Dedicated to Research and Reflection in Formative Spirituality




About Us Programs Staff Links Contact Us


Peace: A Spiritual Longing (part 2)

June 13, 2011

The true significance of peace comes into view when we examine the nature of our suffering consciousness.  The French Christian philosopher Louis Lavell offers a useful description of suffering in his book Evil and Suffering (1963).  When we are happy we experience “a harmony between us and the world which tends to dissolve consciousness.”  At such times we participate effortlessly in the world; or, as Lavelle puts it, “we exist in communicating with the world.”  Suffering changes all that.  It is a threat to our union with the world.  “Even in its most elementary form, (suffering) is an evocation of death.  (Through suffering) Death already reveals itself in life.” (59-60)  The threat of suffering affects our state of mind and thus the peace and harmony we seek to inhabit.

     Lavelle makes important distinctions between pain and suffering.  Pain is always suffered through the intermediary of the body.  Endured passively, physical pain can occupy our whole selves, and “it pertains to consciousness always to strive to drive pain away.”  (62-3)  Suffering on the other hand calls for a different response, in which we have an active role:  We have to penetrate it.  Lavelle writes:  “I know it and I make it mine.  I am always active when I say, ‘I suffer.’  One must continue to accept it and even deepen it.”  (62, 64)

     If pain concerns only a part of ourselves, suffering engages the whole self.  It modifies and impregnates my whole life.  Suffering “transcends duration” according to Lavelle, for

only apparently does it occupy a place in the history of my life; when it truly deserves its name, it expresses a permanent state of our being and penetrates to our very essence.  (64)

We might ask ourselves:  Where does suffering come from?  When we suffer, an aspect of the pain and confusion we feel may derive from unanswered questions relating to the source or cause of such affliction.  For example, am I the source of my own suffering?  Remember verse 1 of The Dhammapada:  “All that we are is the result of our thoughts. . .”  According to this teaching, harmful thoughts, words and actions create negative effects.  Or is at least some of our suffering brought upon us by the  actions of others?  We may yet ask if what we suffer is God’s will for us, a hidden design we are meant to accept as a means of inner purification and perfection?  Finally, we may ask if suffering is not merely the result of mortal existence, made meaningful only once we have assigned meaning to it ourselves?  Questions relating to suffering perplex the human mind.  Not having answers to these questions diminishes our peace.  The reality of “not knowing” in itself does not sit comfortably with most of us.  We would perhaps prefer to know if our suffering is a punishment, is ordained by God, or is merely arbitrary.  Most of all, we may wish to grasp the significance of what we are going through, so that we can do our part to make the experience productive and meaningful!

     Louis Lavelle moves toward meaning.  Because it is my spiritual being and not just my body s(ensation) that is involved in suffering, the process initiates an interior dialectic with itself.  “There is born in us a new being, very different from the being we were before we began to suffer.”  For Lavelle, suffering is the birth of reflection.  True, our natural spontaneity has been curbed, “but my reflection and my will come into play to compensate for what has been taken away from me.”  In a word, suffering obliges us to recognize the essence of reality and to discover our own most authentic, our deepest and most personal reality.  This reality is our creation. . .”  (65-67)

     We are still a long way from peace of mind here.  The possibilities for achieving peace of mind will depend in some measure on whether we adopt a negative or positive attitude toward our suffering.  Lavelle reflects on the four negative attitudes toward suffering which we must attempt to avoid, and the four positive attitudes that enable us to make of suffering a growth-producing experience.  (It may be helpful here to bring to mind an experience of suffering that has had profound effects on your life and whose meaning may not be easy to assess.)

  1. Lavelle’s first negative attitude is despondency.  Intense suffering enfeebles us and can reduce our liberty to impotence.  The danger here is paralysis of consciousness.  If suffering is too great it overwhelms us and abolishes the dialogue with self (self-mastery and self-determination) that is necessary for thought and will to function properly.  As much as possible we must fight the passivity that threatens to dissolve the personality.  (68-69)

  2. Revolt is also a dangerous attitude.  Revolt knows no limits.  It may start out as a drive to expel suffering from self – to annihilate its causes – only to go on to “plead the case against life itself and the order of the world.”  Revolt uses suffering as an excuse to turn against life itself.  (70-71)

  3. Separation is Lavelle’s third negative attitude.  Although it is natural when we suffer to begin by withdrawing from others, the danger is not so much the enforced isolation which may ensue but it is the risk entailed in “willing it, becoming attached to it, and aggravating it indefinitely.”  (72) 

  4. Complacency is the fourth negative attitude.  “Complacency in suffering is a kind of paradox,” writes Lavelle.  Instead of rejecting the suffering, we seek to maintain and nourish it within us.  We may end up with an excessive love for our suffering.”  (72-74)

     Lavelle’s four positive attitudes toward suffering proceed on the assumption that suffering is not simply a privation or diminution of being:  “It has a positive element which becomes part of our life and changes it.”   Suffering, for example, may have given us seriousness and depth.  (74-75)  When we ask what meaning suffering can have for us, that is to say what meaning our will can give it, we then notice that it can be:

  1. Warning.  Suffering invites to reflect on it and to understand it, to grasp the disaccord that comes between us and the real.  (For example, how do we avoid future threats to peace of mind – e.g. conflict in our consciousness?)

  2. Refinement and depth.  “Our aptitude for suffering is the very sign of our refinement. . . . The capacity of experiencing suffering and of experiencing joy is one.”  (77)

  3. Communion.  Just as suffering can isolate and separate us, so too can it become – by means of our liberty (free will) – “a factor of communion binding us together.”  (81)  (For example, suffering and loss teach some people to reach out with compassion to others who have been similarly afflicted.)

  4. Purification.  If suffering can deepen us, it also means that it can purify us.  This point in particular relates to accepting fault if and when we have been the cause of suffering.  By reflecting on our wrongdoing we allow compunction to become an active agent in our ongoing conversion and healing.  Purified desire enables us to make the future different from the past.  (87-88)

Suffering thus can serve our formation and transformation in this world.  As Lavelle soberly concludes:  “It is through this calvary that consciousness grows, becomes refined and deepened and pursues its path of spiritual purification and deliverance.”  (90)

Copyright © 2007 [Resources in Spiritual Formation].

All rights reserved.

Last updated: 11/24/10.