In the great line of books about suffering, including Peter Kreeft’s great Making Sense Out of Suffering and my personal favorite, the sadly out-of-print The Pain of Christ and the Sorrow of God by Fr. Gerald Vann, OP, comes Jeff Cavins’s book, When you Suffer.
What Cavins offers that others have not is to frame issues of human suffering in modern and accessible ways that hold the reader’s attention. When Vann brilliantly strays into a spiritual discourse on human and divine suffering, Cavins returns to the biblical text and the many examples of suffering he uses throughout the book.
Cavins begins with a helpful distinction–a few distinctions, really. The most prominent is that between our ideal life, what we envisioned for ourselves. That life is comfortable, predictable, involves being engaged in your personal interests, reflects your gifts, is affirming, is pain free, brings a sense of accomplishment, and meets your basic needs. Contrasted to this ideal life is real life, what we actually experience in our day-to-day lives. That real life is uncomfortable, unpredictable, uninteresting, does not maximize your gifts, is unaffirming, is painful, lacks a sense of accomplishment, and leaves needs unmet. We know this life all too well.
And suffering comes at the intersection of our real and ideal lives. It is the moment when we realize that our lives are not meeting the expectations and desires we had for ourselves. It’s when we know that we are not as good, smart, capable, holy, etc. that we ought to be. We recognize a deprivation. There’s something lacking and we do not know how to fill the void.
To understand this suffering, Cavins first offers some historical background. He brings us back to the original state of man, the original suffering brought about by original sin with Adam and Eve. Original sin–what the Catechism calls, “so to speak, the ‘reverse side’ of the Good News”–has wrought devastating effects throughout history. Yet the greatest sinners of our history, the St. Augustine’s of the world, have, at times, become the greatest saints. After discussing the different types of suffering in Chapter Four, Cavins moves on to explain how suffering is redemptive, how the greatest sinners can becomes the greatest saints.
Chapter Five is, to me, the heart of the book. It begins by evaluating a central question that mankind has raised from the beginning: Why is there suffering? Cavins quotes Pope St. John Paul II, who said that
in order to perceive the true answer to the ‘why’ of suffering, we must look to the revelation of divine love, the ultimate source of the meaning of everything that exists. Love is the richest source of the meaning of suffering, which always remains a mystery: we are conscious of the insufficiency and inadequacy of our explanations.
Divine love. It’s not an oft-cited answer to the question of suffering, but it is the key to unlocking the mystery. As Cavins notes, “If we are going to discover the meaning of suffering and learn how to appropriate it’s benefits we must come face-to-face with the reality that many times our thoughts and ways are contrary to divine wisdom.” (66) God has created a reality in which suffering is redemptive, in which even death has been made a “blessing.” (67; CCC 1009) What Adam brought to creation, Christ redeemed by His incarnation, suffering, and death.
Cavins’s book crescendos with some practical advice: ten things to do when you suffer. I think they can all be summarized as a deep dive into the spiritual (prayer, confession, Mass, uniting yourself to Christ, etc.) and practical (live out your vocation) aspects of what we should be doing every day. But they take on a special significance when we are suffering because we need them more and, I think, we become more present to them. God cannot become more present to us–He is always as present as He can be–but we are not always present to him. In times of suffering, we are weakened and humbled and we can more fully open ourselves to him and find the Divine Love He has been waiting for us to accept.
All of us have gone through some suffering and as long as we are on this earth, we will continue to suffer. Jeff Cavins gives us a helpful guide to make the most of our suffering, to not let it go to waste, and to give it a divine purpose and meaning. This is a useful book to anyone going through suffering or trying to figure out the great mystery it is.
For an honest review of this book, I received a complimentary copy.