[Image: Berry Good, 2009, JA Van Devender]
But now having been set free from sin, and having become slaves of God, you have your fruit to holiness,...
The right response to this sort of pain is not pleasure. It’s holiness. I don’t even mean that in a purely religious sense. It means seeing life as a moral drama, placing the hard experiences in a moral context and trying to redeem something bad by turning it into something sacred.
Brooks is one of the least annoying writers published in the Times and he is mostly moderate, though leaning toward conservatism, in his political thought. I don't know his religious affiliation or whether he deems himself a Christian. This piece is written entirely from and for a secularist perspective and it attempts to establish why human beings can and should benefit from "suffering." He writes in opposition to the "hedonistic" day-dream so prevalent in society that the purpose of human life is "to maximize happiness."
He does a fair job of pointing out the refining aspects of suffering and its potential as an "ennobling" force. Then using words that evoke transcendental qualities, he asserts that the appropriate human response to suffering is "holiness" where we "redeem something bad by turning it into something sacred."
I could not agree more with his conclusion nor less with his attempt to separate these words from their inherent "purely religious sense."
There is no way to make anything "sacred", whether it be a temple or a piece of furniture or suffering, apart from a "purely religious sense." Something is not "sacred" in and of itself, it is always "sacred unto" something or Something other. And it is precisely this "other" that can alone provide "meaning and purpose" to any aspect of life, whether pleasure or its opposite, whether flourishing or suffering, whether earthly success measured in concrete terms or spiritual "success" measure in some kind of ecstatic encounter.
Apart from the Other, apart from God, nothing is holy and nothing can have meaning outside of itself.
But what a difference it makes when the Reality of the Other shifts us out of ourselves and into 'holiness.' Suffering becomes, just as Brooks eloquently describes, opportunity. It is seldom that which we would choose but it doesn't mean that it is not without its reward. When the transcendent is not acknowledged but embraced, it moves "marriage" with all its joys and trials, to a different plane. The "marriage" itself is understood as something "above" and greater than the sum of the two parties or of either one of them. It is understood as something "good" which can be perfected and all to the end of pointing beyond itself ("marriage" as an institution) to the Other to Whom it is "sacred." Throughout the spheres of human life, in all its multiplicity and spectrum of colors, the same concept can and should be employed.
"Suffering" then becomes one more facet of a precious jewel, a human life dedicated to bearing the "fruit of holiness" in its encompassing multiplicity.
J. S. Bach famously dedicated every musical composition he authored "to the glory of God", whether the music was aimed at the cathedral or the dance hall. This is how human life is "ennobled" in its fullest capacity. Each human life can reflect a sacred light, a beacon of holiness, into a world that is fearfully lacking light and holiness. Each individual soul can, by taking thought, understand that the fundamental choice he or she faces is, in essence, starkly simple but fantastically far reaching in its consequences.
Human life exists unto the end of something greater than itself or it doesn't. Choose one side or the other, explore the ramifications of each track, and you will discover that to deny purpose to human life is to deny any possibility of understanding "suffering" or anything else as "ennobling."
The term "ennobling" itself implies a standard by which one is measured... an "external" that defines one's relative status. If there is no "purpose" for human life then there is no standard by which progress toward that purpose, or degree to which that purpose is attained, can be measured. The inevitable conclusion then is simple empiricism... the only thing we can say is: "Life is hard and then you die." "It is what it is" and that's that. Stoic despair and resignation, logically, must follow though the Stoics themselves tried to avoid this conclusion.
But, the human heart was not designed for this conclusion and its natural inclination toward "meaning and purpose" and therefore the hallowing of life including suffering, has to be actively suppressed if it does not surface again and again, as it does in this piece.
There is a God in heaven and He has sent His Son to establish and enable the pursuit of holiness and to ground human aspirations for nobility on a firm and justified foundation. "Suffering" is part of the fabric and it, along with all the rest, can be dedicated to God, experienced and oriented toward witness and proven to produce the pleasing fruit of holiness. It is only a part... a significant part... but it is not the whole so therefore it is possible to "count it all joy."
Brooks writes well and the article is well worth reading. He's on the right track, at least part of the way, though I cannot tell how far along.