A SUFFERING GOD (La Souffrance de Dieu)

Translated by Brother Anthony


Here, at the very threshold of a little book which I rather think is going to be overloaded with question-marks (Is it possible that God suffers? Is it conceivable that he should not suffer?), I want to see printed, in the form of an unqualified affirmation, the single word JOY: God's eternal Joy and the Joy of our human hoping. Joy is a word that is basic to my faith.

I suppose that there are bound to be days when nothing can prevent joy being hidden behind a mask of mockery, yet even at the very moment when our straining smile twists into a grimace, nothing can prevent at least the hope of joy being present, something stronger than any distress. As every morning that God gives dawns, whether its skies be bright or somber, I respond to the invitation of the Venite, "Come, let us sing to the Lord!" Likewise, as every evening brings the thoughts of death that night evokes, sweet or terible, I obey the Church when she urges me to murmur two words, always in plural form, at the end of its final prayer to Mary: two words that each summon up the other, Joy (laetamur) and Freedom (liberemur).

In this way, day following closely upon day becomes the image of a whole lifetime contracted to a single span. Now, the priest who baptized me prayed that I might "serve God in his Church joyfully." The priest who will assist me in my last hour will remind me that Christ is near "with festive countenance." Day after day, from morning to evening, from the morning to the evening of life, verses from the Psalms bring echoes, like a basso continuo sustaining work and play alike, of the ancient Jewish jubilations: "Serve the Lord with gladness... Come before him with songs of joy..."

So many times, at moments when everything is heavy, weighed down both inside and out, with the grossness of things and a lassitude of the spirit stifling life's music, I have asked Saint Paul to whisper again the incredible words he wrote to the Romans: "I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that will be revealed in us"(Rom. 8:8). And I have frequently asked Jesus to renew for my weary contempo raries the promise he first made to the apostles: "Your hearts will be glad and none will take your joy from you"(John 16:22).

So God forbid that any words of mine, even in the way of posing the questions, should ever cause anybody to doubt that Ocean of Bliss whose supreme being is the ultimate reason for living and hoping! I must use terms that reassure a friend who was disturbed when she first heard me speaking of the possibility of God's eternal suffering: "I am divorced, I have suffered, I still suffer so much; I have had to endure loss of status, exile, failure; I have seen death close at hand several times, my own or that of the people I loved best. I have felt hatred, revolt and despair within myself. Yet the more I advance from pain to pain, the more certain I become that Joy exists and that we are to dance for joy in the Joy of God. And now you want to talk about God's suffering? Is his Joy then still so far away?"

Oh no, on the contrary, it is very near, close at hand; or will be, at least, if I succeed in giving some glimpse of how the highest Bliss, that of God himself, that which we look forward to, far from excluding suffering in fact mysteriously implies it. And do not worry, my dear, I shall not say anything to contradict Kierkegaard when he noted in his Journal that "any who would truly be in relationship with God and associate with him have only one task, to be always rejoicing." And it is truly in my deepest soul, not just on the stage as I sit in the stalls, that I hear ringing the voices that welcome Peguy's dying Joan of Arc: "Joy there is, that is the strongest." Still, paradox is a risk that has to be taken.

In fact, when we talk of God, anything which is not in some sense paradoxical should be considered suspect. Father Henri de Lubac called one of his loftiest works Paradoxes; it is a work of austere erudition, rich in spiritual experience both lived and meditated. In it he writes, "The very word paradox is paradoxical, so let us leave it its paradox... And let us remember too that the Gospels are full of paradoxes, that every person is a living paradox, and that according to the Church Fathers the Incarnation is the Supreme Paradox, Paradoxos Paradoxon(1)." In order to avoid any possible misunderstanding, he goes on to point out that there are "paradoxes of expression in which paradoxical exaggeration is used to give added emphasis. But there are also real paradoxes, which presuppose an antinomy, with one truth offending us and another truth coming in to balance it out. The second truth does not limit the first, it only helps to situate it. We shall not say, `It was only that.' Paradoxical truth is not restricted and that is why most of the time neither Jesus nor Saint Paul resolves the paradox. They are less afraid of the outrageous interpretation than of one which would reduce the paradox and rob it of its `heroism'(2)."

The paradox of our previous book, that of a humble God, already seemed violent to some readers and that of a suffering God is even more so. Can suffering, like humility, really lie at the heart of the Glory? If we are to approach this mystery, it will first be necessary to become, as Bachelard says, "serious as a dreaming child." In addition, as we touch the threshold of our discourse we shall need to be convinced, like Kierkegaard but without his extremes, that paradox is one "category of understanding." Above all, at the very thought that God may suffer we must ourselves be seized by a suffering that is, however feebly, a participation in his. For if God suffers, that cannot be some mere vague emotion, on the outside so to speak, just grazing the surface without taking hold. In God, nothing is accidental. If God suffers, his suffering will have the same dimensions as his Being and his Joy: dimensionless dimensions. Limitless. Infinite. At the very heart of the Essence and in full accord with the immeasurable fullness of the Splendour.

So I shall have to ask Bachelard what I must do to become "serious as a dreaming child", he knows so wonderfully well how to express these things. I shall also be attentive to the teachings of philosophers and theologians, for when their reason in its reasoning does not turn against the Spirit, they warn us that any "science of God" must inevitably end in nescience (which is not the same as fideism). There is also one thing that I must not at all look for, not even desire: the experience of a participation in the suffering of God. For that could only be a Theopathy in both senses of the word: not only "to suffer God" as all mystics do (ta theia pathein), but to suffer God's suffering (ta pathe tou Theou pathein). Long before I reach any such possible doubling of the abyss, I shall have learned what Jacques Paliard meant when he said that any "intention of mysticism... is destructive of the truly mystical, setting in its place an aesthetics of the spiritual(3)." This is an area where illusions abound, so while I speak of a God who may suffer I shall have to resign myself to suffer by not suffering. All I can do is to be most careful not to make do with some mere increase of knowledge (the act of writing, after all, is never wholly pure), as though a stuttering quest of the unutterable might in itself bridge the gulf between self and self: between the surface self who manipulates concepts and the deep self where God dwells!

"May your book, then," says a young woman, "be a child of the desert!" Which is well said, but still, how much bitterness there is in this necessary dryness! To think that Dostoevski could become physically sick with emotion at the mere sight of Holbein's painting in the museum at Basle depicting the Descent from the Cross of Christ's decomposing body! In that moment he escaped from what he termed "earth's normal order", meaning by that the facile harmonies of life in all its ordinariness, devoid of tragedy, depth or mystery. If only I, and my readers with me, could be once confronted with the shock of the gravity stamped upon the face of God! Surely such a thing should be possible? Certainly Hegel was right to dread that mediocrity in art which "confers on platitude the semblance of deep meaning."

The image of an impassible God who towers in Olympian serenity above all the wrongs and sorrows of the world continues today to live with a secret vitality in the unconscious depths of humanity. And impassible means unfeeling, indifferent, if the subtle interplay of distinctions is ignored or rejected. And even if they nuance the idea to some extent, they leave the image itself intact, with all its dynamic power. How is it possible to believe that "God is Love" if we are obliged to think that our suffering has no effect on his eternal Being? When I weep, when I debase myself, does he remain "marble absolute"? Love is something vulnerable, a perfect being is not. But God is perfect, or he is not truly God. That is why, for very many people, the image of a divine Being that nothing can touch stands side-by-side with the historical reality of a brotherly Christ who suffered and died on a cross, and provokes silent revolt. The fact of Christ's sufferings, far from reducing the scandal of the impassibility of Father and Spirit, seems rather to emphasize it, for it is then not only the pains of creatures that seem powerless to touch the Eternal: the one sent by the Father, the Son made man, could be in an agony of bloody sweat yet the Absolute did not flinch in his unvarying Beatitude?

Of course, Jesus only suffered for a while; human pain is of all time. I am hurting now; it was a long time ago that he carried his cross. Now he is in Glory. Sitting at the bedside of a husband whose face has been eaten away by a cancer but who goes on breathing, even the most christian of wives may blurt out words that it would be most unwise to term blasphemous: "For Christ it was only a few hours! You have had months of this!" Hearing such words, it would be a tragic mockery to make even the slightest attempt to discuss the relative values of time and eternity. It is an unavoidable fact that as I collapse beneath the burden, the bliss of God, of Christ, are imagined as untarnished. Such is the power of the unconscious, such the tenacity of the fantasies it gives rise to!

A few years before he died, Jacques Maritain wrote that "a metaphysical psychoanalysis of the modern world would pinpoint in it a disease slowly destroying its unconscious. If people could only realize that God "suffers" with us, much more than we do, from all the evil that devastates the world, I am sure that many things would be different, many people's inner souls would be liberated(4)." Now it is sure that in his faithful adherence to Thomism, Maritain is inclined to stress the "metaphorical" quality of a word like "suffering." We shall see later in just what sense he understood it, but he was quite clear when he evoked the "spiritual despair" which at times "enrages" people against God. He wrote, "I know quite a lot of christians who prefer not to think about this at all, who maintain a kind of dichotomy thanks to their total lack of any kind of theological knowledge, to say nothing of the absurdities of an ill- founded "cryptographic" manner of rationalizing; they think, or at least they have been told, that God is Love, yet at the same time they think of him as an Emperor of this world, not at all as a Father... as a Potentate-Playwright who, by virtue of a licence-to-fail issued in advance of our failings (in which he leaves the creature abandoned to its own devices), is the first author of all the sins, all the misery of the world, who then sits back to enjoy the spectacle he has himself devised, the unfolding of a human history in which sin abounds abominably. It is this absurd and unacceptable idea of the Potentate-Playwright, untouched in his heaven by the pain of the characters who are forced to act out his drama, that lies hidden at the heart of the revolt against God of a great mass of non christians."

When I think of all the things I love most in this world, the trees and the roses, the birds and an unfolding smile, the intellectual life, I cannot doubt that God loves them all too, only much more than I do. So what of all the things that I cannot possibly love, the wrong I do to my fellows, and they to me, the injustices and the miseries, the thirst and the hunger with all the diseases that attack, consume, break down and destroy? Shall I say that God calmly beholds them all because the perfection of his unchanging nature prevents him from shuddering? Christ, of course, was troubled, "even unto death". But the Father? The Spirit? And here I would rather not even mention children being deliberately tortured, innocents systematically humiliated. Naively, without for the moment challenging the vagaries of my imagination, I prefer to compare the Infinite of Being to an aeolian harp that stirs, vibrates with every least breath of human joy and pain. Indeed, it is not because I am moving deeper into a reflective process that I would be prepared to sacrifice this image.

The word "adventure" is one that I would be reluctant to sacrifice, in the same way. A creative enterprise is always an adventure. God too ventured, took risks, opened before us a way of freedom studded with dangers. And if it is now that God creates it is now that he ventures, that he accepts the possibility (which is a reality) of tears and blood. But then not only our tears and blood! Not only the tears and blood of Christ! How could the Creator want to be left out? Might there then be, could there indeed not be, at the very heart of the pure Spirit, some unnameable reality analogically comparable with our tears and blood?

If a question is basic, mysterious, or just difficult, it is only a mark of simple honesty to admit the dilemma. Settle things too rapidly and all you offer is an illusion of clarity with a minimum of effort, which is yielding to the temptation of facility and that is a temptation that artists, poets and philosophers, the greatest at least, are able to overcome. "Convenient things are fatal," said Rene Char. The mind and the pen must all the more strictly be kept under control since we are living in times of extravagance and exclusivity. The Church's Magisterium, conscious of past abuses of the argument from authority, quite reasonably hesitates today to use it even to calm intemperance or to wield an axe in the flourishing thickets of the more-or- less.

In the field of literary criticism, some people have written of "spring-cleaning that increases the dirt." That can happen in theology as well, in certain excessively negative approaches, in a certain over-systematic rejection of anthropomorphism in which one form of it is simply replaced by another with no apparent awareness of how disastrous the outcome may be. Claude Bruaire cites one example of such "dirtying ploys": "Religion is considered to have yielded to the fascinations of anthropomorphism in putting the Father in place of the Absolute. The conscious, obsessed since birth by its procreator in a hate-desire complex, is assumed to have fantasized a projection of the shadow of the haunting father onto the shadow of God. Then believers are encouraged to purify their faith by exorcizing the Paternity of God! Yet it is quite obvious that such a 'purification' is bound to lead to atheism, since paternity, fatherhood, far from corresponding to human procreation, is a univocal concept abolishing our fatherings since it signifies precisely The Father, the father-less father. Now that is what a human father can never be, simply because he begins as son. He is not absolute, not a creating Origin, not a Beginning without beginning. Far from its being an anthropomorphism to call God our "Father", it is only by a flagrant theomorphism that each human procreator usurps an essentially divine Name(5)."

God impassible or God suffering: in which direction is anthropomorphism more a risk? Recently this theme has been explored in a number of places without sufficient attention to the balances that must be kept. If we have to opt for one approximation rather than another, at least let us choose the one most worthy of God! And nothing can be decided without a descent into that inner depth where heart and mind are most closely united in faith.

Very often the thought of God's being eternally in pain has helped me not to sin against the gratuitousness of his grace. I believe firmly that many people will know God and be united with him for ever who never once in their whole lifetime on earth suspected the existence of a loving Infinitude. Still today, the name of Jesus remains quite unknown to vast multitudes. Christians sometimes come to terms with that fact rather too lightly. In days past, when the theology of the "salvation of non-believers" was all too short and sharp, with people quite ready to consign to damnation, or at best Limbo, any who were not baptized, the Church was certainly aflame with missionary zeal; after all, it was a matter of life or death for people's souls! Nowadays, less narrow-minded and better informed, we have perhaps become less ardent? If "implicit" faith is good enough, it seems less urgent to move on towards the "explicit"! Now it is certainly true that we cannot discern what, in God's eyes, is the real value of another person's faith, in what consists its "saving reality" in Gospel terms; there can therefore be no question of judging.

Yet I can only believe, unless I myself come to lack faith, that God wills with an eternal will that the whole of humanity should come to know the One he has sent, Jesus Christ. "Make disciples of all the nations" (Matt. 28:19). I may then think that any idle procrastination, any carelessness on my part, any lack of eagerness in naking the Son known and loved would wound the Father and grieve the Spirit; surely that will be enough to keep a flame burning in me in all gratuitousness?

It should also bring a note of almost physical affliction into my admiration for all the intelligence the modern world displays in its curiosity, its research, even in its disbelief. God accompanies the scholar, the philosopher, the politician along the paths they tread. He is with them, they are not always with him, and his respectful love keeps him from intervening when the paths diverge, when bad faith peeps from beneath the good, when caution, prejudice, or dreams are stronger than wisdom or courage, when evolution becomes regression. Participating whole- heartedly in the world's march forward, but from the viewpoint of God's suffering (and joy, too), is to receive much light in discerning what is true!

After he had finished scouring the archives of Cythera, the Marquis de Sade summed up all the fruits of his inquiries in the simple words, "In this world there is esteem only for things that bring profit or delight." It is sure, both in and away from Cythera, in ideology as in practice, utility reigns supreme. In every domain, people being used for ends less exalted than themselves is a constant feature of our western civilisation. When it comes to that gratuitousness that is essential for love, it would be good if philosophers and theologians joined hands with poets in esteeming it at its proper value.

If I were a professor of theology, I would enjoy setting my students that marvellous line by Rene Char as a topic for an essay or thesis. How wonderful if one of them, approaching such a "thought-provoking" symbol with a childlike spirit, were to suggest that God seeks out those birds, gathers them up and sadly caresses them. With Francis of Assisi and Teresa of Lisieux brought in to round off a rigorous discussion, what a fine lesson for the wise of this world who, in the name of wisdom, belive that folly has to be set aside!

An invulnerable Father would be without tenderness. It is God's tenerezza which permits me to stand before him like a child and speak to him as a child speaks. There will be time later for criticism and argument. Simplicity, irrespective of anthropomorphism, comes first and will certainly be regained afterwards too.

I am only too happy, at this early stage of my book, to be able to echo Julien Clerc's popular song "Don't cry so, you'll make God cry". Sung in our present, ironclad age, such naive words go to show that there are still embers glowing beneath the cold ashes, a fire lodged in the hearts of ordinary people.

"Don't make the Good Lord sad" -- no phrase could better express the heights of gratuitousness.

"Come on, dear, for God's sake, to please God" -- but if there are human things that can please him, there must be other things that displease him. How could we ever doubt that it is possible to displease Someone whom we love and who loves us? And how can there be displeasing without a feeling of sadness?

"I thought of you very much when you lost your wife" -- either such words are a mere empty formality or, addressed to a friend, they mean that when I thought of him I suffered with him.

If God is within me, more myself than I myself am, if he beholds my misery and my sin from within, and not from the lofty heights of some observation-post, then surely his heart must skip a beat each time I make a false step on the brink of the abyss? Strictly speaking, he is not beholding me, he is touching me. You cannot tell me that he was smiling as I stumbled! Or that he put on a stern air like some school-master who feels obliged to frown to hide his real indifference?

I insert here a letter from a mother who was touched by the idea of vulnerability in God:

To believe in a God who suffers is to render the mystery more mysterious, but in more luminous ways, since in so doing we reject a false clarity in favor of "dazzling shadow."

It may also serve to fortify people, when the darkest of demons lays siege, against the temptation of being jealous of God.

Today's world, I know, is anti-tragic. Is this, then, the right moment to somehow dramatize God? Is the idea of a God who suffers not just going to make the scandal worse by blowing it up to infinite dimensions? Is it not going to lead to that "generalized injustice" of which Camus once said that in the times when faith was triumphant it "Satisfied people just as much as total justice would," giving them "a strange kind of happiness(6)"? Unless, of course, it pinpoints rather the most radical of all choices; either compact absurdity or dizzying gratuitousness? Whatever the answer, to wonder about this being "the right moment" is not to be serious.


1. Henri de Lubac, Paradoxes, (Seuil, 1959) Preface.
2. ibid., p.13.
3. Jacques Paliard, Profondeur de l'ame (Aubier, 1954) p. 152.
4. Revue Thomiste, 1969, I.
5. Claude Bruaire, La raison politique (Fayard, 1974) p. 261.
6. Albert Camus, L'homme revolte (Gallimard, 1951) p. 53.