Pentecostal Suffering and Our Growth in Holiness

The seasons of Lent and Easter help us understand the priesthood if we begin at the end. Easter season ends with Pentecost, so that’s where we’ll begin. Recall the story of Pentecost: Everyone from various countries all understood the same language of the Spirit. But what was the single language spoken by the Spirit that peoples everywhere understood? What universal speech is always understood by everybody? Obviously not English, Spanish, Vietnamese, or even Latin, because there are millions who do not understand one or another of those languages. So what is the language of the Spirit that everyone always understands?

The more sentimental might guess that the universal language of the Spirit is love. And I wish it were. Unfortunately, however, not every human understands the language of love because not every human has experienced love. Children are abused, teens beaten, elders forgotten, entire populations oppressed. Tragically, love is a language too many people never learn because they never hear a word of love.

Therefore, I ask again: What language is so universal that it is understood by every human being? If the sentimental guess love, perhaps the cynical guess sin. We have all experienced sin. Is sin, therefore, the universal speech of the Spirit? Well, no. The Immaculate Virgin never sinned. Jesus, who was human like us, never sinned either. And the Spirit will never communicate sin to us.

So what language is that tongue of flame and word of wind that communicates so universally that every human being always understands? What single human experience is understood by everyone from Adam in Eden to Elon at Tesla?

Suffering. Every human in all of history has suffered. The strongest get sick, the family of the wealthiest die, the most beautiful suffer deception. Every human suffers; each one’s suffering is different, but the reality of suffering is shared among us all. Therefore, suffering is the only universal language among all human beings throughout all of time. Because the simple act of being born is painful, our mother tongue is suffering.

We suffer and die because of original sin. We have no choice. We are all of us unwillingly born into suffering and then we die.

However, unlike us, God does not have to suffer. God is incapable of sin, immune to death, free of suffering. Unlike us, God is not limited by the flesh. Therefore, God never has to be born in the flesh or suffer in the flesh or die in the flesh.

However, in Jesus God chose to suffer: why? Because God chooses to communicate through the only language comprehensible to every human being. We chose sin and death, thus making suffering our vernacular. God chooses to communicate to us by becoming one of us, to speak through suffering because it is the only language all humans share. God does not suffer to understand us; God in Christ suffers so that we can understand him. The Cross is Christ’s pulpit because only from there could He preach the syllables of suffering we need to understand salvation.1

An example may help. Remember the movie The Matrix? Recall the character Cypher? Cypher starts out unconscious, just like 99.99% of humanity. A matrix of robots have artificially bred him and everyone else in order to attach cables to his body and siphon from him the energy they need. Unaware of any of this, Cypher thinks he’s alive and conscious, and while seeming to experience something like our world, he actually exists only to feed the Matrix. Eventually he is freed from the Matrix by other humans, and awakes to discover the horrible truth of what our world is really like — an apocalyptic wasteland ruled by robots. However, rather than join the humans who freed him as part of their goal to overthrow the robots, Cypher betrays humanity to the robots. In return for his treason, he wants to return to the Matrix, as “someone important, like an actor.” He chooses self-imposed delusion supposedly free of suffering, rather than the reality of life, which necessarily includes suffering. Cypher chooses pleasure over pain. And because he preferred a virtual world of vanity, gluttony, and avarice, he necessarily chose to feed the Matrix with the energy of his humanity in a vain attempt to avoid the pain of human reality.

That same matrix is the society in which we live. We live in the society which is the most overweight, indebted, and addicted in all of history precisely because we choose to allow the matrix of the world to absorb the energy of our humanity when human reality seems too painful.2 We’ve all swallowed the pleasure pill that wastes our life energy because absorption by the world seems to be the only way out of the unbearable reality of human suffering.

What does the matrix have to do with the priesthood? Recall the character Cypher who wanted to unlock virtual pleasure rather than endure painful reality. To be a priest is to be a different kind of cypher. A cypher is a code used to unlock an otherwise secret message, not unlike the password on a cellphone. But a priest is a different kind of cypher.

When we bear our cross, suffering is no longer just a problem of evil, but a language that deciphers or decodes divinity for humanity. And a priest is a cypher that decodes the mystery of the Cross. Remember, every human being suffers. Other occupations are tasked to remedy suffering: A doctor treats physical suffering, a psychologist emotional trauma, an economist monetary decline. All wonderful occupations! Priests, however, are not psychologists or doctors or economists remedying the cause of suffering. We are cyphers of the Spirit decoding the meaning of suffering.

However, we are not the Savior, only the cypher. Thus, unlike a priest, a doctor can heal without himself getting sick; a psychologist without herself being traumatized; and an economist without impoverishment. But a priest cannot decipher or decode the suffering of his people unless he himself voluntarily suffers like Christ for his people. Like Christ, we accept a Cross; our pulpit is the cross we voluntarily endure to decipher or decode the universal language of Pentecost.

We are not the Savior, only the cypher, but our ministry of Word and Sacrament deciphers or decodes the universal language of the Spirit opposed to the world of the matrix. The matrix of the world absorbs our life energy, which leads to death. However, the Spirit gives us the fullness of life in Christ Who conquered sin and death by suffering in His humanity.

By making the same choice as Christ to endure the suffering of our humanity, we decode or decipher divinity. In sacrament we celebrate the suffering of the Cross, which left Christ disfigured. In word we preach conversion or how to configure ourselves to He Who was disfigured for us. Thus, our ministry of Word and Sacrament deciphers suffering as disfiguring but never defacing. No amount of sin or suffering ever defaces the image and likeness of God in the human. Scientists decode the DNA of the flesh, we decipher the language of the Spirit, which proclaims that those who bear the Cross are conformed to God in Christ, that is, they are restored to the image and likeness of God.

The ministry of Word and Sacrament decodes suffering and death, reveals the evil algorithms of the matrix, and proclaims that suffering did not dehumanize Christ; rather, sharing our suffering made Christ fully human. Because God in Christ spoke to us in our only shared, human language of suffering, the Church now deciphers through sacrament and decodes through preaching His language of the Spirit.

So we end at the beginning, that is, the beginning of Lent as preparation for Pentecost. During Lent we make the same choice as God in Christ. Penance is our choice to voluntarily suffer in our humanity in order to decipher the grammar of divinity. When at our ordination the Spirit descended upon us like wind and flame, it ignited our humanity voluntarily prepared by woe and pain. And like Christ, as our humanity weakens, divinity blazes like a beacon that leads people out of the matrix into an eternity as real as death yet full of life.

  1. St. Augustine.
  2. Brene Brown.
Fr. Kenneth G. Davis, OFM Conv. About Fr. Kenneth G. Davis, OFM Conv.

Conventual Franciscan Father Kenneth G. Davis is the visiting professor of spirituality at Saint Joseph Seminary College in Louisiana, who publishes frequently about various aspects of priestly spirituality and ministry.