The year is 698 AD. Far from the Rome of Pope Sergius I, and farther still from the grandeur and warm climate of Constantinople and the court of Emperor Tiberius III, lies the small island in the North Sea called Lindisfarne, set just off the cold windy coast of Northumberland in the farthest reach of north-east England. St Cuthbert, Bishop of Lindisfarne, had reposed in the Lord in 687, and the Lindisfarne Gospels, written in his memory, had just been completed. In St. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People Book IV, Chapter 31, there is an account of how, in that year of 698, a simple monk at the monastery of Lindisfarne, also called Holy Island, gave us an example of the way to approach and pray about suffering.
St. Bede writes that Baduthegn, the monk in question, served at tables in the monastery guest house. It seems he had been undertaking this obedience for some years, and he performed his duties, as Bede says, as “a man of much piety and religion, and serving the office put upon him only for the sake of the heavenly reward.” One day, Monk Baduthegn went to wash the cloths used in the guest house in the sea and then set about returning to the monastery. Half way back, he became very ill, being paralyzed all down his right side from head to foot. He struggled to return to the monastery but his condition worsened. St. Cuthbert once said, “Have faith and wholeheartedly trust God Who will never abandon those who love Him.” Perhaps with this in mind, Baduthegn decided to make his way as best he could to the grave of St. Cuthbert, and, as St. Bede relates, “on his knees, to beg of the Divine Goodness either to be delivered from that disease, if it were for his good, or if the Divine Providence had ordained him longer to lie under the same for his punishment, that he might bear the pain with patience and a composed mind.”
The words in [my] italics are key: Baduthegn was spiritually experienced enough to add these words, not asking only for a miracle of healing “if that were for his good,” but for grace to bear suffering if such was God’s will. As it happened, healing was granted: Baduthegn said he fell into a light sleep and felt as though a hand, the hand of St. Cuthbert, had touched him, and when he awoke he was healed and was able to continue his obedience in the monastery guest house, doing so, as he himself related, with greater zeal, “as if chastened by his affliction” as Bede says. Thus was a righteous man made yet more righteous by his trial. We may note that Bede met Baduthegn and heard his account firsthand.
The words above which I said are key tell us that acceptance of suffering is the Christian approach to involuntary suffering. In many cases, we should pray not for a miracle of healing, but rather for the Lord to comfort and give grace to the one who suffers: We do not know God's will and providence. Suffering is beneficial if we keep faith. Every suffering, even involuntary suffering, if referred to God with faith, love and gratitude, can become a cross which is assimilated into the Cross of Christ and into His glorious Resurrection. Our acceptance of involuntary suffering transfigures it into voluntary suffering, and since voluntary suffering identifies us with Christ, we thereby become Christ-like and can say, “Lord, I am Thine.”
In the words of Archimandrite Sophrony,
When the opposition of the Christian spirit to the spirit of the world reaches its peak, life for the follower of Christ becomes a crucifixion, however invisible the cross. It is a terrible and at the same time salutary period: Through inner suffering, often linked with physical or material distress, the passions are conquered. The power of this world over us, even death itself, is defeated. We start to become like Christ crucified.
It is thus the giving over to God of our will, of our very self, which attracts Divine grace. “No one on this earth,” continues Archimandrite Sophrony,
can avoid affliction; and although the afflictions which the Lord sends are not great, men imagine them beyond their strength and are upset by them. This is because they will not humble their souls and commit themselves to the will of God. But the Lord Himself guides with His grace them that are given over to God's will, and they bear all things with fortitude for the sake of God Who they have so loved and with Whom they are glorified for ever.
Thus, surrender to the Divine will attracts grace, and surrender to God is victory over our enemies, including sickness and death.
To keep faith and to trust God when things go so badly against us may not be easy; yet if we can do so, then the love of God which passeth all understanding will act upon us. In a curious way, suffering and consoling grace seem to run in the same channel while remaining distinct. We do not deny that our suffering is painful; if we did we would deny that human nature which Christ took upon Himself and in which He suffered, no more so than in the Garden of Gethsemane. Christ sanctified all that He took upon Himself and since He suffered, He sanctified suffering. In some cases, consoling grace may even take away the physical pain that may otherwise accompany sickness.
The notion of God sharing our suffering is central to our understanding of this. St. Maximos the Confessor says: “Should we not rejoice when we suffer, for we have God to share our suffering? This shared suffering confers the kingdom upon us.” As he also says: “In short, the outcome of all sufferings for the sake of virtue is to be with God, to remain with Him for ever and to enjoy eternal rest.”
We have to see suffering in such Christian terms and not as a “misery of this world.” Metropolitan Kallistos has written:
The crucial question is how we face this suffering. For only by confronting it affirmatively, with willing acceptance, can we make the suffering creative. In itself, suffering is evil… We are not to say that suffering as such is a blessing from God… It all depends upon the inward attitude of the sufferer, and of those close to him or her. We can meet suffering with resentment and rebellious defiance, in which case it may act like an acid, corroding our character, making us unpersons, moral zombies. Or we may meet it actively, in a spirit of love; in which case the suffering can be accepted, offered, and through this offering transfigured.
We do not know why some people are healed and others not; we can only trust in God’s inscrutable providence and accept His will. But the afflicted can and should, like Baduthegn, pray for healing or for consoling grace to bear the affliction, and leave the outcome in God’s hands.