Saturday, August 01, 2009

Offering up?

So it turns out I'm quite allergic to bee and/or wasp stings. Got stung a week ago today for the first time in my life, as far as I can recall, and the local allergic reaction (on the foot) is a good deal worse today than ever before, though all the web sites say that the itching and rash is supposed to go away by a week. But someone I spoke to yesterday (my riding teacher, to cancel the riding lesson because of the foot) says she knows someone who reacts for two to three weeks before it "gets out of his system." How many hours a day can one sit with ice held on one's foot? Perhaps there's a world's record or something I could aim for.

I'm a wimp, and this kind of thing really bugs me, especially the trouble sleeping at night part. "Stoical" is just not the word that springs to mind when friends think of me.

Now, into the midst of this comes this quasi-mystical thought from the books of Elizabeth Goudge, whom I've discussed here. Goudge was really into this idea that one could "offer up" the annoyances of life, including the minor ones, even offer them up for other people. It's apparently a form of Catholic piety that was popular in the mid-twentieth century. Dawn Eden has discussed it a bit. Goudge was Anglican, but about as high as she could be without crossing the Tiber.

I'm about as low as I can be, so I shouldn't be sympathetic to any of this stuff at all, but it is an attractive idea. It's attractive, because everyone hates the feeling that suffering, even minor suffering, is meaningless. I think Christians especially are attracted to the idea that one can give meaning to the things one goes through that are unpleasant.

Well, that's Biblical enough. We have ample biblical evidence that God is "working all things together for good" and that things we don't like can be purifying if accepted as from the hand of God.

But Goudge is taking it a step farther and implying that we can help someone else by this "offering up" mental act. That I'm much less sure about. For one thing, it smacks a bit of making a deal with God: "If I take this well and try to adopt an accepting spirit about it, Lord, you will help out so-and-so. Deal?" And that's obviously not right.

But I'm not ready entirely to throw out the idea that the mental attitude of accepting what God allows and offering that acceptance back to Him is what Paul calls a "good and acceptable" form of service. Whether it helps anyone else...Well, perhaps at least those around are helped by our taking a better attitude than snarling. Lord willing.

P.S. If this post is too personal and uninteresting, look down one for something related to current events and ideas.


Beth said...

Lydia, I'm hoping Bill or someone will address this subject. It fascinates me, and I would like to know more about what it means. It seems akin to -- but not the same as -- the concept of substituted love as Charles Williams presents it in _Descent into Hell_ -- the idea that one can take on, say, the fear of another person, bear that burden for him if allowed to do so . . . I don't know what I think of these yet, but I am drawn to both these concepts as very important, giving meaning to our suffering in a very different and more complete way than solely for our own growth in patience and fortitude. Of course, as you say, others around us are benefitted by our patience in various ways, but I have wondered for a long time if there's not more to it . . .

William Luse said...

First off, there's no post too personal unless it's utterly trivial, which suffering is not.

The last time I ventured into this territory, I got me and Anthony Esolen involved in a contretemps with Orthodox theologian David Hart on the Touchstone blog. Even old Zippy took part (under a different handle). People can make it into a hugely complicated subject (it is), but since it's simple to me, I'll be brief: Suffering has meaning. Else why do we find import in the crucifixion, or in the counsel to take up our cross? Christ suffered for us, to our great benefit, and that of the whole world's. Lydia's question is simply: can we suffer for the benefit of another as Christ suffered for us?

Well not "just as", of course, but in humble imitation of it. I guess my single greatest scriptural warrant is Paul's assertion that he completed in his own flesh what was lacking in Christ's suffering. (A passage, found in comments to the linked post, that greatly vexed Paul Cella, and no doubt he's hardly the first). This can only make sense in light of the fact that His flesh was finite, i.e., was capable of suffering only thus far in His span on earth; but that the sacrifice was perfect in light of Him to whom that flesh belonged. Rather than fleeing the suffering, He embraced it, every moment of it perfectly and infinitely realized in His divine innocence. Now some Protestants take objection to the Catholic understanding of this as a form of idolatry (as in their objection to the Catholic eucharist), as though the claim were being made that Christ's sacrifice could be repeated and were not in itself sufficient to the task. Of course, that's not what is being claimed, and I see no hint of it in Paul's passage. He says nothing about repeating the sacrifice, but only about "completing", as if the suffering were an act that must be continued through time until He comes again, and which makes theological sense to me if the doctrine that we are members of his body is to amount to something more than a poetical flourish. The mystical body is not "just" mystical, but a spiritually organic reality (if I might so speak). If you are of His body, and you suffer, He suffers. (I suspect, btw, with Cardinal Newman, that during His agony in the garden He foresaw your suffering, experienced it in body and soul, and sweated blood for your pain.)

Now, Lydia has too much integrity to "make a deal" with God regarding her own pains. If such an 'offering up' is to happen, I'd assume it ought to be undertaken with no thought for the outcome, which you can't effect anyway. (Thy will, not mine, be done.) And if "at least those around are helped by our taking a better attitude than snarling," that's no small thing.

If you would pray for others, why can't you suffer for them? Suffering becomes prayer becomes charity. (Some people find themselves in such straits that suffering is all they have to offer.) If only Christ's suffering has any place in the plan of salvation, then all the evils that befall us are a meaningless chaos, and there's something about this idea that seems to me to run afoul of the divine economy, though I'm not sure I can explain why. But I think His suffering gives ours meaning, makes ours a vehicle of grace, and allows us to participate in His. This is an incomprehensible elevation of our merely, and often pathetically, human condition, but then why did He come in the first place and take that condition as His own?

Of course, I am of a temperament that doesn't like to draw very strict limits around God's means of making "grace abound", and all this is offered with the caveat that it's just my opinion and that if any Catholic teaching refutes it, it goes in the dumpster with all the other trash.

I also think Lydia should get to the doctor. I'd recommend benadryl if I knew what I were talking about, but I don't. Get thee to a physician. Forget that Obama would rather you didn't.

Lydia McGrew said...

Beth and Bill, thanks so much for your comments. The ensuing weekend after I wrote the main post has, as Bill knows by now, been something of a roller coaster, as it turned out that I had not merely an on-going allergic reaction to the sting but a subcutaneous infection which needed to be treated immediately. Since I like having two feet, I've spent some time in the ER this weekend, including getting an IV drip. Went through a mild and (Lord willing, please, please) now ended allergic reaction to one of the medications they tried. (New note for the medical chart: "Allergic to sulpha." It can go next to "allergic to penicillin," which is already on there.) The scary infection seems to be slowwwly clearing up, but we're not out of the woods yet, and normal activities--like driving, for example--are still out of the question. Ordinary Dr's office appointment tomorrow.

But I've been working on this "offering up suffering" thing quite a bit.

The first thing is that I absolutely agree with Bill that human suffering must have meaning, meaning given to it by God. If there were no God, suffering really would be meaningless, or so I believe. It might improve a person's character, but there are plenty of people--like young babies--whose characters cannot possibly, in this life, be improved by suffering.

So suffering can be given value, but only by God.

I've had a chance only to glance at Hart's statements. It looks to me like at a minimum he was overstating and then refusing to admit to having done so. This squares with what I remember of Hart's articles I used to read in First Things--they tended to be unusual and surprising but also to seem exaggerated. Or so I recall it.

_Perhaps_ he was in part reacting against a statement I myself have heard and rejected to the effect that suffering and death are part of God's "good creation." That is to say, that they were positively willed by God from the beginning and are somehow intrinsic to the divine nature. That seems quite wrong, and contrary to the doctrines both of the nature of God and of the Fall of man as taught in Scripture. However, that God brings good out of evil and that God wills our good through our suffering are thoroughly biblical doctrines, and Hart seems, from what I've seen, to come perilously close either to denying them or to denying their importance.

The question that remains, then, in the main post, is whether one of the ways in which God brings good out of suffering is by somehow using our offered-up private suffering in some mysterious heavenly transfer for the good of others *who are not benefited by the suffering in any ordinary way*. It's easy enough to see how, if we suffer in the course of doing good for others--for example if a missionary suffers in the course of bringing the Gospel to people--our suffering is doing them good. Here, I'm inclined to say that I would interpret the Colossians 1:24 statement by St. Paul in a somewhat prosaic way. Given the context of the phrase and of the verse, I'm tentatively inclined to say that when Paul speaks of "making up what is lacking in Christ's sufferings" he is referring to the need, in addition to Christ's life, death, and resurrection, for the labors and afflictions of people like himself to carry the Gospel and build up the Church. But this would be "doing others good by one's sufferings" in an entirely non-mystical sense.


Lydia McGrew said...

But I'm not sure how much it matters that we should know. It seems that perhaps in this life we are left with conjectures about a lot of things, and about disturbing things most of all. One I often conjecture about is how God shows his love to infants who die, perhaps after suffering a great deal. Are they given a chance after death, with matured minds, to accept or reject Him? If that happens, might they in retrospect be given the opportunity to accept their own earlier sufferings rather than rebelling against them? All conjecture. We don't know.

So it seems to me that there can be nothing wrong with saying to Our Lord, "Help me to accept this and offer it back to you in an obedient spirit. Use it in whatever way you want to. If this is the way it works, please use it for so-and-so's benefit. But if that isn't how things work, you know best. Your will be done."

alaiyo said...

Thanks to both of you for your comments. I just received a book from Scott Cairns on suffering, and it addresses this idea -- I will be posting a review/comments on it at Inscapes sometime this week.

C.S. Lewis thought, if I recall correctly, that his increased suffering from osteoporosis may have been related in some way to Joy's remission from cancer . . . that he was allowed to bear her burden for a time before her death.

Lydia McGrew said...

I think "may have been" is the operative word, there. He was cautious in the way he worded it. I think he said something like, "One dreams of a Williams substitution." And he made it clear that he would have been very happy if that had been the case. But he knew it was highly conjectural.

The thing about Williams is that, quite frankly, he took the whole thing far more literally and, in my opinion, presumptuously than it is taken in Catholic piety generally. Williams believed that you could literally tell ahead of time whom you would help and how you would help him and could, by an act of will, bring about that help by directly choosing to bear that specific person's specific burden. It really became far too much, in my opinion, part of his personality cult and his own invented religion. He had all these girl followers, and he would order one of them to "take" another one's fear and so forth, as if he were in a position to manipulate the Divine economy. It is an interesting ploy in a novel, and I like _Descent Into Hell_ quite a bit, but in real life I really believe it raised serious and legitimate questions about Williams's being a mountebank. It's my opinion, as it was Tolkien's, that Lewis, being a warm-hearted person given to huge enthusiasms over his friends, was overly starry-eyed about Williams.

It's one thing in private to ask _God_ that one's suffering _may_ be used to someone else's benefit. It's quite another to go about, without even much mention of God (you'll notice how the playwright in Descent Into Hell excludes all mention of God when he offers to bear the girl's fear), to go about organizing one's own and one's friends into burden-bearing pairs and treating it as a matter of fact that this sort of thing can just be done by sheer willingness.

You will gather from all this that I'm no great fan of Williams. He treated his wife very poorly, with his high-flown Dantesque flirtation/love for a girl he worked with, and it wasn't very fair on the girl, either. A brilliant man in his own way, but not very well-balanced.

William Luse said...

I think your perspective on all this is a pretty healthy one, and your estimation of Hart about spot-on, imo. And yes, he (and his defenders) certainly were reacting against the notion "that suffering and death are part of God's 'good creation.' That is to say, that they were positively willed by God from the beginning and are somehow intrinsic to the divine nature." Problem is, nobody ever said that it was.

"One I often conjecture about is how God shows his love to infants who die, perhaps after suffering a great deal. Are they given a chance after death, with matured minds, to accept or reject Him?"

I don't even like to think about that one. I'm of the mind to just let them all in. In their immaturity and innocence, can they accept or reject? Have you ever known a baby to reject it's mother's love? Luther said at least one thing I like: "There must be many babies in heaven." I notice Benedict's pulled back on the reigning opinion that unbaptized infants automatically go to limbo, a move I like in this age of abortion, which is a Baptism by Blood if ever there was one.

That Williams fellow sounds interestingly inventive enough with religious matters that I think I'll pass him by.