He was relentless. When he asked the question and probed me, he wasn’t flip, and he wasn’t laughing. His brow would knit and his eyes, although they would sometimes meet mine, more often did not and would focus on a spot behind me.
At midyear, it all came out a close family friend, a young man with children of his own, had died a slow, lingering death from cancer the previous year, and Mark could just not make sense of it.
I can’t tell you how many times I addressed this topic with Mark, and never once to his satisfaction. I talked about mystery, trying not to make it sound like a total cop-out: I don’t know why there is suffering, and I am not one to fall back on “God knows what’s best for us” or “Good can come out of pain,” although I think both of those are certainly true.
But Mark could barely hold back his laughter when I’d try to go in that direction. He’d heard it all before and had the answer ready. If he, as a relatively helpless 17 year-old boy watching a friend die, would do anything to quell the suffering he witnesses, why wouldn’t the all-powerful God?
In the end, the best I could do was point to the crucifix on our classroom wall and paraphrase the words of Peter Kreeft, who has written: “God’s solution to the problem of evil is His son, Jesus Christ. We do not worship a deistic God, an absentee landlord who ignores his slum; we worship a garbage-man God who came right down into our worst garbage to clean it up. How do we get God off the hook for allowing evil? God is not off the hook; God is the hook. That’s the point of a crucifix.” (From Fundamentals of the Faith)
Book closed. Exam graded. Summer vacation.
And then Mark’s father died.
It was sudden a swimming accident in the middle of July. Mark had gone out on a boat into the Gulf with a friend and returned to find that in the hours he was gone, his father’s life had ended, and there was nothing more to say, ever again.
How strange, I thought. How very tragically ironic.
I didn’t teach Mark the following year, but I would stop him periodically and ask him how he was doing. “Okay. Fine,” he’d say, and his teachers reported they didn’t see much change in him in any direction. His father’s death didn’t seem to evoke any greater seriousness about life from what anyone could see on the surface, but, thankfully, nor did it seem to drive him into a more destructive place.
He was probably just mostly numb, I imagine.
Perhaps there was a reason for it. Perhaps Mark worked through all those questions, not only because he is, I believe, a deeply philosophical soul under all his adolescent posturing, but because he was responding to a prompting deep within that was telling him to prepare, to ready himself as we all are when we mull over those questions ourselves, in light or in darkness, in the abstract or the painful concreteness of our own suffering.
And we, like Mark, find scant satisfaction in the answers that begin with “because.” It’s the same with any vital question, such as the one lovers ask: “Why do you love me?” Even the most heartfelt response emerging from the deepest emotion and commitment is, at best, a faint reflection of the depths of the mystery.
So both the lover and the mourner find their answers not in words, but in presence. We love because love is, and even God joins us there. We suffer because there is suffering and God joins us there too.
And in a crucifix on a classroom wall, we see both love and suffering and faith leads us to what lies beyond: a tomb that, because it is empty, fills the universe with a Presence that answers every question our yearning hearts can dare to ask.