with the life-giving energy of intercessory prayer and concrete signs of solidarity and presence. Serving God in these times translates into bringing justice, kindness and love with heartfelt prayers and concrete actions of support, solidarity and presence. This is the time to heed the counsel of Paul: “Pray without ceasing” (I Thessalonians 5:17) by embracing and embodying prayer in ways that radiate the loving presence of our God. Our unceasing prayer in these times can consist of intense solidarity with one another: remembering one another constantly to our God, encouraging the downhearted, supporting the vulnerable, expressing our heartfelt gratitude and support for all who are on the frontlines of the pandemic, seeking the good, and bearing witness, in all that we say and do, to the tender solidarity of our God, who comes to us in our humblest need.