SUFFERING: Recapturing A Sense Of Mystery by Basil Hume

Recapturing A Sense Of Mystery by Basil Hume

From The Mystery of the Cross

In our day we need to recapture a sense of mystery.  Pascal made the distinction between a mystery and a problem, and it is one we have tended to forget.  A problem is an obstacle, a conundrum something that can in principle be formulated and solved.  A mystery is utterly different.  It lies beyond us; it is too rich for our understanding.  It can be entered into, explored, even inhabited; but it can never be exhausted or fathomed.

Our age dislikes intensely the idea of mystery, because it directly exposes our limitations.  The thought that there could be something, or someone, beyond human comprehension or imagining is, of course, exciting, but it is also belittling.  It puts us in our place, and that place is not at the center.  Science has played an important role here, at once dispelling apparent mysteries and solving problems, and continually pushing forward the boundaries of human knowledge.

The experience of suffering and, very important, the experience of failure bring us face-to-face with mystery.  They are stern but effective teachers of the ways of God, unless, of course, they lead to bitterness and rancor.  They cause us to question our priorities; they bring a new perspective and lead us sometimes from desperation to seek and find a different meaning and purpose in our lives.  Coming to us as unwelcome visitors, suffering and pain can, if handled well, turn out to be friends.


I am a pilgrim walking through life, and from time-to-time I like to think that the “cloud of unknowing” lets a chink of light through to warm my heart and enlighten my mind.  At times I find this pilgrim way not at all easy.  In fact it can be pretty rough and an uphill business as I try to make my way along it.  Then I hear those words: “If you want to be my disciple, take up your cross and follow me,” and I realize that I cannot get to the end of the journey except by going over that hill which they call Calvary.

So the cross is part of my life.  Suffering, pain, and anxiety are part of the human condition, of course, but I need to make them part of my ministry.

I had been invited to lunch one day by Pope Paul VI.  While I was there one of the priests took me into the chapel and showed me a crucifix made for the Holy Father when he was Archbishop of Milan.  It had no crown of thorns, and when Paul VI remarked on this to the artists he replied: “No, the Lord has laid that on the head of the Archbishop of Milan.”  When he became Paul VI the Archbishop of Milan took the crown of thorns off the head of the Lord and carried it himself.


What are the Articles of Faith to you and me?  They are pointers to the mystery, entries into mystery.  They are starting points for endless exploration, right down the ages, and that exploration is never completed, either by the church itself, or by us individually.  One of the problems in the church today is that there are people who think that doctrine does not evolve.  But I was encouraged when I read these words by a Greek Orthodox theologian:

We see that it is not the task of Christianity to provide easy answers to every question, but to make us progressively aware of a mystery.  God is not so much the object of our knowledge as the cause of our wonder.

I have often prayed, as I am sure you have prayed: “Lord, I do believe, help thou my unbelief.”  What a marvelous prayer that is.  I used to confess, from time-to-time, sins of doubt until I realized that doubt was my friend and not my foe.  Doubt is the instrument to purify my faith.  There is no growth in love unless faith is purified.

Why? What is the meaning?

Sometimes, on my pilgrim way, I find myself sitting on the roadside looking round at my brothers and sisters and am appalled at the magnitude of the suffering that there is in the world.  I don’t think I have ever met anyone who has not been carrying deep inside them some sadness, some sorrow, and I ask myself: What is the meaning of this?  I am now confessing to one of the biggest problems in my life – to know why.  It is the biggest single proof, for me, against the existence of God.  I know all the answers, but I do not understand.  Many events have focused my mind on the problem.  For instance, if I am sitting with a young widow who has just lost her husband, or a mother who has lost her child, the suffering seems inexplicable.

A way of entering into the mystery

I have said on many occasions, in different situations, that I cannot fully explain the existence of evil and natural disasters.  If I had that kind of knowledge and understanding, I would be God.  But Our Lord has given us, and certainly given me, a way of entering into the mystery to try to discover some meaning, and that is his own death on the cross.  It is only by looking at the crucifix that we begin to discover some kind of solution.  There, and there alone, is the solution, because behind the crucifix you see, with the eyes of faith, the outline of the risen Christ.  That is the point and that is why a crucifix is such a lovely thing.


A man can have no greater love
than to lay down his life
for his friends.
(John 15:13)

How hard it is for us to understand why it was that God who became man had to suffer and die in that ignominious and cruel manner.  Down the ages Christian thinkers have reflected on these great events.  They have meditated on the words of the Gospel and the comments of Saints Peter and Paul – and yet, I believe, the mystery is never totally explained.  We never quite see why it was that God-made-man should have to die.  Every Christian, each one of us, has to spend a lifetime thinking about it and wondering, trying to understand just a little bit more why it was that God who became man had to suffer so cruelly and die so ignominiously.

It is just as difficult to understand the existence of evil in a creation that was originally perfect and intended to give glory to God.  We, remarkably, are the crown of that creation made in the image and likeness of God.  Yet we have not lived up to that image.  Is it perhaps something to do with our refusal to accept God’s love?

So it is that our minds, feeble and limited, simply cannot understand all these things.  But through our faith, through that gift of his, that initiative of his, we can begin to wonder and pray, and in our wondering and praying find some, though only some, understanding.

But one thing is certain: the real solution to the problem of evil – the fundamental solution to all human problems, especially sin, suffering, and death – is in his death, in his suffering, because it ended in his resurrection.

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