Editor’s note: This essay was originally published by CWR on April 19, 2019.
The problem of suffering is one that has plagued and haunted humanity since the Fall of our first parents. Suffering prompts in the heart of man a visceral reaction, as well as a simple yet burning question: “Why?”
The Church’s observance of Holy Week not only amplifies the urgency of this question, but also provides its solution. Yet it is a solution Christ’s disciples struggle to understand while living in this valley of tears.
It is a sorrowful fact that many people become ensnared by their sufferings, never lifting their eyes to behold the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ. Such people do not echo the Psalmist’s expressed desire for “one thing” (Psalm 27)—the blessedness of dwelling in the Lord’s house and gazing upon His beauty.
Others echo the Psalmist with their lips but do not do so with their hearts. Instead they look for pleasure and freedom from pain in this world, thinking little of the promises of Jesus. What are those promises? They include the eternal happiness of seeing God face-to-face, as well as the promise that the disciples of Jesus can be intimately united with Him when they suffer, learning from Him and benefitting from His divine strength.
Those who wallow in the sufferings of this world also fail to see in Jesus Christ the truly innocent One who has suffered more than could ever be suffered by all of humanity combined, yet who could describe His sufferings as “easy” and “light” (Matthew 11:30) because of the incomprehensible love which motivated His suffering and dying for us. It is by the power of this sacrificial love that Jesus saves mankind, and transforms the meaning of suffering for all who will look upon Him and believe, surrendering themselves to Jesus in lives of discipleship, including first and foremost the discipleship of self-emptying love.
Guardini on the Cross of Christ
Romano Guardini (1885-1968), in what is perhaps his magnum opus and certainly his best-known work—The Lord—makes a case for understanding suffering very much like the one given above. In his own particular theological style, Guardini strives to communicate something of the unfathomable mystery of encountering Jesus Christ, of seeing in Jesus the one true God who became man, suffered, died, and rose for our salvation, the decision this encounter requires of every person, and the consequences of that decision.
Not least among these consequences is a new and deepened understanding of the evils of this world, including that of personal suffering. Guardini does not proceed towards an answer, however, without recognizing the profound difficulty presented by the question of suffering:
Naturally this is difficult; it is the cross. And here we brush the heaviest mystery of Christianity, its inseparableness from Calvary. Ever since Christ walked the way of the cross, it stands firmly planted on every Christian’s road, for every follower of Christ has his own personal cross. Nature revolts against it, wishing to ‘preserve’ herself. She tries to go around it, but Jesus has said unequivocally, and his words are fundamental to Christianity: He who hangs on, body and soul, to “life” will lose it; he who surrenders his will to his cross will find it—once and forever in the immortal self that shares in the life of Christ.
In this passage we have, to a degree at least, both the problem and the answer regarding man’s suffering in this world. By nature man abhors suffering, especially when those suffering are perceived to be innocent, while God’s grace not only makes suffering possible, but even transforms it so that it becomes a source of communion with Jesus Christ and of life in Him.
As a man who lived through the turbulent early decades of the twentieth century, Guardini appreciated the weight of the questions involved in human suffering. Yet by faith he also knew the Lord Jesus Christ, and knew that the encounter with Jesus is a point of entry into understanding what nature cannot grasp. He knew that this encounter also brings one into a process of transformation and new life that yields inestimable blessings and the promise of eternal blessedness. And Guardini knew that this blessedness comes not despite suffering, but rather in and through it.
The centrality of Christ and the “why” of His death
In approaching the mystery of the Lord Jesus, Guardini writes, “we can only reverently pause before this or that word or act, ready to learn, adore, obey.” This disposition seeks “…nothing ‘new’: neither a new understanding of Christ nor a better Christological theory. Religion is not a question of new things, but rather of things eternal.”
Of the damage wrought by the subjectivist methods of the mid-twentieth century, and Guardini’s attempt to remedy the theological situation, Joseph Ratzinger writes in his introduction to The Lord, “But it is true now as in (Guardini’s) day that the peril of the Church, indeed of humanity, consists in bleaching out the image of Jesus Christ in an attempt to shape a Jesus according to our own standards.” The Lord, according to Ratzinger, “leads us to that which is essential, to that which is truly real, Jesus Christ Himself.”
What does this theological approach teach about Christ? He is revealed as the Lord of heaven and earth, absolutely sovereign and yet willing to take human flesh so that He might reveal Himself as the Word of the Father to lost humanity. In the act of revealing His lordship and the Father’s love for man, Jesus calls forth from man a decision to accept Him and the Good News of the coming Kingdom of God. Of this Good News Christ is the embodiment and the herald. The purpose for Christ’s coming is to restore life where there had only been sin and, consequently, death.
As the scriptures of Holy Week remind us, Jesus faced bitter rejection among His own people. Their minds were clouded with various human concerns and preconceptions about the identity of the messiah, did not produce the fruit of acceptance of and submission to lordship of Jesus. This led to a situation in which, “Salvation must now be realized differently: no longer through the meeting of the gospel with faith, of illimitable divine generosity with pure human acceptance; no longer through the evident arrival of the kingdom and the renewal of history; now the Father’s will demands the ultimate sacrifice of his Son.”
Was Christ’s death necessary? In giving a giving his answer, on the one hand, Guardini points to human sin, not in terms of strict causality, but rather a form of moral causality: “It is I, with all my indifference, refusals and failings, who strap the cross of Calvary to Christ’s shoulders.” On the other hand, Guardini does his best to explain the interaction of divine omniscience and freedom, faith and reason, human contingency and the working out of God’s will:
It is obvious that with our human intelligence we shall never comprehend…What happens is simultaneously freedom and necessity: God’s gift laid in human hands. To ponder these things makes sense only when we are able without disregarding truth to lift them to the plane of adoration.
On this same “plane of adoration” we come to see that the destiny of Jesus becomes, in turn, the destiny of His disciples. In Jesus, divine love takes on a face, a personality, a way of thinking, speaking, and acting, a historical context. He who in His divine nature is not limited to space and time, nevertheless allows Himself to proceed on a trajectory towards the place of love’s consummation and definitive expression: Jerusalem, Calvary, the Cross.
This place of consummation becomes, then, the paradigm and measure of all those who believe in the Son of God and strive to follow Him. Here we arrive squarely before the question of suffering, which has its roots not only in the Fall of the “Old Adam,” but also in the redemption won for us by the “New Adam” (cf. Romans 5).
Guardini deals both with universal suffering and the suffering of the individual Christian, respecting both as unfathomable mysteries.
Considering first the universal suffering of all the children of Adam, Guardini sees clearly that the evils of this world have their roots in human choice and in the malicious workings of the Evil One, the “ruler of this world” (John 12:31). God is not to blame for suffering.
Guardini emphasizes human solidarity, which becomes elevated to an emphasis on the communion that exists in the Church. The solidarity of all of humanity implicates everyone in Adam’s sin and its resultant suffering:
What is Adam to me? The answer would be: Everything! All humanity was contained in the first man, was there from the beginning. Everyone participated in his decision, also you. And were our feelings to rebel, should we attempt to deny any such responsibility or to jeer skeptically at the idea as ‘fantastic,’ Revelation would probably reply: There you have it—the sin in you! If you lived in the truth, you would know that the claim to individual autonomy of being is in itself a sacrilege. The individual exists only in close relation to the whole of mankind. Already in secular history we see again and again how one person sets or changes the direction of the lives of all. What he does, somehow the others do with him, through him. How much truer then must this be of the ancestor and head of the human race! If Adam had not failed, the foundation of all human existence would be other than it is. Certainly, each of us would be individually tried and proved, but under quite different circumstances.
Every man, woman, and child is wounded by the Original Sin, marked by suffering, and doomed to die. Of man’s mortality, Guardini writes, “Death does not belong to the essence of human nature; it is pagan to claim that it does. Sin brings death because it tears people from God.” And this doom involves not only each individual human person, but also humanity taken as a whole. The disobedience of Adam sets all of humanity upon the wrong course.
Guardini uses the metaphor of a great ship to describe humanity set upon a course “steering straight for destruction.” The crew members and passengers onboard the ship may here and there be performing good and even necessary tasks, but they are all mortally impaired not only by their own personal imperfections, but also by virtue of the fact that the ship in which they are sailing is utterly doomed.
Continuing the metaphor, Guardini presents Jesus as a “Recue-pilot,” who arrives at the opportune time not simply to correct the various activities of men or to perfect them, but rather Jesus comes principally to set the ship of humanity back on its proper course. Guardini writes:
Jesus does not uncover hidden creative powers in man; he refers him to God, center and source of all power…Christ does not step into the row of great philosophers with a better philosophy; or of the moralists with a purer morality; or of the religious geniuses to conduct man deeper into the mysteries of life; he came to tell us that our whole existence, with all its philosophy and ethics and religion, its economics, art, and nature, is leading us away from God and into the shoals. He wants to help us swing the rudder back into the divine direction, and to give us the necessary strength to hold that course. Any other appreciation of Christ is worthless. If this is not valid, then every man for himself; let him choose whatever guide seems trustworthy, and possibly Goethe or Plato or Buddha is a better leader than what remains of Jesus Christ whose central purpose and significance have been plucked from him.
Jesus comes to rescue fallen humanity yet the world, though redeemed, remains fallen. Though Guardini in The Lord does not treat extensively of the problems of man’s history after Christ, in other works he demonstrates a clear recognition of the ongoing sufferings of the world and of individual men within it.
Guardini himself suffered from a certain malaise, especially in the wake of the world-shattering events of the twentieth century, which drove many of his contemporaries to nihilism. Guardini’s faith would never allow for such despair, but neither could he place any kind of Hegelian hope in the surging goodness and self-transcendence of human history. If man was to become like God, it would not be the result of any natural causality. Guardini’s book The End of the Modern World demonstrates the futility of trusting in history or human nature to set right the evils of this world. This conclusion is rooted in the same notions of history and anthropology that inform Guardini’s reasoning in The Lord.
Every person suffers, but not every person responds in a Christ-like way to his suffering. Christ has transformed the meaning of man’s suffering, and He summons to each person to “take up his cross, and follow me” (Matt 16:24), calling His disciples to a deeper realization in themselves of the likeness of God. According to Guardini, accepting the suffering and “littleness” of one’s existence in this world strengthens one’s bond with Jesus, who became little in comparison with the majesty He rightly enjoys at His Father’s right hand:
Jesus was no cold Superman—he was more human than any of us. Entirely pure, unweakened by evil, he was loving and open to the core. His ardor, truth, sensitivity, power, capacity for joy and pain were unlimited, and everything that happened to him happened in the immeasurableness of his divinity. What then must have been Jesus’ suffering!
Jesus is the perfect One, the innocent One, who nevertheless freely chooses to suffer and die in order to rescue fallen man. In His own earthly life, Jesus sees that “from all sides human suffering streams to him.” And seeing these tremendous streams of suffering, Jesus “walks through the flood of pain, and the power of God flows from him in a wave of healing, and the words of the prophet are fulfilled: ‘Surely he hath borne our infirmities and carried our sorrows’ (Is 53:4).”
What is true for the people who encountered Jesus during the years of His public ministry is true for all who suffer and encounter the Lord who has died for them. According to Guardini, “Jesus’ salutary powers are inexhaustible—more than adequate for all the misery.”
While suffering is constitutive of the Christian life, it is nevertheless true that Jesus brings healing to those who suffer. Christ brings healing that is always spiritual in its essence, always for the sake of salvation, and that sometimes comes in the form of physical healing.
To look upon Jesus in the hope of receiving His healing is to cast our eyes, the “eyes” of our faith, above the troubles of this world. Also, placing ourselves before Jesus and imploring His mercy, He in turn lifts us up to Himself. His power, Guardini writes, is that of “a truth and love which seizes reality and lifts it out of itself.”
In order for suffering to be transformed in this way, it is essential for each person to make a decision for Christ. Suffering will continue to mean little, and to hurt much, for the one who has not made this decision.
This consideration points to a hinge of Guardini’s theology, the event of the encounter with Christ. In this encounter, the one true God is revealed in His enfleshed Word. And the humanity of Jesus discloses His divinity. Yet this first, fundamental step of encounter would remain fruitless if it was not followed by the second exchange between God and man: the summons to discipleship and man’s positive response.
There can be no Christ without the Cross, no imitation of God’s love that does not entail sacrifice, no freedom without obedience, and no resurrection without death. In order for the transformation of man and of his sufferings to take place, he must say “yes” to Jesus in an act of surrender to His lordship. In another of his works, Guardini writes of the existential character of each man’s decision in terms that fit well with the approach he takes in The Lord:
Human beings can’t have everything; they must choose certain things; they cannot live in the unlimited; they have to have a direction. The basis of their existence is not the infinity of space, but the here. Not the boundlessness of the world, but the now. Not the incalculability of human possibilities, but those found in one’s own ego. And the content of fruitful action is not the endless that can be accomplished but that which vocation and situation require. If human beings are satisfied with this demand, a conversion takes place. The right thing performed opens up one’s glance into the whole. Those who do justice to their own situation find therein the whole given to them.
Guardini, well aware of the Nietzschean “will to power,” points out to his readers the true telos of the human will, the act which will bring true fulfillment: the act of surrender: “The lesson of the cross is the great lesson of self-surrender and self-conquest.” The “will to power,” in Nietzsche’s use of the term, can never work because it brings only more suffering when one’s desire for power takes precedence over the needs of others. If there is any sense in which the expression “will to power” can be Christianized, then, it is in recognizing that power by which man overcomes himself, dying to himself so that he might live for Christ. This “power” is God’s grace, at work in the hearts of those who believe in Christ and make the act of surrender to Him.
History, also, becomes not the inevitable working out of progressive triumph (Hegel), or of what are ultimately meaningless individual human lives (Sartre). Rather, history is the field of action in which God continuously works to reveal Himself and summon man to a new life, and in which people must make a choice to accept the revelation of God and His Kingdom made present in Jesus Christ, surrendering themselves in lives of self-sacrificial love. To walk this path of discipleship is to “stay the course” towards eternal life with God. Failure to do so results in suffering stripped of redemptive meaning.
Finally, suffering Christians become, like those healed by Jesus in the Gospels, “living witnesses of the healing power that radiates from the Son of God.” Extending Guardini’s point a bit further, suffering becomes a source of evangelization, insofar as the suffering Christian becomes a beacon of love, especially when he suffers for others, and of hope, because he suffers for and with Jesus Christ, in the hope of the resurrection. This witness expresses the truth of Tertullian’s maxim, “The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians.” In all of the sufferings Christians freely and lovingly accept, the name of Jesus is proclaimed and glorified.
Pope Benedict XVI, himself a professed enthusiast of the theology of Romano Guardini, famously wrote in his 2006 encyclical Deus Caritas Est, “Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” In The Lord, as well as elsewhere in his writings, Guardini shows that the encounter with the Lord Jesus, who reveals the one God to humanity, accepted in faith and resulting in the surrender of one’s life in self-sacrificial love and discipleship, transforms the life of the Christian in and through the experience of the Cross. In his dying to himself, the Christian lives in communion with Jesus and experiences Jesus’ love, with all of its healing and saving power. The true Christian disciple, in turn, radiates that love outward towards a suffering world, marked by sin and death. It is this conformity to Christ crucified that gives life its deepest meaning and its “decisive direction”—towards that life beyond suffering where God’s love is all in all.
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