Does God Suffer?

christian christianity easter ecofeminism feminine spirituality holy week jesus suffering Apr 05, 2020

It is Holy Week in the Christian tradition—the ancient celebration of the Triduum, a memorial of mystery, and the intersections and tensions of embodied life. Largely pagan in my spiritual practice, I surprise myself with finding so much beauty in this season (though not that surprising, really, all the Christian holidays have pagan roots). Still I gotta say it: I love the Passion. I love the Cross. I love the long dark night of vigil. And sure, as a good feminist theologian, I’ll take Easter too. I love the chance to wonder with so many of my ancestral saints, sages, and average people who have wondered this throughout the ages: why do we suffer? I honestly do not know why—all “reasons” feel like lip-service in the moment of suffering itself. But I do know that becoming aware of my ecological location has helped me accept the reality of it, and even understand it a tiny bit.


Suffering is upon us in a very real and communal way right now, amidst the COVID-19 epidemic. I don’t believe that God punishes us, or that suffering is somehow a part of “God’s Will.” No one “deserves” to suffer. However, as one of my Cultural Somatics mentors Tada Hozumi reminds me, pain and even violence is inevitable and actually natural in an ecosystem and in the wholeness of creation. The Earth suffers; and as ecofeminist theologian Sally McFague says: the Earth is God’s body. As such, if the Christian notion incarnation means anything, if the Word was truly made flesh and pitched her tent among us (to paraphrase Elizabeth Johnson) it has to mean that all suffering we feel occurs in God’s body and is intimately felt by God. Yes, that means that God in not the immutable omniscient watcher of the cosmos. Yes, that means that God is affected by us and, like our ecology, dare one say it: evolving (part of my lenten practice is reading The Emergent Christ by Ilia Delio, one paragraph at a time—very cool stuff!) (also if you’re put off by my God-language, I get it. Let’s talk about it! See below!)

I “got” this bit about suffering and the incarnation in a very real way during a particularly acute moment of pain in my life, when a client came to me for spiritual care saying almost the exact words I had just expressed about my own struggle. There was suddenly some “sense” in my own suffering: I did not have any good answers or remedies for her—but I felt us walking very closely on the shadowy path together and because of what I had just experienced, (I believe!) I could shine just a little bit of light on her path, and vice versa. The Paschal mystery, to me, affirms the same thing: that God through the person Jesus in a particularly memorable way (though not the only way!) and through our own bodiliness knows and feels our pain, is impacted by our pain, and has not condemned us to suffer alone.

I’ve been assigned many opportunities in the last many months of seminary and clinical pastoral education to reflect on my role in ministry and spiritual care. Here is one thing that has clarified: I believe that there is no saving one another from one’s own path, and we all, in some form or another, consciously or unconsciously, walk the Pascal Mystery—participation of abundance (Holy Thursday), anticipation of death (the Garden), suffering and death (Holy Friday), journey to the underworld (Holy Saturday), and revelation of the affirmation of Love/Life (Easter)—over and over again. I do what I do to makes sense of my own experience of life; and so that I and others might not be so alone through life’s inevitable suffering. (to be clear, for those of you following the metaphor, right now we as a global body are in a vast liminal time of unknown length somewhere between The Garden and the Underworld—it is excruciating and there is no way out but through.)

Of course my hope as a spiritual care provider, an activist, and a citizen is to alleviate suffering if I can— but more and more I am convinced that we can’t avoid or save anyone from this cycle. Where efforts to alleviate suffering fail, perhaps the best we can do is to accompany each other. Perhaps we might not suffer so much in isolation as we labor through our own Pascal cycle. If I have one Easter prayer that I aim to carry with me through life, it is that I may honor and preserve the sovereignty and uniqueness of everyone’s particular path, and to walk with them for what short intervals I can as brief reprieve of the “long loneliness” of life in a body. By Blessed Sophia-Christ, may it be so.


How are you doing? Do you want to check in? I’m available in the coming weeks for informal spiritual care “check-ins.” It doesn't have to be fancy--we can talk, breath, sing, pray, or whatever you feel you need. These are FREE, but donations of any kind welcome!  Folks can venmo me @Kate-Fontana-1.  But please don't worry about payment if it's a strain.

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3 Simple Celebrations of Spiritual Nourishment

✓  SPIRITUAL NOURISHMENT rooted in the body and the earth

✓  INTUITIVE GUIDANCE led by your own inner compass

✓  JOYFUL CONNECTION:  Easy-to-learn songs and rituals you can share with your family; connection to a community of like-practicing peers


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