If you go down in the streets today, Baby, you better,
You better open your eyes.
Folk down there really don't care, really don't care, don't care, really don't
Which, which way the pressure lies,
So I've decided what I'm gonna do now.
So I'm packing my bags for the Misty Mountains
Where the spirits go now,
Over the hills where the spirits fly, ooh.
I really don't know.
LED ZEPPELIN, Misty Mountain Hop
There is a double meaning to the Led Zep song Misty Mountain Hop. Part of it is referencing Tolkien's Lord of the Rings while the other part is simply the incredibly naive belief that smoking dope would cure all of the world's ills. If this last part were actually true, no rock band would ever break up. But songs like this are open to various interpretations as bands find it better to be vague about the original intent of a song. This helps make the song universal sort of like that Police song, "Every Breath You Take," which is widely regarded as a heartfelt love song when it is actually about obsession and stalker like behavior. As Sting put it, "I think the song is very, very sinister and ugly and people have actually misinterpreted it as being a gentle little love song, when it's quite the opposite."
This concept of double meanings has been on my mind very much lately. St. Augustine wrote, ". . . in the same affliction the wicked detest God and blaspheme, while the good pray and praise." As a Christian who believes in Divine Providence, I see the world as having a double meaning. A good illustration of this double meaning is found in the OT story of Joseph. His brothers sold Joseph into slavery out of jealousy and hatred, yet God allowed this and other unfortunate events to turn into good for Joseph and the rest of his family. His brothers meant evil, but God meant good. This is true in all suffering. We suffer evil things at the hands of the wicked, yet God turns this into good.
This is a hard teaching. It brings a certain hope to life and dire situations, but it is hard to practice while in those situations. The Stoics practiced a way of seeing life as being predestined and determined and that peace and tranquility came when we dispassionately accepted things as they are as opposed to how we wished them to be. The Stoics were only half right on this. The Christian can never wish for things to be as they are because this would mean accepting, evil, injustice, sin, and all the rest. When people mistreat us, they really do an evil thing. The Stoic tries to imagine it as not evil which is stupid. But just because it is evil doesn't mean that God is not able to turn it to good.
The Stoics tried to attain a state called apatheia from which we derive the word "apathy." A better word would be "equanimity." Basically, a Stoic sage is content with all things and is free of passions concerning them. Such a state of being is impossible to attain since it goes against human nature. Human beings groan and cry and get mad at things, and these are proper responses to the bad things in the world. The Christian is tasked not with feeling these things but with not giving in to revenge or despair. This attitude is known as patience. It is one thing to recognize evil in the world. It is another thing to say or believe that God isn't going to do anything about it.
I have a hard time with patience. Patience is not about waiting. The simple fact is that most of what I desire in life will never be found in this life. It must be found in the next life. Sometimes, things get better in this life, but this is only a reprieve from suffering. I love these reprieves. This is me sitting on the porch sipping a cold beer and listening to my wife crack wise about the world. The world does not get better. We merely keep it from getting worse.
How do you make it? How do you persevere in the face of injustice and suffering? The answer is obvious. You have to plug into Jesus in your times of prayer and participation in the sacraments. For the Stoics, they were trying to pull off some sort of trick of the mind. Some would argue that Christianity is a similar trick of the mind. But there are no mental tricks that can make this life worth living. Philosophy does not save.
The only thing that can save you is Jesus Christ. I get up every morning, and I feel sick inside. I can barely eat it feels so bad inside. I hate my job. I used to dread going in, but it would clear up by the time I got going. Now, I hate it from beginning to end. My mood only brightens at the end when my suffering is over. Sometimes, even that doesn't come. People ask the obvious questions. Why do you keep doing it? I don't have the luxury of living on welfare. I have bills to pay. Why don't you quit and get some other job? The reality is that my previous jobs made me feel exactly as I feel right now because human nature is the same wherever you go. Being Catholic actually makes it worse because I am more acutely aware of how messed up things really are.
My coping mechanism is very simple. I pray a lot. From the time I wake up to the time I clock in, I pray. Then, I pray all day long. When I stop praying, I start cussing. Fury fills me because I can't stand it. As they say, what you cannot cure, you must endure. I cannot cure the world, so I endure it.
Some idiot will tell me that I should quit being "negative." I merely wait a few seconds when their own complaining takes over the conversation, and I feed the same stupid line back to them. Don't be negative. This is stupid.
Mental tricks are just a variation of becoming insensible. This is what the Stoic and the Epicureans both had in common. They both tried to not feel the pain of this world and in this life. For the Epicureans, this insensibility was found in the "garden." For the Stoics, the garden was too vulnerable, so they retreated to the fortresses of their inner citadels. For most people, insensibility is gained through drugs, alcohol, and endless amusements. Life is about avoiding pain.
The injunction of Christ to take up your cross runs counter to this pursuit of insensibility. Christ calls us to embrace that which is painful. The Stoics were similar in their strategy of embracing the things they dreaded and feared. But this seems to have only be an exterior thing. You can embrace a cold statue in winter to toughen you up, but don't embrace someone in love because you will be devastated when they are taken from you or betray you. The Stoic way is to invulnerable on the outside and hollow on the inside. The Christian way is to love until it hurts us more deeply than anything this world can throw at us.
The way to endure this world is to love God and offer it all up in love to Him. This is what Jesus did on the cross. As 1 Corinthians 13:7 says, " Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things." If I could sum up all that Christianity teaches about suffering, it would be this. Endure all things with love.
If there is a spiritual practice that I could recommend, it would be this. Go to eucharistic adoration. There, alone with the blessed sacrament, tell God that you love Him. This is what Jesus asks us in the sacrament. Do you love Me? He has poured out his body, blood, soul, and divinity for you. Do you love Me? He died on the Cross enduring the shame and ridicule and pain for us all. Do you love Me?
The heart of Jesus burns with an inexhaustable love for humanity. This is the message of the devotion to the Sacred Heart. Or as I tell people, God loves you. Love Him back. As for our sufferings, St. Margaret Mary Alacoque wrote, "Crosses, contempt, sorrows and afflictions are the real treasures of the lovers of Jesus Christ crucified." The reason we stumble and fall in our afflictions is because our love for God is weak. We love comfort more than the Almighty. We want a Heaven without God. And here's the thing, God will give you a Heaven without Him. We call it Hell. Hell is the permanent divorce of our souls from God's love. It is telling God that you hate Him.
I am still learning how to suffer. I know this is a strange thing to hear. How do you learn such a thing? And what is there to learn? Suffering just happens. But I have not yet learned to turn my suffering into a pure sacrifice of love. I stumble and fall almost daily in this regard. I am so ashamed of my anger and despair when the times get tough. Instead of making my trials gifts of love, I turn them into stones to hurl through God's windows with notes attached that say, "Thanks but no thanks." I am far from the apostles who considered it a privilege to suffer for Christ. I can barely stand a traffic jam. Yet, I wish I could identify with this prayer I read every time on the back of the missalette at Mass:
Take Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will, all that I have and possess. Thou hast given all to me. To Thee, O lord, I return it. All is Thine, dispose of it wholly according to Thy will. Give me Thy love and thy grace, for this is sufficient for me.This is the Suscipe of St. Ignatius of Loyola. It is a radical prayer. It is a prayer of utter and complete love. It is something that a saint would pray, and I am not a saint. But I want to be a saint, and Aquinas says thats really all you need. God takes care of the rest.
I'll end my essay here. My prayer is not that I will suffer less, but that I will love more. Help me, God, to love you more than I do now.