Category Archives: Love and Suffering

More About Ripening as We Age

James Finley shares his thoughts on spiritual maturity as a form of ripening:

We ripen in holiness and spiritual fulfillment as we learn to sit in the sun of God’s mysterious, sustaining presence that energizes and guides our efforts, bringing us to realms of grace that are beyond, way beyond, anything we can achieve by our own efforts alone. . . .

The lifelong process of ripening brings about a corresponding ripening of our ability to understand the fundamentals in a wiser, peace-giving manner. . . . As a person ripens in unsayable intimacies in God, they ripen in a paradoxical wisdom. They come to understand God as a presence that protects us from nothing, even as God unexplainably sustains us in all things. This is the Mystery of the Cross that reveals whatever it means that God watches over us; it does not mean that God prevents the tragic thing, the cruel thing, the unfair thing, from happening. Rather, it means that God is intimately hidden as a kind of profound, tender sweetness that flows and carries us along in the intimate depths of the tragic thing itself—and will continue to do so in every moment of our lives up to and through death, and beyond.

As fruit ripens, it fulfills itself in reaching its full potential to nurture us and give us pleasure. We might say that, as fruit ripens, it fulfills itself in giving itself to us. In a similar way, we do not undergo the transformative process of ripening for ourselves alone, but rather that our transformed presence might be a source of nurture to others.

Then too, there is the fruit that, in remaining unharvested, falls onto the ground and dies. The lesson here is in Jesus’ words, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone, but if it dies, it brings forth fruit a hundred fold, a thousand fold” (John 12:24).

And so it is with us. As we grow old we realize that, in all we have been through, Love has been using us for its own purposes. And for this we feel immensely grateful. We know, too, that our inevitable passing away, in which we fall into the ground and die, is not the end of our ripened and transformed life. It is rather our passage into an infinite and deathless fulfillment. Saint John of the Cross [1542–1591] talks about a windfall of delight. [1] When fruit becomes very ripe, the slightest wind can cause it to fall to the ground. This is also true of us, and not just in the sense in which we learn to be undone and fulfilled in all the unexpected little blessings that come to us throughout the day. The windfall of delight pertains as well to our last breath, which we know and trust will send us falling forever into the deathless depths of God.

Eileen: I have shared this story before, but I think it can help when we are suffering and old age often has lots of that. When traveling in several countries in Europe in a wheelchair, I experienced purposefully cruel prejudice not just from skin heads, but from even obviously middle-class, middle-aged women. There were no handicapped bathrooms in those countries except the airports and McDonalds. This was thirty years ago, so hopefully this has changed. But back then handicapped people were kept inside away from public view. At one point I was feeling extremely sad and hurt when in a crowded Cathedral filled with silver and gold. My husband wanted to take photos and my son wanted to climb to the top of the dome, so they looked for a place to park me out of the crowds. We found a dark empty corner and I stayed there out of the way. They were gone a long time and I began to feel even sadder there alone. I looked around over the crowd for Jesus on the Cross, but only saw the gold tabernacle and statues and lavish decorations. Finally, I looked up behind me in the dark corner and there was a life-sized Jesus on the cross. I experienced an incredible sense of his presence and love and realized that he is with us in all our suffering and times of despair. We are never alone. And whatever anyone does to others, they do to Jesus also. Suffering is a difficult mystery of life, but there is grace for the journey, when we realize we are never alone in it. The Love of God, Jesus, is in it with us.

Love and Suffering

Richard Rohr teaches that God uses love and suffering, and especially suffering, as universal paths to reach and change us.

Two universal paths of transformation have been available to every human being God has created: great love and great suffering. These are offered to all; they level the playing fields of all the world religions. Only love and suffering are strong enough to break down our usual ego defenses, crush our dualistic thinking, and open us to Mystery. In my experience, they like nothing else exert the mysterious chemistry that can transmute us from a fear-based life into a love-based life. None of us are exactly sure why. We do know that words, even good words or fine theology, cannot achieve that on their own. No surprise that the Christian icon of redemption is a man offering love from a crucified position!

Love and suffering are part of most human lives. Without any doubt, they are the primary spiritual teachers more than any Bible, church, minister, sacrament, or theologian. Wouldn’t it make sense for God to make divine truth so readily available? If the love of God is perfect and victorious, wouldn’t God offer every human being equal and universal access to the Divine as love and suffering do? This is what Paul seems to be saying to the Athenians in his brilliant sermon at the Areopagus: “All can seek the Deity, feeling their way toward God and succeeding in finding God. For God is not far from any of us, since it is in God that we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:27–28). What a brilliant and needed piece of theology to this day!

Love is what we long for and were created for—in fact, love is what we are as an outpouring from God—but suffering often seems to be our opening to that need, that desire, and that identity. Love and suffering are the main portals that open the mind space and the heart space (either can come first), breaking us into breadth and depth and communion. Almost without exception, great spiritual teachers will have strong and direct guidance about love and suffering. If we never go there, we will not know these essentials. We’ll try to work it all out in our heads, but our minds alone can’t get us there. We must love “with our whole heart, our whole soul, our whole mind, and our whole strength” (Mark 12:30).

Finally, there is a straight line between love and suffering. If we love greatly, it is fairly certain we will soon suffer, because we have somehow given up control to another. That is my simple definition of suffering: whenever we are not in control.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See