John Chapman: a “more perfect” response to suffering

On a related topic to the previous post, Abbot John Chapman offers advice (in one of his Spiritual Letters) to a nun concerned by her response to suffering.

It appears this sister in Christ believed that her inability to greet trials with joy and unruffled trust in God showed a lack of faith. Abbot Chapman replies:

Do not think that the right way to bear a trial – or many trials together – is to love God so much that you can bear the trial with joy; so that it ceases to be a trial. On the contrary, it is obvious that the essence of a suffering of any kind is that we suffer from it! We hate it. We long to be rid of it, or even we feel life impossible, or even the goodness of God incredible, so long as it lasts.

As Abbot Chapman continues:

If we can say, quite calmly and with the whole of our self, that we are glad of the suffering, then (of course) it has ceased to be a suffering; we have arrived at a sort of superhuman courage and firmness, which makes us despise it, and it is of no more importance.

However, while this may be something to aim for, it is only a “physical, human perfection”. The “higher and better method” of handling personal suffering is to suffer it:

…to recognise that we are meant to suffer, and that it is our nature to resent the suffering and to try to get rid of it, and that this worry and anxiety about it is the chief part of the suffering.

Abbot Chapman cites the example of our Lord in the garden of Gethsamene on the night before his crucifixion:

In the Agony, He did not say: “I suffer, and I rejoice; I only want to suffer more” (as Saints have sometimes been inspired by grace to say). But He prayed that the Chalice might be taken away – to show that the feeling of hating suffering, and feeling it unbearable, is a part of perfection for us, as it is a part of our weakness of nature. We have a right and a duty, when we feel this, to tell God what we feel, and ask Him to remove the pain: but we must add, as our Lord added: “Not my Will but Thine”.

The significance of our Lord’s agony in the garden is that it upends our human perception of what a “perfect” response to trials looks like:

It is better for us, and more perfect, to suffer, feeling our weakness and helplessness, bearing up somehow, half-heartedly, feebly, than to suffer courageously and magnanimously! We have to aim at this last, but not to expect it.

It is right to aim for courage in the face of trials – by trusting in God as much as we can, and “by living for others, not for self, … remembering that so many have much worse to suffer, without so much help from God” – but:

…we need not expect to be successful in these efforts! We have only to repeat that we want God’s Will.

Abbot Chapman is being a good theologian of the cross here (as well as a wise pastor): seeing perfection as consisting in weakness and helplessness – real weakness and helplessness, that is, not just play-acting – rather than in “victorious living”.

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One Response to John Chapman: a “more perfect” response to suffering

  1. Rick Ritchie says:

    Reminds me of the interchange between Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn in the movie Doubt. Something like:
    “Look at that. The sugar is still in the drawer where I put it at the beginning of Lent.” “Then it must not have been much a sacrifice for you.”

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