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Faith Transcends Life's Worst Travails

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What do we moderns regard as the worst thing in life? Suffering. Happiness, in our view, is an inalienable right. Suffering seems both unnatural and unjust, and we'll do almost anything to avoid it. A pain? Reach for the Tylenol. Stress on the job? Head for the therapist. Suffering, we believe, can only diminish us.

But there is another way to look at suffering, a way past ages have understood better than our own. We in the Me Generation find it strange. But when we encounter it, we stand back, awed. We recognize that here -- for all our technological sophistication -- is a power we can only glimpse.

I found myself reflecting on this as I read "The Life of Thomas More," a new biography by Peter Ackroyd. More was a prominent English lawyer who was executed by King Henry VIII in 1535 because he refused to approve Henry's divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. More was worldly, witty and urbane, one of the most powerful men in England. Yet when he refused to surrender his principles, Henry threw him into the Tower of London.

I was fascinated by More's reaction to the intense suffering he experienced in prison. He lay awake at night, tormented by visions of the torture he was certain awaited him. With one word he could have been a free man, and his family begged him to "be reasonable." But he refused, praying for the strength to cleave to what he believed was right.

Though wracked by suffering, More wrote from the Tower that "my imprisonment is the greatest gift God has given me." In fact, as forced isolation and meditation led his religious faith to deepen, he grew to love his cell, as had an earlier thinker, Thomas a Kempis, who wrote, "In this thy cell thou shalt find what abroad thou shalt too often lose.... Thou must always suffer, willingly or unwillingly, and so shalt thou always find the cross." At the end, Moore's fear of death apparently fell from him. By turning his gaze wholly heavenward, he had transformed his intense fear of agonizing death into something powerful and life-affirming. Those who witnessed his execution testified that he was sublime. Laying his head on the block, he declared, "I am the king's good servant, but God's first."

More, of course, lived in a very different age -- an Age of Faith. Is it still possible for us, in this Age of Skepticism, to transform our fear of suffering into something life-affirming and transcendent?

It is, as I saw recently. Lois Casserly, the mother of a friend of mine, died after a long struggle with ovarian cancer. She had been bright, gifted, and extraordinarily generous, full of life and zeal for the causes in which she believed. Her cancer brought indescribable suffering. While More, at least, had suffered for a principle, Lois' suffering was apparently purposeless. There seemed nothing ennobling about it.

Yet paradoxically, Lois Casserly's funeral was the most uplifting and inspirational I have ever witnessed. There were many tears, of course, but most of all, a contagious joy.

Partly, it was joy in her rich and fruitful legacy of service. Partly, it was the uplifting vision of her strength of character. Throughout her debilitating disease, she had always retained her dignity, an eloquent testimony to the unquenchable essence of the human spirit.

Mostly, however, it was the extraordinary, self-transcendent way she had embraced her suffering, even while struggling valiantly against her disease. As her daughters explained it, her profound religious faith had enabled her to embrace "the cross" as an inherent part of the human condition. Lois believed that suffering, when endured in the right spirit, can be holy -- tempering, purifying, and bringing one closer to God.

Lois Casserly's courage and selflessness gave strength to her loved ones. As her husband left the church on his daughter's arm, I was astonished to see that he was smiling, with the sort of radiant joy one sees only at a wedding.

Watching him, I was suddenly reminded of one of Thomas More's compatriots, John Fisher, bishop of Rochester. Fisher was beheaded shortly before More, and for the same reason. When told that the day of his execution had come, Fisher asked that his best clothes be laid out. Why?, someone asked incredulously. "Because," Fisher replied, "today is my wedding day."

To most of us, such an attitude remains a mystery. Yet even we -- children of an age that has rejected faith -- can see something transcendent in this, something, at the deepest level, to be envied. We are proud of our miracle drugs and scientific sophistication, yet even we cannot avoid death.

Human beings like Lois Casserly, Thomas More, and John Fisher possessed something most of us do not -- a powerful faith that enabled them to see life's worst travails as ultimately profoundly meaningful and uplifting. They believed that there is a purpose to human existence, and a meaning to human suffering. They could say words that we -- with all our technological prowess -- cannot: "Death, be not proud.... One short sleep past, we wake eternally.... Death, thou shalt die."

Katherine Kersten is a director of the Center of the American Experiment in Minneapolis.

This commentary appeared in the Star Tribune on March 10, 1999.

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