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Center for Action and Contemplation
Nothing Stands Alone
Nothing Stands Alone

It Can’t Be Carried Alone: The Reality of Union

Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Father Richard teaches that we are transformed by our suffering—not by bearing it apart and alone, but by recognizing our universal connectedness with each other and God:

I am no masochist, and I surely have no martyr complex, but I do believe that the only way out of deep sadness is to go with it and through it. Sometimes I wonder if this is what we priests mean when we lift up bread and wine at the Eucharist or communion and say, “Through him, and with him, and in him.” I wonder if the only way to spiritually hold suffering—and not let it destroy us—is to recognize that we cannot do it alone. When I try to heroically do it alone, I slip into distractions, denials, and pretending—and I do not learn suffering’s softening lessons. But when I can find a shared meaning for something, especially if it allows me to love God and others in the same action, God can get me through it. I begin to trust the ambiguous process of life.

When we carry our small suffering in solidarity with the one universal longing of all humanity, it helps keep us from self-pity or self-preoccupation. We know that we are all in this together, and it is just as hard for everybody else. Almost all people are carrying a great and secret hurt, even when they don’t know it. When we can make the shift to realize this, it softens the space around our overly defended hearts. It makes it hard to be cruel to anyone. Shared struggle somehow makes us one—in a way that easy comfort and entertainment never can.

Some mystics even go so far as to say that individual suffering doesn’t exist at all—and that there is only one suffering, it is all the same, and it is all the suffering of God. The image of Jesus on the cross somehow communicates that to the willing soul. A Crucified God is the dramatic symbol of the one suffering that God fully enters into with us—much more than just for us, as we were mostly trained to think.

If suffering, even unjust suffering (and all suffering is unjust on some level), is part of one Great Mystery, then I am willing—and even happy, sometimes—to carry my little portion. But I must trust that it is somehow helping someone or something, and that it matters in the great scheme of things. Etty Hillesum (1914–1943), a young Jewish woman who died at Auschwitz, truly believed her suffering was also the suffering of God. She even expressed a deep desire to “help God” carry some of it. [1] Such freedom and such generosity of spirit are almost unimaginable to me. Colossians 1:24 offers a similarly daring statement in the New Testament. What creates such larger-than-life people? Their altruism is hard to understand by almost any psychological definition of the human person. I believe such people have built their lives on the reality of union with God, Reality, or What Finally Is.

[1] An Interrupted Life: The Diaries of Etty Hillesum, 1941–1943, trans. Arno Pomerans (New York: Pantheon Books, 1983), 151.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope for, and Believe (New York: Convergent Books, 2019), 161–162.

Explore Further. . .

Image credit: Brian McLaren, Untitled 1-3 (detail), 2021, photograph, United States. Jenna Keiper and Leslye Colvin, 2021, triptych art, United States.

The creative team at CAC sent a single-use camera to Brian McLaren as part of an exploration into contemplative photography. His photos are featured here in a form inspired by early Christian/Catholic triptych art: a threefold form that tells a unified story.

Image Inspiration: In this triptych, we begin by seeing just one fruit. Moving to the center photo, we see the whole tree. When we look at the third photo, we bring with us the knowledge that there is more to this tree, an abundance of fruit. It’s not alone. Nothing stands alone.

Story from Our Community:

I’ve spent my life trying to help ensure fair housing choices and full voting rights for all. If all Christians valued diversity and worked for inclusion and equity in every aspect of life, we would have a different country, with justice for all.
—Carol W.

Share your own story with us.

Prayer for our community:

God, Lord of all creation, lover of life and of everything, please help us to love in our very small way what You love infinitely and everywhere. We thank You that we can offer just this one prayer and that will be more than enough,  because in reality every thing and every one is connected, and nothing stands alone. To pray for one part is really to pray for the whole, and so we do. Help us each day to stand for love, for healing, for the good, for the diverse unity of the Body of Christ and all creation, because we know this is what You desire: as Jesus prayed, that all may be one. We offer our prayer together with all the holy names of God, we offer our prayer together with Christ, our Lord, Amen.

Listen to the prayer.

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In a world of fault lines and fractures, how do we expand our sense of self to include love, healing, and forgiveness—not just for ourselves or those like us, but for all? This monthly email features wisdom and stories from the emerging Christian contemplative movement. Join spiritual seekers from around the world and discover your place in the Great Story Line connecting us all in the One Great Life. Conspirare. Breathe with us.