How to deal with suffering, suffering of any kind
We all suffer at one time or another, and some of us face chronic suffering. I am ever mindful, for example, of all those who regularly plow through my commentaries, an exercise which may be classified as the suffering of frustration. But we can also suffer from doubt, exploitation, failure, poverty, fear, loneliness, bereavement, marital discord, persecution, confrontation with error, physical pain, fatigue, temptation, and of course interior trials.
Back in what some readers would call “the day”—I mean 1994—a philosopher and convert from Judaism, Dr. Ronda Chervin, addressed the problem of suffering in a book which explored the chronic trials of particular saints, and how they dealt with them. My acquaintance with Dr. Chervin, who now teaches at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Connecticut, goes back to what those of my generation would call “the day”, sometime around 1975, when she kindly contributed an article to Faith & Reason (a new Catholic interdisciplinary academic journal I was gradually getting off the ground).
Fast forwarding nearly forty years, I noticed that Sophia Institute Press has published a new (2015) edition of Dr. Chervin’s 1994 book. The Sophia edition is entitled Avoiding Bitterness in Suffering: How our heroes in faith found peace amid sorrow. In thirteen chapters spanning about 250 pages, the author covers all of the kinds of suffering I enumerated above. Her usual approach is to highlight the life of at least one primary saint in each chapter, showing how that saint is a model for the endurance of the type of suffering with which the chapter is concerned.
To round out each chapter, Dr. Chervin then introduces a number of other saints, including their relevant experiences and notable advice. This provides a more thorough response to the challenge at hand. She closes each chapter with a series of bullet points outlining the most important things the reader should keep in mind when faced with the same form of suffering.
A typical example is the chapter entitled “Meeting Christ in the Suffering of Fear”. Chervin recounts the life of Blessed Francis Libermann, a nineteenth-century convert from Judaism who was raised by his father to be a rabbi, and who lived in fear of disappointing his father and also of making the wrong choice between Judaism and Catholicism (and between the rabbinate and the priesthood).
Once Francis finally chose the seminary, he was distrusted by the other seminarians because of his Jewish background. This contributed to a constant anxiety which manifested itself physically, including painful seizures. These delayed his ordination, and he was relegated for a time to odd jobs. The result was that he became a secret adviser to many other seminarians, who began to notice the extraordinary wisdom beneath the surface of his weaknesses. Ultimately he was ordained, and he even attracted others to his plan for a new missionary order which later merged with the Congregation of the Holy Ghost.
Toward the end of the chapter, the author introduces diverse figures such as King David, St. Peter, St. Anthony the Great, St. John Chrysostom, St. Augustine, St. Thomas More, Blessed Robert Southwell, St. Ignatius Loyola, St. Francis de Sales, and St. Margaret Mary Alacoque to show through their words and example how to deal with particular fears and even chronic anxiety. In particular, I dare not forget St. Francis Cabrini, whom the Pope himself asked to voyage from Italy to America to minister to the Italian immigrants there, even though Frances had a chronic horror of drowning at sea.
I do not know exactly how Dr. Chervin has frittered away her time since our first exchange in the mid-seventies, but her website lists her as the author or co-author of more than forty books, in addition to audio and video presentations, not to mention her teaching assignments. Through Avoiding Bitterness in Suffering, I have benefitted significantly from reacquainting myself with her work. Ronda Chervin always did have a knack for exploring the yearnings and fears of the human heart, in the light of Christ.
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