I completed the first version of this reflection and sent it off to the editor just two days before the awful tragedy in Creeslough. The sudden loss of 10 lives, including a mother and her teenage son, and a father with his five-year-old daughter, has caused immediate heartbreak and traumatic feelings, not just for the family and friends of the victims but also throughout Donegal and across the whole nation. It has also thrown renewed focus on the question we grapple with at times like this – “Why?”
There is nothing new in that question; pain and suffering are often quoted by non-believers as the strongest possible argument against the very existence of God – why would an all-loving God allow good people to suffer?
St. Therese tells us that our eventual reward in heaven will repay the suffering we have gone through on earth but that can seem very remote for someone going through sudden, painful loss like the people of Creeslough or someone sharing in the suffering of a person in the final stages of a terminal illness.
Even in this life, however, we can a faint glimmer of the reward being associated with pain and suffering. Every year, thousands of runners around the world take part in marathons. Any marathon runner will tell you about the sacrifice and pain involved in preparing for the marathon let alone the pain suffered in the actual race, especially what they describe as “hitting the wall” when their ability to continue becomes frail and the whole thing just seems futile. Only a small fraction of that multitude of runners have any hope of coming anywhere near the top finishers so why do they do it? They do it purely for emotional self-satisfaction and pride in their achievement when they do complete the race.
Or think of the many mountaineers who claim difficult mountains fraught with danger and, once they have conquered one difficult peak, they want to move on to an even more difficult or dangerous one. What reward do they get? Again, nothing except the satisfaction of overcoming difficult challenges.
These examples seem trite in comparison to things like the sheer agony of someone losing a child or other young person close to them or someone undergoing the pain of chemotherapy for advanced cancer. One difference is that the athletes and mountaineers choose to endure suffering to achieve the rewards they desire, it is not imposed on them by someone else and they are free to opt out if it becomes too onerous. Another difference is that they are undergoing difficulties for immediate reward when they complete their task; it is difficult to think of any immediate reward whilst watching a loved one go through pain and suffering in the final stages of a terminal illness except perhaps to see them at rest and freed from that pain.
Nevertheless, the same underlying principle applies and if we stay true to our religious beliefs, our reward in heaven will far surpass any suffering we have gone through here on earth. We know this because Jesus told us so. Time and time again, he told us that he came for the poor and the suffering, not for the rich and those who have an easy life. He told us in the Sermon on the Mount that those who are hungry now will have their fill; that those who mourn now will laugh; that the poor will receive the kingdom of God.
But Jesus didn’t just tell us that – he showed us by example. When Jesus was tempted in the desert by the devil, he was offered the option of swapping his powers for dominion over the whole world and the rewards that would come with that. He chose instead to continue with a life that he knew would end in sheer agony and ignominy. It is not that he desired that ending; in Gethsemane, he showed us how terrified he was of the ordeal that he was about to undergo and his wish that his Father might take it away from him. Despite that fear and trepidation, he accepted the necessity of undergoing it to fulfil his Father’s will. Finally, in his resurrection, we see him first-hand receiving his reward for going through that suffering.
When we are going through suffering in this life, it can be difficult to see the point of it all but as St Therese and others remind us, this is where the depth of our faith is truly put to the test and where our eventual reward is truly earned.