Suffering and Bliss
In the Christian life, the approach to Easter marks a time of quiet reflection on the sufferings of Jesus Christ, followed by relief and rejoicing at his resurrection. Out of this seminal event in human history has grown the idea, among many devout believers, that suffering is somehow spiritually beneficial, and therefore to be welcomed. Our modern sensibilities recoil from such an idea, but it frequently occurs in Christian writings and remains influential. For example, the authoress and Carmelite nun, Ruth Burrows, comments, with self-criticism of her early life at the convent: '[A Carmelite] should want suffering and be good at bearing it. I shunned it.' (The Times 21.1.12)
The idea that one should 'want suffering' and the reasons for this are complex and differ among individuals. The experience of suffering can strengthen character and stir inner resources that would otherwise remain latent. Suffering may also give rise to a deeper sense of being at one with Christ, who knew all sufferings, as well as fostering empathy with those who are similarly oppressed. We may be nagged by a sense of guilt, which suffering, as a kind of penance, may be felt to mitigate, affording a deeper relief, as when a debt is paid. Again, there are sayings of Christ which seem to commend suffering. 'Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.' 'Let a man take up his cross and follow me.' And he warned the disciples of coming persecutions and hardships, if they held to his teachings.
But suffering can never be an end in itself—human nature repudiates such a notion. If discomfort, unease and misery are to be endured, there is always the underlying hope of a better and blissful state as the eventual outcome. Blessed are those mourn—they shall be comforted. Otherwise, the whole process of living and evolving makes no sense.
Man's natural orientation is towards happiness; this is an idea that is proclaimed without apology in the Indian religious traditions, from the accounts of the childhood pranks of the Lord as Krishna, to the joyous chanting of the maha-mantram 'Hare Rama', to the philosophy expounded in the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads. The philosopher Sureshvara begins his great work, the Naishkarmya Siddhi*, with the assertion: 'Because all living beings from the Creator to a clump of grass naturally desire to avoid every kind of pain, it is equally natural and inevitable that they should take active steps to suppress it.'
As human beings, endowed with perishable bodies and sensitive minds, sufferings are bound to visit us in the course of life, perhaps every day, so that we need not seek them unbidden. What matters is our response. And this is surely at the heart of Christ's teaching. An equi-minded response, free from hatred or despair, brings out the higher powers of the soul. Yet such a response needs to be applied to life's changes generally. Spiritual training means not becoming elated in times of good news, pleasure and success, quite as much as staying calm in adversity.
* Published as Realization of the Absolute by Shanti Sadan.