Transformative Suffering



In 1940, amid the rolling hills of the Burgundy region of France, in the small village of Taize, a monastic brotherhood was founded by Roger Schutz, commonly known as Brother Roger. This was the birthplace of the Taize community. In the decades following, the community expanded into a worldwide spiritual movement designed to bring people from all religious traditions into one welcoming and affirming body.

Brother Roger viewed the entire world as Community and he became a beloved figure to all. Then tragedy struck. In 2005, at the age of 92, he was leading a service in Taize when a woman suddenly launched onto the altar and assaulted him with a knife in front of the stunned congregation. He died shortly thereafter. At the funeral, the monks of Taize sang the song “O God Keep Me Safe”. Its beautiful melody goes along with the text: “O God keep me safe, for I trust in you. The pathway to life you teach me. With you is peace and joy in all fullness.”

Was this simply praying to God to keep everyone else safe? What about keeping Brother Roger safe? Perhaps its use was to illustrate a way of viewing reality and suffering in a higher, more enlightened way. There is paradox here. When our lives are invaded by some calamity, however serious or even catastrophic, somehow there is divine presence in the midst of the suffering.

So, how do we actually go about facing our suffering when it descends upon us and how do we embrace our own vulnerability? First, a given is to maintain a mindfulness/meditation practice.  But separate from that, here are a few practical tips.

• We can develop habits of reframing times of difficulty. The default human response is to avoid our pain. While understandable, that approach is not sustainable. Instead we can intentionally move toward and into our suffering. Talking about it, journaling, internal processing—these activities help with becoming more familiar with our pain and, in a way, befriending it. The bottom line is to not deny. Denial habits lead to more suffering. It backfires.

• Take advantage of the practice of Tonglen, a form of Buddhist meditation. In it, one takes on, internally, the suffering of a person we know, and through breath, imagery and intention, feels and then supports the person in pain. It’s also used to focus on our own feelings and experience of suffering.

• Enriching benefits flow from placing ourselves in the presence of others in pain. We all have people in our lives who are in the throes of some difficult ordeal—the friend whose marriage is falling apart, who just lost a loved one or who is in a serious depression. Being there for others helps them but also helps us. Something truly mystical happens in moments of supporting another. The other’s suffering can serve as a window into uncovering and embracing our own suffering.

In tying things together then, a genuine prayer for God to keep us safe may really have nothing much to do with asking to keep us safe from pain or for God to prevent bad things from happening. The deeper truths are about helping us to be with our pain, to know we are not alone in it, to not despair or lose hope in the face of suffering, and to see divine presence no matter what.

Steve Wagner, LCSW leads the Taize Services and the Contemplative Prayer Group at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church. The Advent Taize services are especially beautiful as a preparation for the Christmas season. The dates are December 4 and 18 at 6:45 p.m. Location: 602 N. Wilmot Rd., Tucson. Connect at 520-400-2137 or SJTucson@aol.com. See ad, page 9.

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