Note: Dr. Dawn Eden Goldstein is an assistant professor of dogmatic theology at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut. She is the first woman to have received a doctorate in sacred theology from the University of St. Mary of the Lake. She also holds a licentiate in theology from the Pontifical Institute of the Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. In addition, Dr. Goldstein is a noted author under the name Dawn Eden. Her works include Remembering God’s Mercy, My Peace I Give You, and The Thrill of the Chaste. She lectured at Thomas Aquinas College on September 8, the birthday of the Blessed Mother.
Your own story is profound. You were born into a Jewish family, suffered abuse as a child, wrote for a rock music publication, and after a brief time as a Protestant, became a Catholic. How did this happen?
As someone who grew up in a Reform Jewish household, was abused, and who was an agnostic for many years, the theology of suffering was of great importance for me in coming to Christianity — first as a Protestant, and then to the Catholic faith; it enabled me to find meaning in suffering.
I first discovered this theology of suffering through G. K. Chesterton. I was doing an interview in December of 1995 with Ben Eshbach, a member of a rock band called the Sugarplastic, and I asked him what he was reading. He said a G. K. Chesterton novel, The Man Who Was Thursday.
I had never heard of Chesterton, but I read the book, and unlike many — including Chesterton himself — was charmed by the way he breaks the conventions and takes something that was a fairly conventional spy novel and turns it into an odyssey. What Chesterton proposes at the very end comes as a kind of shock — that God has personal knowledge of suffering. God has a personal, interior experience of suffering.
Now that I am a dogmatic theologian, I can qualify that in all kinds of ways, saying, “Well, Jesus only suffered in His human nature; He didn’t suffer in His divine nature.” But we have to say that, inasmuch as Jesus’ human nature is hypostatically united in His person to His divine nature, within God there is the memory of suffering.
St. Paul speaks of his own trials as “making up for what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ.” On the face of it, it seems odd to speak of Christ’s suffering as lacking anything. Can you explain St. Paul’s remark?
It can indeed seem like an odd thing to say something is lacking in Christ’s suffering, and this is why Protestants, in particular, really wrestle with Col. 1:24. They will often try to ascribe it to a kind of superstition — that there is a quota of Messianic woes — and that, therefore, a certain amount of suffering has to be filled before Jesus will come back. That is not the Catholic understanding.
If we take what St. Paul says in context — “Therefore I rejoice because in my flesh I fill up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ” — he is not speaking of himself personally, nor is he speaking of any superstition with respect to Messianic woes. He is using “I,” but he is speaking in an instructive, didactic manner to his readers saying, “You are a member of Christ’s body. Our head, Christ, is in heaven, but the body remains on earth. And the body, the body of Christians, of the Church, still suffers.”
Now, St. Paul would be the first to say that Our Lord Jesus Christ’s sufferings were sufficient to redeem the whole world, as the Church has taught. This is in St. Thomas, and I’m sure it’s in many writings before him as well: One drop of Jesus’ blood was enough to redeem the whole world. But Christ in His human nature, inasmuch as He entered history and lived His earthly life, could only suffer in one body, at one point in time. In His members, though, He continues to suffer until the end of time, until the Second Coming. And just as Christ’s suffering in His earthly life was redemptive, so the suffering of Christ in His members is co-redemptive; it cooperates in Christ’s redemption. This should encourage all of us because it gives to our own finite suffering an infinite worth in Christ.
Another way to say it is that Christ has suffered for us, but He has not yet suffered in us. This is why, I believe it was said by Chiara Lubich, the founder of Focolare, that any time we feel any suffering we should give it to God immediately, because Jesus Christ took ownership of all human suffering on the Cross. All human suffering rightfully belongs to Him.
So when we suffer, we are cooperating in what is already His?
Yes, that’s right. Of course we have to be careful because we don’t want to simply explain away suffering. We don’t want to deride or ridicule people who are still suffering after Christ has risen. We don’t want to accuse people who are suffering of lacking Christian joy.
We want to understand that, in fact, although there is by definition no pleasure in suffering, there is a profound joy that the sufferer has access to. But it’s different from what we normally mean by joy. The joy we are talking about when we speak of rejoicing in suffering is the joy in feeling Christ’s compassion, that Christ is with us in our suffering and, in a certain sense, suffering with us. Of course, He is not suffering any more historically, because His suffering ended with His death. But Christ’s suffering on the Cross has eternal effects. And He is not present to me as someone who is unacquainted with suffering; He is present to me as someone who remembers what it was like to suffer.
In Jesus’ memories now of His suffering, He doesn’t remember it under an overall filter of the pain; He remembers it under the overall filter of love. He did feel pain, but it was all out of love of the Father, and love of us in the Father. So if I am offering Jesus my own memory, including all my memories of pain, He can teach me how to see my own pain through this filter, this lens of divine love.
Are you saying that, through union with Him, we can go back and retrofit how we suffered in the past?
Yes, I am. Despite the subtitle that my publisher gave to it — Remembering God’s Mercy: Redeem the Past and Free Yourself from Painful Memories — it is not so much about being free from painful memories as it is about repurposing painful memories, because we still have the memories; and in a certain sense, we don’t want to lose them because they are part of God’s providential design for our lives. But we do, as you said, need to retrofit those memories. What I find very beautiful as a survivor of traumatic stress, who suffers from PTSD, is that we don’t have to call up every individual memory in order to retrofit it. All we need to do is acknowledge our woundedness to Christ and offer Him our heart that is wounded. Then this wound in our heart becomes the crack through which the light from Christ’s own glorified light can enter and purify us.
This is an ongoing process. Some people have described the experience of healing from traumatic memories as being like traveling on an upward spiral. Because of the nature of a spiral, as we travel upward, we will keep going back over the same memories. But every time we go back over them, we are at a higher level, seeking to identify: ‘Where is this lack of forgiveness? Is it a lack of forgiveness of the person who hurt me? Is it a lack of forgiveness of myself? Is it a lack of forgiveness of God, Who in His perfect will, ordained that I should suffer this?’
You talked about our woundedness, and the light of Christ entering through our wounds. Does that help to explain why God allows evil to touch us, so that we can admit how much we need Him?
Yes. What you’re touching on is the felix culpa, the happy fault. This is something that is not understood by people of other faiths. They have trouble understanding why God chose to permit us to be broken so that we could be healed.
I can’t claim to understand the whole plan. That’s part of the joy we will experience in heaven, where we will see how, yes, God could have made the world a different way; He could have given Adam and Eve perfect union with Him without their ever sinning. But this is the way that most shows His glory and enables us to love Him at a higher level than we would had we not experienced Jesus Christ going all the way down to the depths to raise us up.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Yes. It is strange and dangerous to be in a position of speaking as an authority on suffering, and in that regard, there is one thought I would like to leave you with.
After I wrote my book, My Peace I Give You, I heard that Fr. Arne Panula, a priest of Opus Dei and the director of the Catholic Information Center in Washington, D.C., was diagnosed with prostate cancer. At that time, I was working on my licentiate on the Catholic teaching on redemptive suffering. So I thought, “I’ll go visit Fr. Panula, and I’ll comfort him by telling him about this great Catholic doctrine.”
So I went see him, and I started to say, “Well, you know that you are in union with Christ as you suffer.” And he said to me — not with the least bit of resentment but with almost a childlike transparency — “Yes, I know that. But it’s still hard.” He wasn’t trying to shut me up. But that shut me up.
Pope Francis says every time he speaks about suffering that the only proper response to suffering is silence. Not the silence of not doing anything, but the silence of listening to the person and being present for the person.
So, with everything that I’ve been saying in this interview, with everything that I claim to be an expert on — none of that takes away the fact that, as Fr. Arne said, suffering is hard. Suffering is something before which our mortal flesh must keep silent.