Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Love and Affliction

Mural at Cyrene Mission in Zimbabwe
Last month's post on prophetic ministry explored the theme of passion. There is another sense of the word 'passion' in the Christian tradition, which refers to intense humiliation and suffering. This is what the 20th-Century mystic Simone Weil calls 'malheur' (translated as 'affliction') - an intensity of suffering that empties out our sense of self, destroys all our hopes, shatters our sense of being at home and safe in the world.
In the realm of suffering, affliction is something apart, specific, and irreducible. It is quite a different thing from simple suffering. It takes possession of the soul and marks it through and through with its own particular mark, the mark of slavery... There is not real affliction unless the event which has gripped and uprooted a life attacks it, directly or indirectly, in all its parts, social, psychological, and physical.
(Simone Weil - The Love of God and Affliction)

Affliction is sometimes a consequence of prophetic ministry. Many prophets, such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Maria Skobtsova and Mary Fisher, have suffered humiliation, persecution and death for their challenge to power in faithfulness to God's calling.

But affliction can also arrive in anyone's life through the blind accidents of our life history; from mental or physical illness, violence, broken or abusive relationships. Prolonged suffering of this intensity can destroy much of a person's sense of identity, leaving a profound mark upon the rest of their lives. Its destructive power can also shatter our defences against the world, creating a rawness of perception that is central to the prophetic vocation. People who have been through the torment of affliction no longer see the world in the same way. They can become acutely sensitised to the suffering of others, and utterly disenchanted and disillusioned with the false promises, enticements and distractions of the surrounding culture. They have lost a protective layer of skin, and stand exposed to the raw currents of inhumanity, oppression and selfishness that swirl around them. Out of the dark night of this affliction, some receive the gift and summons to minister to their community, turning their new perception into insight that can bring healing to others.

Simon Western is a British Quaker whose gift of prophetic ministry arises from the deep insight of affliction. He has written about the sudden death of his son Fynn in January 2010, in an article for The Friend (1st July 2011), in words that show the power of affliction to reveal the raw pain and wonder of reality, 'to live with suffering yet still loving, in agony yet see beauty.'
You have no maps for this journey. People react in different ways: some are amazing, generous and kind; others shy away, some disappear, and others act inhumanly... You represent everyone’s greatest fear, to lose his or her child, violently and suddenly. You become an untouchable. It is a great burden to carry.

When faced with a tragedy, a crisis, pay attention; the facades and pretences have disappeared, you are faced with raw humanity and God is offering you the opportunity to reach out and touch the divine.

Sadness and beauty are close soul-mates, and here lies the everlasting truth. Forget the contemporary, desperate search for happiness, forget consumerism and looking younger, forget fundamentalism and certainty, they all offer answers but to the wrong question. Sadness is not to be overcome, but to be embraced. My experience is that I have to live in the gap between despair and hope; the space that exists between the desperate cry of Jesus on the cross ‘My God, My God why has thou forsaken me’ and his letting go ‘Father, into your hands I give my spirit’. If we can live fully in the redemptive space between the crucifixion and the resurrection, there we will find God; there we will find the truth, there we plant the seeds of the resurrection within.

Resurrection is not out there, it is in here, our hearts. The redemptive task is to hold onto despair without fleeing it or being destroyed by it, to embrace it yet not indulge it. The challenge is to move out of the victim position, not to allow others to keep you there. Not to be condemned to be a victim for life. Not to act on the suicidal thoughts. Not to become bitter with anger or hate...

Redemption and salvation are found on the highwire, balancing precariously between despair and transformation. It is there that you will be resurrected from being a victim. To sow our own seeds of resurrection is to live with suffering yet still loving, in agony yet see beauty. You will find eternal life in the tiny moments of love and beauty that are fleeting and yet forever. For me it is clear, very clear. We have to plant our own seeds of the resurrection, and live in the redemptive space between despair and hope, and not to search for it elsewhere.
Christianity has often been accused of a morbid obsession with suffering. There is certainly a life-denying current within Christian history, especially where it has been co-opted by ruling elites into a tool for political and psychic repression. But modern secular culture's incapacity to contemplate affliction is also a form of life-denial. The culture of secular consumerism has no spaces, no words, no stories or images powerful enough to communicate the experience and insights of affliction. The full experience of life, which includes our shared vulnerability to helpless suffering, has no place in a society that values only youth, health, success, celebrity, wealth and power.

The modern prophet's gift is to see with the eyes of affliction, and to communicate to others the hope of 'the seeds of resurrection within'.
It is in affliction itself that the splendor of God's mercy shines, from its very depths, in the heart of its inconsolable bitterness. If in persevering in our love, we fall to the point where the soul cannot keep back the cry," My God, why hast thou forsaken me?" if we remain at this point without ceasing to love, we end by touching something that is not affliction, something not of the senses, common to joy and sorrow: the very love of God.
(Simone Weil - Letter to a Priest)

Simon Western is a writer in the field of leadership and coaching, for details see: 
He has also written an essay for 2009 The Friends Quarterly competition on the future of the Religious Society of Friends in Britain, available here.


  1. This is lovely and profound. The affliction described is so feared that its reality is fought against with every fiber of one's being. The line is crossed, however, when the fight takes on the tool of deceit. Then self becomes the idol, and the Holy Spirit is resisted. When early Friends spoke of dying to the self, they meant holding to this affliction, because it was true, and honoring the truth is the highest function of our humanity - prepares the Way.

  2. Thanks, Craig, this piece spoke greatly to my condition.


"When words are strange or disturbing to you, try to sense where they come from and what has nourished the lives of others. Listen patiently and seek the truth which other people's opinions may contain for you. Avoid hurtful criticism and provocative language. Do not allow the strength of your convictions to betray you into making statements or allegations that are unfair or untrue. Think it possible that you may be mistaken."
(From Quaker Advices and Queries 17)