Witnessing to Christ in the midst of suffering
Perhaps the defining feature of Ignatian Spirituality is the conviction that God is to be found in every single aspect of our lives and experience. Sometimes it is easy to experience God’s presence. At other times, especially in situations of great suffering it can be very challenging. In engaging with recent local and international news, I have been grappling with this question.
I was at an international spirituality conference in the United States when the xenophobic attacks broke out in South Africa. Social media was flooded with images of the horrific violence. Simultaneously we were talking about suffering in places like Syria and Ethiopia where Christians are being executed, and of hundreds of migrants drowned off the coast of Italy. More recently we have seen the devastation, deaths and displacements in Nepal. And on an individual level many of us have been shocked by the recent implication of the husband in the abduction and murder of Port Elizabeth school teacher Jayde Panayiotou. The last few weeks have left us reeling with the immense suffering we as human beings inflict on one another.
In all of this I heard a story which moved me very deeply: the story of Kayla Mueller, a 26 year old human rights activist and humanitarian from Arizona. From her early teens she felt called to work for and with people in situations of suffering and worked for all kinds of humanitarian organisations. Later Kayla gave herself to working in war-torn and dangerous situations. She was working in Syria when she was captured and held hostage by ISIS in 2013. She was executed by them in February this year. Kayla told her family in what turned out to be her last letter written in captivity: “ I have come to a place in experience where in every sense of the word, I have surrendered myself to our Creator because literally there was no one else, and by God and by your prayers I have felt tenderly cradled in freefall.’’ In 2011 she had written to her father: “I find God in the suffering eyes reflected in mine…..I have known for some time what my life’s work is, using my hands as tools to relieve suffering.”
In the eyes of the people she served, Kayla found the God who suffers with us. Many of us reading about her find God in the witness of her compassion and courage. Hopefully few of us will be called to make such a radical response. However, it does seem that in our daily lives we are being called with great urgency to act in ways which may enable those who suffer around us to experience the consoling presence of Christ in and through us. We are called to witness to the fact that human beings are created in God’s own image. Created to love and not to hate.
In some sense it is we who by our compassion, our courage and the generosity of our love towards those affected make God present.