In 1991, my son Charles took his life, jumping off a bridge in Big Sur, California. In his letter to the family he told us that he thought it pointless to endure the sufferings he was sure were inevitable in a world such as ours…for a year we wept.
Was there ever a book started so sadly? And yet so starts Avoiding Bitterness in Suffering: How Our Heroes in Faith Found Peace Amid Sorrow by Dr. Ronda Chervin, newly published by Sophia Institute Press. In just two sentences, the author presents the reader with an immense world of human suffering – her son’s, her family’s, her own. The date and time of the event mentioned, almost a quarter of a century ago, is irrelevant – sorrow, real sorrow, never leaves us, but then, neither does love, real love. This is a book about both. It is also a search for meaning when suffering comes at us like a sharp blade ripping at the very fabric of our world, and, in so doing, reveals to us just how truly naked we are.
Dr. Chervin is a convert from secular Judaism. She is many other things beside: a widow, a mother, a grandmother, an academic, a writer. I came across her work many years ago – a book on philosophy. One of the few on that subject that I have read from cover to cover. It opened doors for me, but, and this was the real surprise, it helped my soul as much as my mind. Back then searching for intellectual answers, I felt I had found a woman who spoke honestly of the nature of this God-given world, our understanding of it and place in it. When I saw this, her latest work, I hoped that I would again encounter that quality of honesty. A few pages into Avoiding Bitterness in Suffering, I found that I was not to be disappointed.
The structure of the book has a simplicity that only complex minds, with many years of teaching, can achieve. The thirteen chapters each explore an aspect of suffering and how, in that suffering, we can meet Our Lord. Doubt, exploitation, failure, poverty, fear, frustration, interior trials, loneliness, loss, marital discord, persecution, pain, fatigue, temptation – all these forms of suffering are here. They are the things from which we flee. They are experiences to which we would rather not admit, and, yet, here we are being asked to meet our Saviour in their midst.
Unlike some facile ‘self-help’ book, Dr. Chervin builds her response to the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ ‘on rock’ – the Rock, and in the steps of those whose lives have followed the way trodden by that same Man of Sorrows: the saints, some recognised by the Church, others on the way, holy men and women who have lived and loved but, above all, who have suffered. Through their experiences – many of which readers will have shared – we find not some stoic endurance in the face of our fallen human nature but, instead, the true meaning of life: love. More mysterious still, that meaning is not to be had in some philosophy, some ‘new age’ daydream, or, by some act of ‘self realisation’. Instead, the answer comes in the shape of a figure, one moving towards us bloodied and bowed, carrying a cross to a hill just outside the city. As we observe this sorrowful ascent, we know in our hearts that, paradoxically, it is in following that same path, and only that path, that we shall find peace.
Of course, this is ‘folly’ to the world. It always was, and always will be. And yet, it was the crown the saints wore. Many saints appear in these pages. They come from different lands, various eras, and diverse walks of life – just as they continue to do today. There are saints all around us still. The deserted mother looking after the handicapped child; the teenager pregnant and ashamed, struggling alone to ensure life for the child in her womb; the cancer sufferer who smiles through it all so that others never know the real pain he or she faces daily – it is suffering that marked each of the saints. This is not suffering as the world knows it; it is not a pain that disfigures those it grips. This suffering is marked by the sign of the Cross, and, therefore, is strangely a blessing. Suffering when viewed through this prism, ennobles; it does not crush. Nevertheless, as in the examples Dr. Chervin gives, its witness is often missed in this world. Folly to the world, in the rays of eternity, such suffering is a crown.
This book is packed with quotations, quotations from the saints on suffering, quotations about saints facing suffering. Through the lives of these men and women, we glimpse the Christian economy – of how to live and, how to die. We should expect to suffer; sometimes, we need to suffer. Dr. Chervin’s work is a timely reminder to us all that here we have no abiding city. It reminds us that we are strangers in a strange land journeying home, to a better place. This text, the fruit of much pain and prayer, can only but fuel that inner yearning for home in the reader.
Life as presented to us in the media is different from that in this book. Each day, advertisements plastered around London promise happiness, instantly and forever, if only we own this, buy that, look like … in our hearts we know it’s all lies. Especially as the more we listen to the vacuous sales’ chant, the less human we begin to feel. In the end, it has no answer to pain, only the offer of ephemeral pleasure to dull it, until that, too, becomes an additional source of pain. I found myself turning away from the hoardings and, instead, once more to Dr. Chervin’s book – not a depressing read about suffering, as some may mistakenly think, no, far from it.
Avoiding Bitterness in Suffering: How Our Heroes in Faith Found Peace Amid Sorrow ends on a note that is at the heart of our faith, and that should accompany the Christian pilgrim on his or her way through all life’s many mountains and valleys, namely, joy. I shall leave the last words to Dr. Chervin. They are meant to echo the thought of the reader, but, one senses, they come directly from the author’s heart:
‘In my love for the Church and all the people created by God, I need to stop myself from sinking in self-pity. I need to ask the Holy Spirit to remind me that I can offer my sufferings for others, believing that Christ will use those sufferings for his kingdom. I shall remember that Jesus took joy in the Cross, wanting in his love to redeem us, to open doors of eternal happiness for us.
‘In the end, what choice do we have? To suffer joylessly in distraction or despair, or, like the saints, to rejoice in the midst of suffering, trusting in the promises of him who went to terrible lengths to prove his promises were real?’