Perhaps I too am not quite sure what the word “ultimate” means. But I recall the medieval frescoes and triptychs of saints bearing their wounds as marks of glory—Saint Peter Martyr most startlingly, with the axe wound that cleft his tonsure in two—and I think that the artists perceived something important. The incarnation of Christ has allowed us men to do some things that the faithful angels themselves cannot do. We can, as Paul struggles to say, make up by our suffering what is lacking in the sacrifice of Christ; that is, we can partake of that sacrifice by uniting our sufferings with that sacrifice. We can repent, and conform ourselves to Christ; and we can die, as Christ himself died, as he would have had to die even had there been no malign Sanhedrin to condemn him. Upon Christ’s glorified body there were no bruises, no lacerations, but the five wounds remained, and, as the great hymn puts it, the faithful will one day gaze upon those glorious scars—scars which we and not the angels will share with him, because we and not the angels will have borne them.
We were not meant to suffer and die; but we sinned, and having sinned, indeed we are meant, in the re-creating Providence of God, to suffer and die, but not as Satan would have it. I must believe that the incarnation and the atoning death of Christ does not simply undo the harm of sin—does not simply restore to us a lost innocence—but delivers for us the greater glory of a victory over sin and death, a victory accomplished in us through Christ. Surely David believes this too; again, perhaps I am misconstruing his use of the word “ultimate.” But will I not always, if God should see fit to save me, be the one who suffered and repented and died in a way peculiar to myself? Will not that strange eventful history be ineradicable from my being? This hope—and for me it is an abiding hope—in the ultimate meaning of suffering seems to lie behind the strange words of Christ, illogical if a found sheep is the same sheep that once dwelt in the fold, that there is more rejoicing in Heaven at the finding of the one lost than at the keeping of the ninety nine that were never lost.
I trust I’ll not be accused of creeping Stoicism merely for noticing that adumbrations of Christlike suffering are to be found in the ideals of the best of the pagans; nor, I trust, will I be tagged as a follower of that charlatan Voltaire, who, when he rejected the Incarnation, rejected also the tremendous mystery of human suffering, and of course fell back upon a cold impersonal God whom Cicero would have found appalling, much less Boethius.
The Holy Innocents, whose feast we’ve recently celebrated, suffered the same evil as did the children who died in the recent disaster. We Christians should see in that terrible incident long ago all the blind sufferings of weeping and (relatively) innocent humanity, all of us children dying we know not why, whether it is at the hands of a Herod or in the wake of a tsunami or after the slow wasting away of our vigor. Holy Innocents, martyrs who did not know to whom you were witnesses or that you were witnesses to anyone at all, pray for us, young and old alike, that one day we may bear our wounds as gloriously as you bear yours.
David Hart replies:
I’m sorry but this is utterly irrelevant to my remarks, and has nothing to do with what Luse said either. It seems tedious to rehearse again and again this simple point, but I shall try once more: that we are allowed to offer up our sufferings to God as oblations of obedience, that we are able to find grace in the midst of our sufferings (and so on) is entirely unrelated to the claim that suffering and death in themselves are meaningful or are part of the ontological “truth” of God’s creation; it is certainly unrelated to the absurd, obscene, and grotesque claim that the sum total of suffering in the world adds up to a precisely calculated “balancing” of the score for original sin. This latter suggestion is most definitely incompatible with the message of the gospels, and indeed would make a nonsense of all atonement theology. The economy of salvation should not be confused with a Hegelian passage through the finite, nor providence with a universal teleology.
Also, the notion that a triumph over sin and death won along the hard path of fallen nature is a higher good than would have prevailed had we not fallen at all is nonsense (all talk of the felix culpa aside); such a notion would require a view of evil as something in addition to God, something positive over against the divine, required to fecundate the good within creation. There is a very good set of doctrinal and metaphysical concerns behind the Church’s insistence upon a privatio boni view of evil. To suggest that evil can serve to increase the good sounds marvelous and dramatic; it is also quite heretical and quite philosophically incoherent.