"Self-knowledge is impossible for you in the West," said an Indian guru some years ago, "because you are unwilling to pass through suffering. You are not looking for wisdom, you are looking for tranquillisers. You say you are looking for ways of meditation, but you are only looking for new ways of drugging yourselves. Meditation is bound to pass through suffering. It is not a pastime."
It is a strange thing that the Western world, which was so profoundly shaped by the Christian faith, should have to be reminded of this by a non-Christian. The story of Christ's suffering lies deep in the spirit of anyone who has ever been touched by the Christian faith, and its image, the cross, is visible everywhere. How could we forget the place of suffering in any deep life?
Everyone discovers the reality of suffering soon enough, but its meaning takes longer to discover. Popular culture does not reveal that meaning to us; in fact it goes far to make it invisible. It creates a vast dream of comfort, satisfaction and security that couldn't possibly be true to actual experience. Even when the media show us gruesome pictures of human suffering, these are quickly followed by ads for sportswear, faster cars and alcohol. The images thereby lose their power, and there is an unspoken assumption that it is all right to pass suffering by. News bulletins are increasingly being cast in the form of entertainment programmes. It is true that the media can wake us up on occasion: television has been credited with helping to end the Vietnam war. But the overall effect is soporific, "tranquillising", as the Indian put it; television in particular doesn't raise questions of meaning, because everything is presented in a finished form and the viewer has nothing to do but be entertained.
But why suffering? Am I supposed to think that it's good for me? And why do we celebrate and glorify the suffering of Christ, instead of deploring it? What meaning does it have? Nobody will ever be satisfied with a quick answer to that; suffering is too close to us for book answers. Suffering is a different kind of 'knowing'.
"People who have not suffered, what do they know?" said Henry Suso, a man who suffered more than most in a century (the 14th) that suffered more than most. Here is his statement in context: "There is nothing more painful than suffering, and nothing more joyful than to have suffered. Suffering is short pain and long joy. Suffering has this effect on the one to whom suffering is suffering, that it ceases to be suffering Suffering makes a wise and practised person. People who have not suffered, what do they know...? All the saints are the cup-bearers of a suffering person, for they have all tasted it once themselves, and they cry out with one voice that it is free from poison and a wholesome drink."
“The one to whom suffering is suffering.” He was being precise about this. To many who suffer, suffering isn't suffering as such, but misery and anguish and rejection of suffering. The word 'to suffer' in English means 'to allow', whereas the word 'anguish' comes from the Latin 'ang(u)ere', which means 'to choke'. Suffering, Suso persuades us, is "a wholesome drink." We should not choke on it. The saints have tasted it before handing us the cup; they are the proof that it is not poison.
Have you ever met anyone who never suffered? What would such a person be like? He would have no depth, no growth, no awareness; he would be absolutely juvenile. Imagine parents who protected their child from everything! God's mercy did not protect Jesus from suffering, nor Mary, nor any of his disciples through the ages. We cannot expect that it will protect us. It would be protecting us from life, and that would be no mercy.
This 'knowledge' of the meaning of suffering is not book-knowledge or factual knowledge; it is experience that continues day by day and is never finished. It is not the kind of knowledge that gives us security and control (which would be a kind of closing-down) but which opens us up to experience, to new life.