I have wondered over the years why there is so much suffering. The Fathers of the Church and many Theologians have pondered this question over the centuries. The great C.S. Lewis wrote books on it.[1] What I’ve learned about suffering from the Fathers of the Eastern Church[2] is that in the beginning, humanity was created in a state of unspoiled simplicity, pure awareness and for one purpose, to love and serve God. This wasn’t a master/slave relationship but was a father/child bond.

All this changed when our original parents wrongly used their free will and in doing so, they corrupted their primal simplicity and became fragmented. Stripped of the clothing of the “Uncreated Light,” they became naked and through their spiritual corruption and death, they became subject to physical corruption and death. Because of their fragmentation they brought death into the world through the knowledge of good and evil thus destroying their primal simplicity. Humanity fell in love with themselves and instead of seeking joy and communion with God, they sought pleasure in their bodies and senses and desired created things. All suffering among humans can be traced back to the inappropriate love of self and love of sensual pleasure.

After humanity’s fall our Spirit became hidden behind a lower consciousness which is the lower aspect of the soul. This lower soul is shaped by temporal and earthly needs. In its lowest aspects, the lower soul resembles the soul of an animal. With this said the Church Fathers tell us that it is important to state that there are not two beings within us. The spirit and the lower soul are different aspects of our inner being and the spirit is the purest part of the soul. The soul is made up of three parts: the first is concerned with nourishment and growth, the basic bodily needs; the second is concerned with creativity and insight; the third is concerned with higher intelligence and the spirit.

The plants possess the first aspect only, animals possess the first and second but humanity possesses all three. The first two powers are perishable and cease to exist with death. The third is imperishable and immortal.  

So, humanity is made up of body, the lower soul and the higher soul or the spirit. The function of the higher soul or spirit is to be the master of the lower soul and the body. When this order is maintained, there is balance and harmony. The lower soul knows the Truth because of its subordination to the spirit and the spirit knows the Truth through its subordination to its Creator. 

When humanity fell and departed from the “Way,” this natural order was reversed with the lower soul and body becoming the master of the spirit. The lower soul and body have taken over the human being who is now obsessed with temporal and earthly needs. The soul of Humanity is now under the illusion of being self-sufficient and is no longer concerned with only the basic needs of life but seeks sensual pleasure and the elevation of humanity. This is what is called the ego. The spirit is our true self, the true seat of our personhood but the ego is the false self and this has become the center of our illusory self-sufficient being. Thomas Merton writing about the false self said that we are shadowed by an illusory self that is unknown to God. This false self only wants to exist outside of God’s will and love and outside of reality and life. Merton says that for most of the people there is no greater subjective reality than this false self and a life devoted to maintaining and expanding this shadow, is what is called a life of sin.[3]

The light of the spirit is now dimmed by the ego of the false self and by the senses and it can no longer fulfill its function properly of “rising to God.” Because of this, the spirit has become sick. The only cure for this is to reverse the order and return the lower soul to its proper place as servant to the spirit.

As we stray further from God, the lower soul increases to indulge in sensual pleasures and at the same time the awareness of the spirit becomes progressively lost. The longing of the spirit to fulfill its purpose continues and God still speaks to the spirit calling it back to Him. The longing and calling between the spirit and God cause an internal conflict within the mind and this produces an indescribable interior sadness.

God does not only use this internal sadness to call us back but He will use physical or emotional pain that can arise from a divorce, from the death of a loved one or the end of some other earthly attachment. At the time, we feel that this is cruel and terrible but later as we move past the pain, we will be able to look back at it objectively and see that considering our previous condition, God acted gently in providing a cure.

Suffering abruptly stops us short of self-worship and earthly-gratification. It forces us to turn inward and confront our weaknesses and flaws. Suffering rips away the illusion that we are self-sufficient and shows us the folly of being obsessed with temporal and earthly needs. Embracing a physical or emotional pain forces the ego to go into panic mode because it knows that its end is near but for our true selves, this liberates the spirit, bringing with it new life.

At this point, the full misery of our condition is only seen in part because our spiritual eyes are only partially opened but they are open enough for us to realize that a change is needed. Then begins the slow process of what is called metanoia, changing the spirit and purifying the soul. This begins the realignment from our love for self-gratification in earthly pleasures towards a love of God. Eventually the spirit is returned to its rightful place as master and the body and the lower soul to their place as servants. Again, Thomas Merton tells us that the spiritual life is a balance between our passions and instincts (body), our reasoning (mind) and the passive illumination by the Light and Love of God (spirit). This forms a complete man in whom God is all in all in which God carries out His own will without obstacle.[4]

[1] The Problem of Pain and A Grief Observed

[2] Christ the Eternal Tao by Hieromonk Damascene

[3] New Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton

[4] Ibid

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