As a nurse at the Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt, my wife Linda has seen more than her fair share of pain and suffering.
Beautiful, smiling children become sick and travel to the hospital for care and cures. Many leave the hospital after their stays and return home to happy childhoods and long lives. Some, however, succumb to their illnesses and return instead to God’s loving arms.
Their families and caregivers are left on earth to deal with the pain and suffering from their loss.
How could God, the source of all love and goodness, allow this suffering to happen?
It’s a question explored by author C. S. Lewis in his book The Problem of Pain. The problem with understanding pain, writes Lewis, is “how, perceiving a suffering world, and being assured, on quite different grounds, that God is good, we are to conceive that goodness and that suffering without a contradiction.”
Lewis, renowned for his writings on Christian apologetics (the branch of theology concerned with the defense or proof of Christianity), uses logic and intellect to explain that suffering can exist in a world created by a loving God. He writes further: “Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free-wills involve, and you will find that you have excluded life itself.”
He used the same logical thought process when he turned away from atheism and rediscovered his own Christian faith.
But logic can only explain so much; the heart must also believe. Lewis’s faith is later put to the test when he meets and falls in love with Helen Joy (Davidman) Gresham, a story portrayed in the 1993 film Shadowlands.
Lewis (portrayed by Sir Anthony Hopkins), an Oxford professor and author of best selling books, has created a rather comfortable life for himself. He shares a home with his brother Warnie, is given meals and clean rooms by a housekeeper, is adored by readers around the world and is respected by his students and fellow professors.
He lectures to large crowds about the presence of God in the world and how suffering is just a tool. “Pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” Suffering is more of an intellectual concept than reality for Lewis. He is very much in control of his life.
Yet he recognizes that he lives in the shadowlands, “wanting to be somewhere else, waiting for something new, looking around the next corner, the next hill.”
That changes when he meets Gresham (Debra Winger), an American poet who wrote letters to Lewis years before they met personally. Divorced from her husband, Gresham and her son Douglas move to London and continue their friendship with Lewis.
Their friendship slowly builds into a real love that delivers great happiness to Lewis. No longer wanting to be somewhere else, he is happy in the here and now.
But with the happiness comes suffering, for Gresham has terminal cancer. During a lovely trip through the country, Lewis and Gresham find happiness in each other’s company. Yet Lewis doesn’t want to talk about her death, fearing the conversation will spoil the moment.
But Gresham presses on. “The pain then is part of the happiness now – that’s the deal.”
Talking about their love and their future, no matter how difficult, makes both the pain and happiness real. By exploring both emotions now while they are together, they reach a love that is deeper than simple happiness. Through the suffering, they find comfort, peace and love.
Through our journeys through Lent, we know from Scriptures that the innocent Christ suffered great physical pain and mental anguish to wipe clean the stain of our sins.
His pain then is part of our happiness now.
In last week’s second reading (1 Peter 2:20b-25), we heard Peter’s words “Beloved, if you are patient when you suffer for doing what is good, this is a grace before God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his footsteps.”
In this week’s gospel (John 14:1-12), Jesus tells his disciples “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Through his suffering, we come to know a love that is much deeper than simple happiness.
As for the children at the hospital, it’s still very difficult to understand why some of them die at an early age. Perhaps all we can do is trust that God is using their short lives to shine light on ours.
Charlie, a special patient who received loving care from Linda, used to divide his meal of white bread and give it away. “One for me, for Mommy, one for Daddy, one for you, one for everyone!” he would say many times. While he now smiles in heaven, his memory remains a joy in our lives.
Our pain then is part of our happiness now.
First published in the April 18, 2008 issue of The Tennessee Register.
© 2008 Christopher Fenoglio