[easyazon_image align=”left” height=”333″ identifier=”0870612964″ locale=”US” src=”https://englewoodreview.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/51yR3ddqbbL.jpg” tag=”douloschristo-20″ width=”216″]The Deep Waters of Suffering
A Review of
The Mystery of Suffering
Hubert van Zeller
Paperback: Ave Maria Press, 2015
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Reviewed by Charlotte Donlon
I have been a member of a Reformed, Protestant church since I became a Christian twenty years ago, but I’m grateful for the lessons I’ve learned and the wisdom I’ve gleaned from other Christian traditions. Ever since I was introduced to Benedictine spirituality in Kathleen Norris’ The Cloister Walk, I have sought out others who write from a similar perspective. Benedictine monks’ commitment to praying the Psalms and practicing lectio divina, silence, and solitude appealed to me as a young mother of two small children, and it continues to appeal to me now ten years later. In a world that largely discourages a contemplative lifestyle in favor of busyness and achievement, the Benedictines have taught me how to rest and receive.
So it was with a sense of appreciation and expectation that I approached The Mystery of Suffering by Benedictine monk and sculptor Hubert van Zeller. This book was originally published in 1964 as Suffering in Other Words: A Presentation for Beginners. It was re-released and published with the new title in September of 2015.
On the first page of this slim volume, van Zeller roots his explanation of this difficult and complex subject in Christ. He writes, “If it was right for Christ to go by the way of suffering to the final possession of his glory, it is right also for us. We are members of his body. The limbs must go the way of the head; the parts may not choose one way of going to the Father while the whole chooses another.” And throughout The Mystery of Suffering, he shows his readers how the way of suffering is the way of life, the way of joy, and the way of Christ. Although he uses Scripture to explore issues surrounding this topic, he doesn’t claim to have everything figured out—that’s why he says we must make room for mystery.
When addressing the problem of evil, van Zeller points out that after the fall, “all chance of finding perfect happiness on earth vanished.” For those who can’t understand how a loving God can allow suffering, he reminds them of the Incarnation which is God’s pledge of abiding love for mankind. And he says Jesus’ death and resurrection are pledges of his power. van Zeller connects our sufferings to the sufferings of Christ, and he presents our sufferings as an opportunity to grow closer to God.
van Zeller weaves thoughts about prayer throughout the book. He says, “If people prayed more when in difficulties, and thought less about the difficulties themselves, they would be tapping the true sources of wisdom and light. Obviously what is needed is grace: suffering cannot be met without grace… Thinking about grace gets us little further than thinking about the difficulties and sufferings that the grace is required to deal with. Praying, on the other hand, brings the appropriate remedy into play. The man who does not pray is trying to put out the fire by writing letters to the insurance company.”
Here van Zeller is highlighting the connections that exist between suffering, grace, and prayer. He wants his readers to turn away from over-analyzing our hardships and circumstances and turn toward God. Grace gives us the ability to choose to go to God. Prayer is the result of our going.
I do not list my sufferings in my gratitude journal. But if God draws us to Himself through hard circumstances and if we end up knowing more of Him on the other side of our distress, should there be a degree of thankfulness in the midst of difficulty? This is the type of question van Zeller encourages Christians to ask, even if we aren’t sure of the answer.
The Mystery of Suffering examines a topic many are hesitant to consider. Hubert van Zeller wades into the deep waters of suffering and challenges his readers to reconsider their tendency to shirk discomfort, pain, and difficult circumstances. While holding Christ high, he presents his case that suffering can draw us closer to God and closer to the true meaning of love.
He handles this subject with humility and honestly addresses his own struggles with suffering. He writes, “Let me say openly and finally that I find prayer the most tedious of duties and I loathe suffering. What I am trying to do in these books is to present the principle. My purpose is to praise God and help souls…” As I contemplate my own personal experiences with suffering and view them in light of van Zeller’s words on the topic, I can say with assurance that he has accomplished his purpose.
The re-release of this classic will likely attract a new generation of readers. The mysterious nature of suffering has always been worthy of exploration. And it will continue to be so in the future.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com