The True Measure of Humanity

The True Measure of Humanity

Crucifixion with hanging Judas

“The true measure of humanity is essentially determined in relationship to suffering and to the sufferer. This holds true both for the individual and for society. A society unable to accept its suffering members and incapable of helping to share their suffering and to bear it inwardly through “com-passion” is a cruel and inhuman society. Yet society cannot accept its suffering members and support them in their trials unless individuals are capable of doing so themselves; moreover, the individual cannot accept another’s suffering unless he personally is able to find meaning in suffering, a path of purification and growth in maturity, a journey of hope. Indeed, to accept the “other” who suffers means that I take up his suffering in such a way that it becomes mine also. Because it has now become a shared suffering, though, in which another person is present, this suffering is penetrated by the light of love. The Latin word con-solatio “consolation”, expresses this beautifully. It suggests being with the other in his solitude, so that it ceases to be solitude. Furthermore, the capacity to accept suffering for the sake of goodness, truth and justice is an essential criterion of humanity, because if my own well-being and safety are ultimately more important than truth and justice, then the power of the stronger prevails, then violence and untruth reign supreme. Truth and justice must stand above my comfort and physical well-being, or else my life itself becomes a lie. In the end, even the “yes” to love is a source of suffering, because love always requires expropriations of my “I”, in which I allow myself to be pruned and wounded. Love simply cannot exist without the painful renunciation of myself, for otherwise it becomes pure selfishness and thereby ceases to be love.

To suffer with others and for others; to suffer for the sake of truth and justice; to suffer out of love and in order to become a person who truly loves– these are fundamental elements of humanity, and to abandon them would destroy man himself. Yet once again the question arises: are we capable of this? Is the other important enough to warrant my becoming, on his account, a person who suffers? Does truth matter to me enough to make suffering worthwhile? Is the promise of love so great that it justifies the gift of myself? In the history of humanity, it was the Christian faith that had the particular merit of bringing forth within man a new and deeper capacity for these kinds of suffering that are decisive for his humanity. The Christian faith has shown us that truth, justice and love are not simply ideals, but enormously weighty realities. It has shown us that God–Truth and Love in person– desired to suffer for us and with us. Bernard of Clairvaux coined the marvelous expression: Impassibilis est Deus, sed non incompassibilis— God cannot suffer, but he can suffer with. man is worth so much to God that he himself became man in order to suffer with man in an utterly real way– in flesh and blood– as is revealed to us in the account of Jesus’ Passion. Hence in all human suffering we are joined by one who experiences and carries the suffering with us; hence con-solatio is present in all suffering, the consolation of God’s compassionate love– and so the star of hope rises. Certainly, in our many different sufferings and trials we always need the lesser and greater hopes too– a kind visit, the healing of internal and external wounds, a favorable resolution of a crisis, and so on. In our lesser trials these kinds of hope may even be sufficient. But in truly great trials, where I must make a definitive decision to place the truth before my own welfare, career and possessions, I need the certitude of that true, great hope of which we have spoken here. For this too we need witnesses– martyrs– who have given themselves totally, so as to show us the way– day after day. We need them if we are to prefer goodness to comfort, even in the little choices we face each day– knowing that this is how we live life to the full. Let us say it once again: the capacity to suffer for the sake of the truth is the measure of humanity. Yet this capacity to suffer depends on the type and extent of the hope that we bear within us and build upon. The saints were able to make the great journey of human existence in the way that Christ had done before them because they were brimming with great hope.”

Pope Benedict XVI in Saved in Hope (Spe Salvi)

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  • Melanie –
    Oh my! This really speaks to my heart – thank you for offering these words of wisdom today. I’ve never read this in its entirety, so that’s something I really should do.
    Blessings to you and yours!

    • M.E., I’ve never read it before either. I decided that I’d make myself just do it for Lent. And I bought the book because I was having too much trouble with distraction trying to read it online. I like to hold the book in my hand for difficult texts like encyclicals. I can underline passages, flip back and re-read much more easily somehow.

      I also bought God is Love (Deus Caritas Est) and The Light of Faith (Lumen Fidei) and hope to read them next, even going into Easter season if it takes me that long.

      I’m glad this one spoke to you as it spoke to me.

      Blessings to you and yours too.