I am not alone in my tiredness or sickness or fears, but at one with millions of others from many centuries, and it is all part of life. (Etty Hillesum)
At the end of August, my father died after living with cancer for 9 years. He was able to stay at home, with family support, as was his wish. He had shown tremendous strength, dignity and determination, especially in the challenges of his final weeks. His cat, that had faithfully kept him company through the journey, was stretched out alongside him when he died. It was remarkable watching the cat being so attentive over the final days – loyal to the end, sensing what was happening and offering comfort along the way.
I was struck by this reflection by Richard Rohr about his 15 year old black Labrador dog which was suffering from inoperable cancer. He faced the unenviable decision to have the dog put down. ‘Venus had been giving me a knowing and profoundly accepting look for weeks, but I did not know how to read it. Deep down, I did not want to know. After her diagnosis, every time I looked at her, she gazed up at me with those same soft and fully permissive eyes, as if to say, “It is okay. You can let me go. I know it is my time.” But she patiently waited until I, too, was ready.
In the weeks before she died, Venus somehow communicated to me that all sadness, whether cosmic, human, or canine, is one and the same. Somehow, her eyes were all eyes, even God’s eyes, and the sadness she expressed was a divine and universal sadness.
When we carry our small suffering in solidarity with humanity’s one universal longing for deep union, it helps keep us from self-pity or self-preoccupation. We know that we are all in this together. It is just as hard for everybody else, and our healing is bound up in each other’s. Almost all people are carrying a great and secret hurt, even when they don’t know it. This realization softens the space around our overly defended hearts. It makes it hard to be cruel to anyone. It somehow makes us one – in a way that easy comfort and entertainment never can.
Some mystics go so far as to say that individual suffering doesn’t exist at all and that there is only one suffering. It is all the same, and it is all the suffering of God. The image of Jesus on the cross somehow communicates that to the willing soul. A Crucified God is the dramatic symbol of the one suffering that God fully enters into with us – much more than just for us, as many Christians were trained to think.
If suffering, even unjust suffering (and all suffering is unjust), is part of one Great Mystery, then I am willing to carry my little portion. Etty Hillesum (1914–1943), a young, Dutch, Jewish woman who died in Auschwitz, truly believed her suffering was also the suffering of God. She even expressed a deep desire to help God carry some of it:
“And that is all we can manage these days and also all that really matters: that we safeguard that little piece of You, God, in ourselves. And perhaps in others as well. Alas, there doesn’t seem to be much You Yourself can do about our circumstances, about our lives. Neither do I hold You responsible. You cannot help us, but we must help You and defend Your dwelling place inside us to the last“.
Richard Rohr responds: Such freedom and generosity of spirit are almost unimaginable to me. What creates such altruistic and loving people?
Etty Hillesum, An Interrupted Life and Letters from Westerbork (Henry Holt and Company: 1996), 157, 17
Adapted from Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe (Convergent: 2019), 160, 161-162.