+ANTHONY on Suffering

On Suffering
A Dialogue with Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh

Watch the video here.

May 3, 1973

Metropolitan Anthony, a convert to Christianity, began his professional life as a medical doctor in France. He served with the French Army during the Second World War, and is a man not unfamiliar with suffering.

Interviewer: One of the most perplexing concepts of the Christian faith to non-Christians is the Christian view of suffering — the idea that suffering is redemptive and the road to salvation. Even for many Christians the belief that suffering can be good for you is hard to accept. To help us achieve a better understanding of the role of suffering in the spiritual life of Christians, I visited Metropolitan Anthony of the Russian Orthodox Church in England.

Metropolitan Anthony: Whenever we move from this concern about men on to concerns about things, we make things — it may be ideals, ideologies, world outlooks — into an idol, and there is no idol that doesn't claim blood, and blood is always human blood. It will always be men and women and children who will have to pay the cost of it.

Interviewer: Is the notion that suffering is redemptive unique to the Christian faith?

Metropolitan Anthony: Well for one thing, in itself suffering is not redemptive. Suffering is redemptive only if it is connected with love and when the suffering is the result of giving one's life or giving something of oneself. In itself suffering is such — maybe a curse and a hell without any issue out of it. But I think that this being said, it is true that suffering when endured in the name of love, for the sake of love, ultimately for the sake of God and of men, in a personal way is redemptive. And I think it is only in Christianity that it has all this fullness because I believe that only in Christianity has history and the physical world a complete significance.

Interviewer: [Hasn't] the church[es] always made this clear?

Metropolitan Anthony: Well St. Paul I think made it extremely clear when he said that if we do not suffer the right way we suffer in vain, and also in the Epistle to the Corinthians when he speaks of love and says that even if I gave my body to be burned but have no love, it would be vain and empty. I think it is the love that makes — gives meaning to the suffering otherwise it is a purely physical event and what.

Interviewer: It's just that I have a feeling that many people have missed that particular point and that they feel that they can reach salvation through suffering.

Metropolitan Anthony: I think you're right. I think lots of people miss this point and many other points, indeed, in the Gospel and in life in general because it's much easier to work out a world outlook in which enduring suffering is meaningful than to say to endure suffering is nothing if I do not love — and loving is infinitely more difficult than enduring. Enduring is a passive state. Once suffering is inflicted it takes courage, determination, to undergo it. While to love does not mean undergo; it means volunteer, it means take upon oneself; it means give what is not claimed, and that is a much more difficult thing.

Interviewer: But I suppose there are people though that seem to relish suffering — perhaps they suffer from inferiority complexes or from guilt or some reason and —

Metropolitan Anthony: Of course. But then that is not religion even less Christianity. It's on the verge of mental disorder. Sadism, masochism, the sort of nursing of the sense of guilt and of remorse of course exist among Christians as well as among others, but this is pathology. But at the heart of the Gospel, we find love and a quality of love which is such denial of self that will allow freely to lay down one's life, freely to undergo suffering, freely to substitute eventually one's own death to someone else's death. Theologically we speak more of Christ in this connection, but in the history of the last century we have so many examples of people who have chosen to give their lives, chosen to die, in order to save another person. And when you choose to die you may very well not die and remain a cripple, be an invalid, suffer a great deal, which in a way is a risk much more painful to take than just sudden annihilation.

Interviewer: I did an interview last year with Elie Wiesel, the Jewish author for Man Alive, and he contradicted the Christian notion of suffering. He said for example that in the Jewish faith, a life of suffering is completely alien to what they believe. Life should be celebration, should be joy, and suffering had no redemptive power as far as he was concerned.

Metropolitan Anthony: Well I think it's difficult to uphold this view completely in the face for instance of the image of the suffering servant in the book of Isaiah and of quite a few other passages from the Old Testament. I think that he's right when he says that life should be a celebration, then life should not be marred by the condition of men in which we live. Ideally, yes it should be celebration but in the face of a world of disharmony, of hatred, of mutual antagonism, of contrast and opposition, then suffering is inevitable as a fact and it can be turned into a redemptive experience.

Interviewer: Archbishop I'd like to find out a little bit about your early life. What was your early family life like? Any indication then that you would become a priest?

Metropolitan Anthony: No, none. I spent my early childhood in Russia and Persia because that's where my father served, and then with emigration we came to the West and I was brought up as a boarder in a most ordinary school. I wasn't a believer then in the sense that owing to circumstances I had had no contact either with the Gospel or Christ in a personal way or even less perhaps with the Church. And to all intents and purposes I was an unbeliever as far as believing is concerned, and very anti-church as far as going to church is concerned.

Interviewer: When did you become a Christian?

Metropolitan Anthony: When I was about 15. I was then a member of a youth organization and it was religious on the fringe as it were because it was part of being a Russian and I was submitted one day to a priest's discourse on the Gospel, on the Church, and on Christ, and it revolted me to such an extent that I decided to find out whether there was any truth in what he had said. I went home and decided to check. So I asked my mother for her book of the Gospel, but it isn't really the reading of the Gospel that convinced me; it's something which probably a free churchman, an evangelical, would call a conversion experience. Because while I was reading the beginnings of St. Mark's Gospel, I became overwhelmingly aware of the presence of Christ standing on the other side of the desk, and it was so clear and so certain that I looked up the way one looks around in the street when one has an impression that someone looks at your back. I saw nothing, perceived nothing with my senses, but the certainty was so great that I knew that I had met Christ alive, and if I had met Christ alive, then all the Gospel was true.

Interviewer: You found no conflict then through your study of medical science and theology?

Metropolitan Anthony: No. You see I never tried to make the Bible into a book of natural history and I never tried to check scientific knowledge by religious presuppositions that would be formal and really external to the purpose. I always felt that even if we cannot always see the way in which things link, the knowledge of the world in which we live is theology, the knowledge of God and of his works. But a priori they cannot conflict and that if one has intellectual and moral integrity one must follow each line in its own rights. If there had been conflict I would have faced it, but I never met it. My spiritual life went along one line; my intellectual life only enriched what I knew of God and of his world, and perhaps was I too simple? But it never — both never conflicted with one another.

Interviewer: Do you think God wants us to suffer?

Metropolitan Anthony: I would say — I'm sorry to be so stubborn — I would say he wants us to love, not to suffer, but suffering is always inherent to love in a world which is disharmonious, ugly, violent, aggressive, and so forth. He does not want [us] to suffer; he wants us to love. Yet, he warns us love means death — a shedding of blood, heart blood or physical blood.

Interviewer: So death is at the center of suffering?

Metropolitan Anthony: Well, death is the full measure of it. Death is really, with its sharpness and its finality, the test of your readiness to love. I feel that the great mistake which a Christian can make — and I say Christian because there is a background of faith attached to my statement — is to allow himself to think and consequently to feel that with the death of the person things have come to an end. If we really believe what is our Christian faith, that God is God of the living, that for him and in him everyone is alive, that there is a future which is eternity, then the death of the person is a moment — tragic, painful, of separation — I wouldn't say more tragic or more painful that the separation which occurs as the result of an iron curtain, or a closed frontier, or the gates of a prison — but anyhow a separation — but with the difference that if a person is truly alive in God and so are you, there is a present and a future and not only a past. And instead of rehearsing the past to make the present more dark, one should face the present which is a transitory separation in the expectation of a future meeting, and not simply as wishful thinking, but as an active preparation for it. Because in terms of love which I have been using perhaps too much, in terms of love, if you have loved toward a person, if this life has been meaningful to you, the rest of your life can be marked by the life of the person that is now in God's keeping. You may be on earth a continuation of all that was good and praiseworthy in the life of this person. You may be the undoing of all the wrong there was in the life of this person. So that this person in a way can continue to have a destiny on earth because a day will come when thanks to you, what had been begun by this person will have been fulfilled and what had been done amiss might have been put right. And that is an active participation in the eternal destiny. And on the other hand, you know where our treasure is our heart is, and if we truly and earnestly believe that this person is alive, that we will meet, the death of a beloved person makes us already now [a] citizen of the age to come. Not, again, only wishful thinking but really.

Interviewer: You're quoted as saying, "in a way despair is at the center of things, if only we are prepared to go through it."

Metropolitan Anthony: Yes.

Interviewer: What do you mean by that?

Metropolitan Anthony: Well I mean really that very often people try to remain dis-side [sic] of despair by fooling themselves by things like, this will not happen to me. Or when we speak with friends, don't worry God will never allow that to happen — which is perfectly untrue because it happens to you and it will happen to your friend — perhaps inevitably, perhaps with a certain amount of probability. While we must be prepared to go to the very bottom of our despair, of the awarenes that I can do nothing about the situation. No one of my friends can help me in any possible way. And when you have discovered this, the only thing that remains for a believer is to say, yet there is God and he's the only one who can help. But at this point despair in a way must remain untouched because we do not expect God to put things right — and I am using this in inverted commas — that is, to undo the tragedy or to change things, but to do something not to the events but to us, so that things may be what they are: we are no longer the same and can face them in a quite different way.

Interviewer: How about this idea that suffering makes a better person, is good for building character perhaps.

Metropolitan Anthony: I think it is true if we face suffering. If we run away from it, if we allow ourselves to be crushed by it, it doesn't. And again, in this process, education could play a role. We should never prevent a person from enduring what he can endure, by taking away from him a chance to face up with courage in a manly way, up to things which are hard, which we do all the time. But again — in the same terms practically that I spoke of love — it is not the suffering itself, it is the way we face it. Pain as pain cannot build character. A daring, a courageous way of facing pain does, and for instance in present-day medicine I disussed that lately in a medical group. The way in which people turn to a doctor to alleviate the slightest pain because they assume that they should never be in pain results that they can face pain less and less, and when there is no pain, what they can't face is the fear of it. So that in the end, people live in pain although there is no pain yet.

Interviewer: And yet, religion seems to put so much stress on suffering, a suffering for the sake of suffering which I don't understand.

Metropolitan Anthony: Yes but I think that comes from the fact that we speak of all these things with a grudging feeling that if we could, we would avoid it. When you love someone, you don't mind walking two miles rather than one. If say a mother has got a sick child, she sits throughout the night and she doesn't feel virtuous, she couldn't help it. If she has a nurse to do the same, the nurse does it at times with an effort and without any pleasure. The same is true about carrying one another's burdens and the heaviest burden perhaps is the peculiar personality which one has got to carry — one's own or someone else's. If we love the person, it's no exertion; it may be completely sacrificial, it may be as good as shedding of blood. But you don't do that grudgingly, and you don't speak of suffering you speak of love. And I think when Christians or non-Christians begin to speak so insistently on suffering, they are indirectly saying, I haven't got enough love to do it with joy. It is not celebration, it's pain, while the very possibility one may have to give one's life, one's energies, one's concern is celebration in itself even when it involves physical pain or moral anguish.

Interviewer: The greatest example of suffering for Christians is Jesus on the Cross. What is it about Jesus that has sustained our interest for so long, more than other messiahs?

Metropolitan Anthony: Well, I think two things. The fact that he was truly the Messiah which speaks for itself as it were. You know, the way in which there is inner convincingness in things true. And the second thing is that his life and death were such a demonstration of perfect self-forgetting love, and such an act of faith in us, I think both are essential — on the one hand we see in him an incredible depth of love. As he puts it, "No one is taking my life from me, I give it freely." And this is something which very few will do. But on the other hand, why it hits at us is that it isn't given for his own sake as it were, but because he believes absolutely that his life and death are not in vain, and that there is enough in us to respond to it. This faith of God in us demonstrated by the life and death of Jesus is something that always grips me.

Interviewer: What is the relevancy of Calvary today?

Metropolitan Anthony: Well, leaving aside the objective relevance, the fact that God became man, the fact that he lived and taught with both the authority of God and the perfection of man, the fact that his death was a supreme act of love and intercession that carries weight in that sense — but apart from this, as far as examples are concerned, it is the greatest challenge I can imagine because it is a challenge of pure love. It is a challenge that lays no claim other than the freedom of a response. You can take it; you can reject it. You can let him die on the cross, shrug your shoulders and go. But on the other hand, if you are hit at the heart by what you see, then your response is completely free.

Interviewer: This suffering then, and summing up, can be a testing for a person —

Metropolitan Anthony: It can, indeed.

Interviewer: A defining of him —

Metropolitan Anthony: It can provided you face it creatively, daringly, in order to make something of your life and to your person. If you face it passively, if you simply endure slavishly, it will simply make you a slave more subservient and more afraid, and that is not the aim of it.