Monday, January 11, 2016

Book Review: "The Mystery of Suffering" by Hubert Van Zeller, O.S.B.

This is a tough review for me to write... because it is impossible to do justice to what is clearly a modern classic. Accepting the fact that God allows suffering into our lives - and means to make use of it to perfect us - is what separates "real" Christianity, lived Christianity, from the false gospel so prevalent in American culture. I have been meditating upon this subject for several years; and yet, as I leaf back through this book, I seem to have highlighted at least one or two sentences per page (and there are over a hundred pages).

Dom Hubert Van Zeller, the Benedictine monk, author, and sculptor, departed this life in 1984; but he bequeathed many valuable treasures to the Church militant before doing so. His The Mystery of Suffering is a frank, profound, and sympathetic discussion of the most difficult reality we human beings face. Van Zeller writes in such a way, though, that you read his words and think, "Of course." Let me give an example:
"The truth is that in this matter of religion, and more especially in this matter of the perfect service of God which is here envisaged, the really important things come to us disguised. The more important, the more disguised. Obvious examples would be the ways in which our Lord comes to us disguised as an ordinary baby, as a prisoner hanging on a cross, as a piece of bread. So it is hardly to be expected that the cross, which is such an essential part of religion, and of perfect service, should proclaim its nature with a neatly printed label...The quality of hiddenness is certainly present in the matter of suffering." (p. 16-17)
What can you say after that, except "Amen"?

Van Zeller's approach is balanced. Our goal is love - to love God in the midst of both suffering and enjoyment. (One of the happy surprises I experienced while reading this book was an increase in my thanks to God for life's "simple" things.) Van Zeller reminds us that suffering can be a corrective punishment, but that it is usually just part and parcel of our living in a fallen world. What changed with the coming of Christ, however, was that we have the opportunity to unite each discomfort to the sufferings of Christ crucified and thus, to invest them with meaning and value. (By entrusting ourselves, with Christ, to the Father, we simultaneously grow in supernatural faith, hope, and charity, and increase our likeness to Christ.)

I need to read this book several more times. There is truth here - so great and so at odds with this fallen world and the patterns of thought we all share, that I will need to return to it again and again to better acclimate myself to Reality. I appreciated the foreword supplied by Al Kresta. He first read the book while suffering through the loss of a leg to flesh-eating bacteria, and, as a result, is able to offer real world testimony to the power of Van Zeller's insights.

Allow me to close with one more quotation:
"Our darkness may be as nothing compared to the saints - just as theirs was nothing when compared with that endured by Christ when he cried from the Cross, 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?' (Mt 27:46) - but the chances are we shall be floundering about and unable to see our way through to the other side. Darkness cannot be fought: hitting out at darkness gets you no results. Nor can darkness be argued into light: you cannot think your way toward God in suffering. The only thing that helps is prayer." (p.15)
The Mystery of Suffering (Ave Maria Press, 2015)

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