I was well into reading my friend Fr. Brendan Purcell’s beautiful small book on suffering when the earthquake struck in Central Italy.
Although more than 100 kilometres away most people in Rome were woken at 20 to 4 in the morning on August 24th as the buildings shook. I turned on the light to make sure I wasn’t imagining things and the lamp in the centre of the room was swaying from side to side.
I was tempted to go and stand in the doorway but the movement ceased after a couple of minutes.
At the epicentre of Amatrice they were not so lucky, as the whole ancient village of houses, built before the anti-earthquake regulations were drawn up, was thrown down and collapsed into rubble. Later I realised that this was the place where spaghetti Amatriciana was first created and 2 euros from every plate sold in Italy is now going to the earthquake appeal.
Other villages were also destroyed completely and about 300 people died.
Norcia, the birthplace of St. Benedict in 480 A.D. and his sister St. Scolastica (and much earlier of the emperor Vespasian who helped destroy Jerusalem in 70 A.D.) escaped more lightly. Although it too was above one of epicentres, they benefited from the building regulations introduced by Pope Pius IX in 1869 in one of his last decisions before the end of the Papal states and from following the subsequent construction requirements. The earthquake caused no deaths there.
The saints’ birthplace is marked by a Benedictine monastery on the town square and while the chapel was extensively damaged the buildings remained standing. The young community of about 15 monks, mainly from the United States, and led by Fr. Cassian Folsom was evacuated to Rome as a precaution.
Why does God allow such events to occur, as well as many other types of disaster? This question is asked differently by those studying the problem of evil philosophically or theologically, by those on the edge of a disaster, by those who find themselves, with or without their loved ones, at the centre of the suffering.
Why does God allowed so many bad things? Perhaps the good God is not all powerful or perhaps the all-powerful Creator, the Supreme Intelligence does not love us and is either disinterested or even capricious? The ancient Greeks and Romans saw their gods in this light. Is God vengeful?
Evil and suffering constitute the most formidable argument against monotheism, for those who believe in the existence of One good andtranscendent creator God. I believe that the intellectual arguments now available to be drawn from biology, e.g. the discovery of DNA and from physics and chemistry and the fantastic improbabilities necessary for evolution from the Big Bang to humans, mean that the rational or metaphysical path to the Supreme Intelligence is easier for us than in the past. Thinkers are coming to God from or through science.
To ask whether this Supreme Intelligence is good and loving is a further question. Christians also believe that the Creator requires us to live according to moral rules and that this unique Creator will judge each of us after death. These are two further impediments to belief for many moderns.
Fr. Purcell deals with all these questions, and many more, with wisdom and compassion. This work could not have been written by a young person because the author’s formidable learning is leavened by the insights of a long life lived according to Christian teachings. While it is not an easy read, it is always enlightening, never turgid and occasionally deeply personal and encouraging as the author reveals how he sought out and found Christ, the One who loves us most, in the difficulties he himself encountered.
Not all suffering is caused by natural disasters like earthquakes, tsunamis and bush fires. We also have the mystery of death, of human suffering, especially of children and of the innocent and the terrible evils humans inflict on one another. Recently we have become more aware of the suffering of animals.
Stephen Fry and the Australian Peter Singer are two of the atheists Purcell strives to answer. For Fry bone cancer in children convinced him God does not exist and for Singer God is either evil or a bungler.
Fëdor Dostoevsky, a Russian believer, especially in his 1880 novel the Brothers Karamazov has provided us with the figures of the Inquisitor who condemns Christ for his belief in freedom and Ivan who rejects a God who allows children to be tortured and killed. Through these characters Dostoevsky was grappling with the consequences of the nineteenth century attempt to murder God which meant everything was permitted. Hitler, Stalin and Mao exemplified this in their twentieth century atrocities.
The case for unbelief has rarely been set out as powerfully as it is in this Russian masterpiece and Purcell is at his best as he explains how the atheist position not only rejects the promise of an afterlife where all will be well and love will prevail, but believes nothing exists outside the space-time universe. Indeed it is based on a rejection of the world as it is, an exaltation of feeling above reason and a hatred of the human freedom, which God gave us and does not control. He quotes G.K. Chesterton who pointed out the importance of humility, and the obligation to be grateful for all that is good.
Purcell does not try to whitewash the situation because suffering and evil are the great mystery. But goodness, truth and beauty also require an explanation and believers and the overwhelming majority of people know that they outweigh the sadness even in this life.
We get a brilliant exposition of the Old Testament figure Job, as he wrestles and argues with God about his own innocent suffering; hear the stories of Etty Hillesum who refused to escape and perished in the Holocaust; of the blessed Chiara Luce Badano who died of bone cancer at the age of eighteen; and of Eddie McCaffrey who lived until he was thirty with muscular dystrophy, and told us “you don’t solve problems, you love them”.
As a follower of the Focolare spirituality of Chiara Lubich the founder, Fr. Purcell believes, as all Christians do, that Christ suffers with us and for us, but that the crucial moment, what Lubich called the “divine atomic explosion”, was when Christ dying on the cross felt, at least momentarily, that God his Father had abandoned him. Jesus forsaken, who plumbed the depths of human suffering is our Redeamer; he saved us in his helplessness. The crucifixion means what it says.
The final chapter is also unusual, because it avoids the customary silence and halftruths to outline the Christian imperatives as we strive to move beyond the evil and destruction of Islamic terrorism.
This is a gem of a book and the different chapters answer different needs.
For much of my priestly life religious formation or education said little about God, about his nature and why we believe in Him. The resurgence of atheism should jolt us out of our silence and indifference as many youngsters, and the not so young, will be tempted to follow Fry and Singer into unbelief.
All those interested in how and why we believe, all priests and all those in religious formation will find “where is God in suffering?” thought provoking, reassuring and well worth the effort it requires.
- George Card. Pell, Vatican 29th August, 2016
‘What would you say to God?’ Gay Byrne asked Stephen Fry. RTÉ posted the clip of his answer and it has received nearly seven million hits.
This was Fry’s answer: ‘I’d say, “Bone cancer in children – what’s that about? How dare you! How dare you create a world in which there’s such misery that’s not our fault. It’s not right. It’s utterly, utterly evil.” Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world that’s so full of injustice and pain?’
Marian Finucane, veteran interviewer with RTÉ, Ireland’s national broadcaster, phoned Fr Brendan Purcell in Sydney, Australia and asked him for a response which was aired with little time for him to prepare. The Irish Catholicnewspaper persuaded him to publish his response and Irish Catholic book publishers, Veritas, asked him to expand his response into a book, just published, under the title Where is God in suffering?
Marian Finucane showed her experience as an interviewer in choosing to contact Fr Brendan – long a lecturer in philosophical anthropology in UCD, he has also shown a pretty-much unique ability to jump in to a radio interview and explain the contemporary Catholic, as well as trans-cultural, understanding of things controversial with a quirky, quick-fire, agile style of discussion, a mischievous sense of fun, but always underpinned by a depth-grasp of the interpersonal richness animating even the most ill-understood of the Catholic Church’s teachings. He is a born communicator.
Veritas, of course, already knew Fr Brendan – they had published his magnum opus, From Big Bang to Big Mystery: Human Origins in the light of Creation and Evolution in 2011, so they knew what to expect in a Brendan Purcell book – transcultural, historical and religious breadth, but most crucial in a book on suffering, existential seriousness, a getting to the heart of the most difficult questions.
And that is what we find in Where is God in suffering? - the signature Purcell width of horizon, and the typical gathering up of unforgettable quotes highlighting of the hardest points at issue in the words of a sparkling spectrum of real people’s experiences and words which catch the turning points of the issues he is exploring.
Here is a handful of highpoints from the book.
1. He keep pivoting from ‘discussions’ of the issues raised by Fry’s questions to the experiences of real people as they actually lived through their suffering
In the opening pages he shares one of his own experiences of suffering – it was one of those occasions when a personal suffering momentarily earthquaked his faith, and he describes for us the spirituality that helped him regain his spiritual balance. As this is the spirituality on which he has built his life, it forms one of the reference points around which the inquiry laid out in the book hinges.
This is an example of the way he addresses his topic. Over and over, he moves from a suffering to what it meant to the person in their own words. And he alternates careful attempts to answer Fry’s disturbing questions with personal experiences of real people who have lived the very experiences Fry was referring to as ‘proving’ his atheism, and these are, for me, the peak moments in the book.
For example, a grandfather, in Chapter 2, speaking of the life and death of his granddaughter with multiple disabilities; a young man, in Chapter 3, coming to terms with loss of mobility and early due to death muscular dystrophy; or a young Jewish woman, in Chapter 5, in Westerbork Nazi transit camp knowing a death camp awaited her who wrote the following lines: “My life has become an uninterrupted dialogue with You, O God, one great dialogue.”
2. His respect for Fry’s questions
Another star quality of Where is God in suffering? is the absolute seriousness with which he takes Stephen Fry’s questions. The opening chapter addresses Fry’s questions about suffering in the world, taking his stand upon the structure of the universe as contemporary science unfolds it for us. In the second chapter he considers human freedom and the harm we do to one another.
The regard Fr Brendan shows throughout the book for Stephen Fry and his questions marks out Where is God in suffering? for me as a paradigmatic work of civility and respectful dialogue.
3. He restores historical depth and perspective to Fry’s questions
If Fry were to read this book he would meet the others who have raised questions like his, within different civilizational contexts, and in varying existential moods, from the Egyptian ‘Dispute of a Man Concerning Suicide with his soul from around 2000 BC, to the struggle of Job with the same questions in the Bible’s ‘Book of Job’, and on to Dostoevsky’s meditative exploration of the same questions and, it seems to me, of an anti-religious attitude like Fry’s, in The Brothers Karamazov.
In a bravura remembrance of the 40-thousand-year span of equivalent meditative explorations of the meaning of human existence in the face of death, Fr Brendan draws to our attention the vast sweep in different symbolisms of our sense of the mystery of human existence oriented as we are towards the Beyond (pp. 51-54), gently opening the question of a conversation about God and us that seems to have lost that sense of orientation towards the Beyond, and in the process, lost awareness of the self-transcending quality of love.
4. Chiara Luce – a teenager who died of bone cancer
Fr Brendan tells us that when he listened to Stephen Fry’s ‘charge sheet’ against God, he immediately thought of Chiara Luce Badano, a teenager who died in 1990 of bone cancer at 19 years of age. In Chapter 4 of Where is God in suffering? he introduces us to her through her own words and those of her parents and others who knew her.
It is the story of a girl who lived her Catholic faith in the light of the Focolare spirituality of Chiara Lubich, and who found, in the practice of that spirituality, a way to live through the suffering that bone cancer brought her, and to face her death from it.
The odd thing about the Stephen Fry diatribe is that he is acting out an outrage against a God he actually believes doesn’t really exist. The gripping thing about Chiara Luce’s words is that they let us see inside her soul where we learn that she really does believe in God, and loves Him right to the end, even though she is suffering and dying from bone cancer before she reaches her twentieth birthday.
Chiara Luce’s experience for me is the high point of the book. And in the voices of those around her quoted in the book, we sense the special light that they beheld in her during this struggle. Fr Brendan quotes one of her doctors, Antonio Delogu: ‘Through her smile and through her eyes full of light, she showed us that death doesn’t exist; only life exists. (p. 68)
5. Fr Brendan tells how he learned a way to understand and live through suffering.
As promised at the start of the book, in Chapter 7 Fr Brendan tells us the his personal story - how he first met the spirituality by which he lives, by which he deals with sufferings that come his way. I see it as a standout quality of the book that he applies the same principle to himself that he has applied throughout the book – the lived truth of the way of dealing with suffering is presented personally so that we may judge for ourselves whether for us it has the ring of truth to experience.
He tells how, as a young priest, on a course in Eastern Europe he met and fell in love with a young woman. She was from an atheistic society but had recently become a Catholic. She prompted him to accept that his emotional attitude towards her was incompatible with his commitment to be a priest, and gradually he realised she was right. But he had been struck by the unselfish way she related to everyone around her so just before they finally parted, he asked her what lay behind it.
‘I was really surprised by her answer: “I’m in love with Jesus. Especially when He was an atheist.”’ She explained how, brought up as an atheist, she’d always been asking why – why do people suffer, why do things go wrong in the world, what’s the meaning of our life?’ ‘When she shared these questions with friends at the university they told her the name of their God was Why? and her response was “If your God is called Why? I’ve been looking for Him all my life?”’
Fr Brendan comments wryly, ‘I thought I knew my way around theology, but I’d never been told before that Jesus had been an atheist!’ (p. 115)
What makes this small book great, I believe, is the way be builds up throughout the book from the very first page, (p. 11) an ever-deepening historical context for the way of understanding and living through suffering with which the book ends,
A highpoint is Etty Hillesum’s astonishing intuition that by the way she lived in the Nazi transit camp she was ‘helping God’ (p. 76).
And in a magnificent coda to his magisterial commentary on the Book of Job, he double-takes the whole meditative drama as ‘a word in waiting’, intimating ‘the suffering, death and Resurrection of someone who really was completely innocent of wrongdoing,’ someone ‘who offers us a definitive context for all human suffering, physical, moral and spiritual’, someone ‘who has faced the hardest challenge of our universal humanity, undergoing the extreme of feeling abandoned by God at the point of death’
Could there really be someone who shockingly lives the incompatibility between innocent suffering and God’s goodness because he is both Man and God? Here Fr Brendan unveils the Christian mystery which establishes and opens the concrete way in which suffering may be lived in a new way: because God shares our suffering, we may share His suffering by making ourselves one with Him in His suffering for us. (pp. 109-110)
I haven’t suffered as harrowingly as the even one of the sufferers Fr Brendan invites into the witness box, but like you, like all of us, I’ve had my share of those awful nights when things I’ve done or that have happened to me rear their ugly heads and chase away sleep with their harrowing whys. The more I work through this book, the more I am convinced that the approach to suffering Fr Brendan introduces us to in Where is God in suffering? can help us, me at any rate, to meet God in suffering.
As he says:
“Isn’t it often the way that when we have the privilege of sharing time and conversation with those who are going through real suffering, their courage and words stay with us and change the way we see things?” (p. 16)
Or in a gentle passage that feels like a unilateral declaration of peace, seeking to understand and be understood by Stephen Fry and the other atheists whose views he discusses, rather than to overwhelm or beat them, Fr Brendan seems satisfied to draw attention to how different things are for those who are living through them with God and those who aren’t:
“Perhaps the mystery is that we see everything differently when we ear God calling us through our suffering. At any rate, between those who believe God doesn’t exist and those who believe they’re living their lives in an ongoing encounter with God – experiencing their sufferings in this Presence – there’s a big difference in how they see the meaning and importance of suffering.”
- Dr Joe McCarroll
This book brings us on a journey, a journey that introduces us to “a theology of the Other.” Through the medium of personal stories, the reader is brought step by step along a path that, for Christians, always leads to Jesus Forsaken/Risen. In him, whose very being is constituted by his relationship with the Father, we meet the greatest why-without-an-answer ever uttered in human history. Experiencing himself abandoned by the Father who gave meaning to his life, Jesus goes beyond his own suffering of meaninglessness and surrenders himself into the hands of his Father (see Lk 23:46). This, as all Christians believe, leads to his resurrection. For Purcell, the key stories narrated in the pages of this book witness to this dynamic in that each one tells of a discovery of the Other/Jesus Forsaken/Risen in their personal suffering.
In an ‘Afterword’ Purcell responds to the minorities from different religions who co-opt their religion to rationalize violence. He draws on those Jewish, Muslim and Christian voices who call for peaceful dialogue rather than violent confrontation, quoting Jonathan Sachs’ call to go beyond a mainly individual “theology of the Other in the direction of a theology of communion between ourselves and every Other.” His suggestion echoes Jesus’ prayer for unity (see Jn 17:21). Another sign of hope Purcell points to is the Amman Declaration or Message, which reiterates the importance Islam places on the ‘oneness’ of the human species (see p 140).
While we have all experienced suffering to some degree, this book gives us the opportunity to look at it through the eyes of those who have found meaning in their suffering, and, in particular, those who have come to recognise Jesus Forsaken/Risen in their sufferings. Because each of the stories narrated is substantial, they must surely point to the viability of this approach and help those of us still struggling to find meaning in our suffering, to trustfully surrender ourselves into the hands of our Father, the one Father we share with Jesus and each other.
- Máire O’Byrne M.A. in systematic theology conferred by The Milltown Institute of Theology and Philosophy.