There is much to be learned of the ancient fathers and mothers concerning the moments of darkness and suffering that overshadow reality. I am often reminded in times of contemplation of the fact that our Western 21st-century culture represents a historical outlier in the discussion of human experience. We say, now, that it is statistically unlikely that one will lose a spouse, a child, or a sibling. We balk at the idea of starvation, of financial depravity, of abuse, of loss of life in war or in vengeance. Our threats to existence are largely relegated to end of life illnesses (i.e. cancer, pneumonia) rather than the threats or possibilities of daily life.
But this goes against the grain of history and the bulk of the human experience. Human experience has been rampant with explicit suffering that was not a question of "if" but generally a question of "when."
One historical analysis of child mortality rates suggests that prior to modernization, the likelihood of a child dying before its first birthday was 26.9% and 46.2% before adulthood. Now, the global infant mortality rate is reduced to 2.9% and 4.6% for those before the age of 15. This reduction, no doubt, gives us pause to appreciate the benefits of scientific and medical progress but on the flip side, it presents us with a human experience that is far from the norm.
Between mortality rates, one need also recognize that historical adult life was rampant with war, disease, poverty, and abuse. There was no security in life. No retirement savings to look forward to. No health insurance (as troublesome as it is) to rely in on the case of sickness and death. Individual humans have generally not flourished until the past two or three hundred years and only then in more developed countries.
It is with great wonder that we find anyone at all in the ancient world with peace, happiness, joy, and faith. When the norm is sadness and suffering, how does one feel joy? When one has a life in which loss and suffering have had to be experientially incorporated, how does one find purpose and meaning and faith?
I've recently been reading C.S. Lewis' daily reader George MacDonald, in which he speaks of MacDonald as a man who learned to "love the rock from which he had been hewn" (xxiii). Though Lewis does not expound in great detail on the early life of MacDonald, his biography reveals a character who was intimate with suffering and loss. MacDonald suffered from early health problems: asthma, bronchitis, and tuberculosis (TB). TB, in fact, was the family disease and it would take two of his brothers, his mother, and three of his own children. He lived in poverty throughout most of his life, had been forced out of a ministerial career due to an allegation of heresy, and spent the remainder of his life doing odd jobs and with the reputation as a failure.
It is in this spirit that we must read MacDonald's notion of faith:
The man is perfect in faith who can come to God in the utter dearth of his feelings and desires, without a glow or an aspiration, with the weight of low thoughts, failures, neglects, and wandering forgetfulness, and say to Him, "Thou art my refuge. - George Macdonald
John of the Cross referred to this as a "bright sadness." Faith in the midst of darkness. Joy in the midst of a life characterized by loss and pain.
I once heard the Anglican Vicar of Baghdad once remark during the climactic period of ISIS persecution, "All my people have lost everything. They have nothing. But they have Jesus and for them that is everything."
Some of us live in a world in which suffering has been minimal and statistically unlikely and we build our concept around a belief that "everything will be alright." But this hasn't been the course of human history nor is it the course of individual human destiny. One's faith must not be built on "happenings" for when the nadir comes one risks losing it. It must be built upon Reality in which God meets us at the highest peaks on the highest mountains as well the dearths and caverns of life. It is there that we may find a bright sadness accompanying our souls, a bright sadness that has been adopted by the great men and women of faith in the past, and a bright sadness that Jesus himself accepted in his own fate.