By Teresa Pitt Green, Co-Founder
Sometimes it’s great going back to college for a class discussion reminiscent of the time before life becomes conscious of the experience of abuse – before one is left to face its lifelong aftermath.
In this case, a class was discussing, just before COVID-19 disrupted their semester, why “the challenge of evil and suffering is so difficult, causing anyone who has lived very long to ask questions for which there are no easy answers.”
This same discussion seems to be ongoing among anyone on the planet right now. What is this suffering? Is it punishment? Who will be the pariah, the villain, the scapegoat?
The book in the spotlight was Camus’s The Plague. The gist of the discussion was captured in Camus and the Great Conundrum, written by Steven Garber of the Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation and Culture and published in Notre Dame’s Church Life Journal (April 2, 2020). One key point was that plagues might be biological or moral. This point struck a chord for me.
As survivors recover from the lifetime fallout of abuse, we also must come to terms with the moral bankruptcy behind rampant abuse in our Church – and everywhere in the world.
The class discussion covered how suffering from plague is not limited to an individual scale, but seen as collective and horrific. Suffering in days of plague is shared, as is the risk of its dangers. Plague, like the abuser of children, does not discriminate.
Sharing magnifies suffering. It can also soothe it. We know how important it is these days to reach out of our respective quarantine silos and talk to others … and we have learned how important it is to do so without fueling each other’s fears but rather by helping each other cope. Whether sharing helps or hurts has to do with choices, and self-awareness. Those choices are individual. That awareness may be shared, but begins in individual conversions.
The class discussion covered quite a lot of ground, running through Camus’s novel and that of Daniel Dafoe (A Journal of the Plague Year), and the lives of St. Damien of Moloki and Dr. Daniel Brand. The suffering begins to seem similar across time, but the responses deliver individual distinctions.
In Camus, there were two foils: a physician whose training kicked in and left him tending the sick during the plague without a lot of reflection; and, a priest whose read of the situation left him resigned to suffering as punishment, deserved. Suffering or punishment?
The class covered a contrast with another priest, St. Damien of Moloki who gave his life serving the pariah of 19th century society, lepers. Indeed, he assumed their suffering to the point of becoming a leper. Another physician, Dr. Daniel Brand, responded to a similar call, leaving a historic legacy to demystify leprosy in the 20th century and to develop effective protocols for care.
Bland’s response to leprosy permitted discoveries that led to large-scale social and medical improvements for persons with leprosy. One discovery was that they did not feel pain. The lack of pain is not the relief some might assume. It was a danger in everyday living and a loss for the healing process. Indeed, the need for pain over no-pain, the need for suffering, was captured in Brand’s reflections in The Gift of Pain, also worth a read.
Bland wrote about what saints live: not seeking “no suffering,” but seeking to integrate suffering into our lives. His discovery helps us see that suffering is essential for both daily well-being and healing from what has harmed us. It is not something to be rejected or denied. It is something real with a place in our lives. Through integration we deprive suffering of its power, and keep it from defining our lives.
The more individuals, families, parishes … the Church realize this truth, the more hope there is for us to integrate the suffering and evil of abuse into our lives as individuals, families, parishes … and Church. That is healing. That is the lesson survivors return to offer.
We have learned how suffering renders us powerless, for a time. We have had to face how we end up choosing how the suffering and harm of abuse defines us. Even not choosing is a choice. The same is true for all individuals, families, parishes … and the Church.
Our choice determines whether we are defined only by the suffering and its legacy of wounds, or instead by our response to suffering as well. Many of us have responded to the agony of the suffering in ways that did not lead to well being, so we had to try again, start over, keep searching. The same is true for individuals, families, parishes and the Church.
The choice to get this right remains open, to be made fresh, to be tried many times over until we choose right. How we each respond, individually and collectively, has the power to amplify or mitigate the suffering others feel.
Not all victims are inclined to assuming this level of burden, and I don’t blame them. Some do assume that cross, however.
The ones who do likely feel what came up in the class discussion: “a responsibility for knowledge” gained through suffering, what Michael Polanyi said is something, a discovery perhaps, that has made us “feel more fully human.”
This is the gift and burden of those who survive the plagues — biological or moral — described in the discussion. We survive to speak the lessons so that others are spared having to learn the reality of evil and suffering afresh by having to suffer the evil which we have endured.
But who will listen?
The invitation in all this is for the Church to find a way to respond to this knowledge for which some of us, its victims, feel drawn to return to offer. The response will intensify or reduce the suffering, not just of survivors making the invitation but also all who are wounded by abuse. Families. Parishes. Churches.
Responses vary to every plague and every cure. As we see in today’s news, some feel they are an exception to the risk and the suffering, beyond the evil. They do not see the shared impact of suffering and evil. Yet, there it is. Where we believe we are not ill with the virus, we can still pass it to others. There are reasons for protocols and measures to confront what is not readily seen.
This is why my work remains something small-scale, on a person-to-person basis, a heart-to-heart basis. I have no illusions about recovery and reform from within an institution. Nor do I underestimate the impact of a single drop of water to change a whole scene with rippling effect.
What I do know is He Who secured for me the dignity of being fully human even after abusers taught me the lessons of being de-humanized and used, and after those who enabled abusers showed me I was invisible and of no consequence. The Great Physician is something worth returning home and talking about where biological or moral plague has taken root.