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“Although the world of suffering exists ‘in dispersion’, at the same time it contains within itself a singular challenge to communion and solidarity.” (Salvifici Doloris, 8)
Today I am invited to present a catechesis on suffering. A catechesis is not just a preaching or not just a lesson. It is something in between, a kind of testimony about the truth of one's belief, about the inside reality of one religious traditions. It is like trying to communicate the depths of a personal experience. Our topic should be: how can suffering become a means of communion. There are many kinds of suffering, like suffering of the body, the mind or the soul. There are also many causes that can inflict suffering upon people, like natural disasters, wars and exploitation. When I speak here about this subject, I have in mind the suffering of persecuted or exploited communities, or the personal suffering of sick, poor and old people. Suffering is always degenerating and devastating the human dimension in people. But, when we speak about "human suffering", then always the suffering of Our Lord Jesus Christ is implicated. His broken body is, and remains present in the mystery of the broken bread, as a source from which flows love, creating bonds of community.
Some experiences and examples
Let me start with an experience of a friend and his family, about something that is happening right now. To make you enter into the subject I have to describe it quite in detail. It is about a youngest brother of a family of twelve sisters and brothers. They try to be kind with each other, although not always very successful. Their youngest brother, the spoiled one, with the time became quite naughty. After twenty years of marriage with two children, he divorced. This came as a shock for deep Christian family. For months they tried to convince him to stay with his wife, esp. one brother called Martin, spend hours with him, but in vain. More and more, they broke apart. Five months ago, suddenly, cancer was detected in the blood of this youngest brother. He is a very sensible man, who loves life so much, but now he felt completely destroyed. He was deadly afraid of the treatment he would have to undergo, in order to get a chance to survive. Gradually, as the brothers and sisters realized this horrible reality, they forgot all their grieves, and started to encourage the youngster. At a certain moment, Martin, send an e-mail, stating that although they felt all helpless, they might come together for a simple informal Eucharist celebration. That is what they did and the youngest was present, and afterwards, he told that it had been for him a great support and relief. In addition, when he entered the isolation period, for one terrible month, because he cannot stay alone for one day, all the sisters and brothers on turn go and visit him, and try a talk and support him. Thus, around their suffering brother, all the others became united again and felt as one suffering body together.
The Iraqi people are extremely sensible and moved, when one of the family members passes away. They weep loud and bitterly, and for weeks, they gather and sit together recalling the deceased one, with the whole family, and the complete clan. At those moments, all differences and disputes are forgotten. I remember esp. a young girl, 18 years old. She was the most beautiful girl of the village, Sandy was her name. She was killed in explosion, on her way to the university, last year. At those moments of grieving, the family, and even the whole village became deeply united in their sorrow and pain. There have been such intense moments of feeling united as a church community, when a priest of a bishop was murdered. Although at the same time, many lost their faith and they became discouraged and gave up.
Many other examples could be given about suffering that is not accepted, and that makes people to become hard and isolated. Older people who are left behind without assistance or youngsters who destroy themselves.
A theology of suffering
At this point, I want to bring up the memory of someone, whose attitude and writings have had a great impact upon the renewed thinking of the church people. Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He died at the age of 49, hanged by the Nazis in 1945. His "Letters from Prison" became known worldwide. He was a preacher and very religious man, who took a stand against the Nazis. Therefore, he was imprisoned and condemned. During his years in prison, he became mature in faith, and he impressed the others prisoners by his calm and peaceful attitude in the face of their tortures and suffering. All of them, prisoners and guards would rely on him. They could sit and listen to his words. He did not speak about the Almighty God, who would save them miraculously, or who wanted them to expiate for their sins. He said: there is no almighty God in heaven, but there is a suffering one, here with us on earth. He is there where one of us suffers. His suffering with us, and in us, is his might and our strength. He is the one who binds us together, through our suffering. Around this man, and because of his words, the suffering prisoners build up a communion, relying on the suffering God within them.
The strength of the Liberation Theology in Latin America, are the basic communities. When one of their members is suffering from injustice, sickness or poverty, they all gather and study the case in the light of the Holy Scripture. The Holy Spirit helps them to find a solution, and as a community, they try to cope with the challenge. The suffering of one member constitutes a living community.
Charles de Foucault was murdered, all isolated in the midst of the desert. However, years later, a spiritual community continues to live by his memory, and is at the service of the poor, worldwide.
Or those six French monks, who were living among a deserted community in Algeria, and were murdered for mysterious reasons, they are known by the movie, and their example continues to inspire other monks to live with abandoned communities.
The Eucharistic dimension of suffering in the Gospel
All these examples bring us finally to the gospel, where Jesus' attitude towards the suffering, is described. The gospel of Marc has kept a lively picture of him. When confronted with human suffering, he reacts violently, because he cannot bear it. He encounters it, as an attack by dark powers. Sickness and suffering are filled with demoniac powers. When he cures a sick, or when he silences the storm, he commands the devil, expels him from the place, and destroys his power. But the final scope is always, to re-integrate the sick one into his original community. He does not allow the demoniac to follow him, but to go back to his people. The leper also, must show himself to the priest, in order to be accepted officially into the community.
But when confronted with the sharpest evil himself, with the naked reality of suffering and death himself, he prays. In the midst of his agony he searches for a community, he needs his friends. In the garden of olives, they sleep, but around the table of the Last Supper they recline with him. There he prays that his suffering might become a source of healing, and his cross a tree of life. The community of the disciples, their communion of love, finds its origin and strength in his suffering. In fact, the Eucharist, and the church itself is build upon his cross. When he shares the bread of communion he says: this is my body broken for you. And the same upon the cup of blessing: this is my blood, poured out for you. Even hanging on the cross, he tries to create a communion: this is your son and she is your mother. Later on, at the breaking of the bread, the two disciples in Emmaus, recognize him, as the suffering. With that message, they are send to the community. In addition, at Lake of Galilee, he gathers them again, and urges them to stay together and keep alive his memory: the suffering one, the crucified one, who is alive in your communion.
The Upper-room is the world
In conclusion, let us summarizes some of the facts we mentioned, and see their connection them with that Great Mystery, the Eucharist. In my country the Eucharist is called "offering" (qurbana), as always on the altar there must be a cross.
At the moment of the epiclesis, all the faithful with the priest kneel down, with their heads to the ground, because the Spirit hovers, not only upon the offerings, but upon the offering people, to consecrate them in holiness.
This fearful moment is further made explicit in the actions of the breaking and sprinkling. In fact the wine is sprinkled upon the bread, rather than united with it. According to Mar Ephrem this is a consecratory movement. At the same time, it symbolizes the sprinkling of the precious blood upon the hearts of the faithful, at the communion. There is a song expressing this marvelous thought: "Be mindful of the wonderful dispensation of Christ Our Saviour, which for us was perfected. By his body He has gladdened our sadness, and He has sprinkled his living blood upon our hearts".
May we conclude this short catechesis with the words of Mar Ephrem, the greatest Syrian poet. In a poem about the room where the Last Supper was held, he delivers a symbolic description of all the details there present. The background sound is the suffering, it is the third song of the Cross. He invites all those who are listening to this hymn, to make the room where they are gathered actually, like the room of the broken bread. That the same Spirit of love, who hovered on that first room, where his love was broken for the communion of his disciples, might breath also here. That always, when we celebrate the Eucharist, we remember that his suffering goes on, his body continues to be broken in the suffering women and men, but no more hopeless, but token up in the his holy communion of love. God is the suffering one, because he desires with whole his heart, to be communion.
"Blessed are you, oh the Upper-room, that marvelous place.
There, in you, he broke his body.
That humble room, became a mirror:
The whole world is now filled from it.
Moses has given a limited testament
On top of the great mount Sinai.
But here, a new testament light up,
From this small room,
And shines on the whole world.
Our Lord washed the bodies of his brethren.
The basin symbolizes their communion.
He who refused was cut off,
As a lost one, he cut off himself.
He renewed us, in the bosom of the waters.
That we avoid being cut-off members.
Quarreling among ourselves.
Disputing even with our friends.
Blessed are you, oh the upper-room.
The whole word shines with your spirit.
He, who dwelt in you, fills the universe.
Although you were so small and narrow.
Blessed are you dwelling place.
Here he broke the bread
Token from the blessed grebe:
Here the grape-bunch of Mary
was crushed into the cup of salvation.
Blessed are you, oh upper-room.
Nobody has ever seen what you saw:
Our Lord himself became the altar.
He is the priest, the bread and the cup of salvation.
He is the altar, the lamb and the sacrifice
He sacrifices as the priest
and he is the one who eats our bread.". (HCross3: 9-10)