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From Defeat to Victory: On the Question of Evil | Alice von Hildebrand
In his great novel, Dostoievski puts the following words
in the mouth of Ivan: "the earth is soaked from its crust to its centre
with the tears of humanity." It is hard to express better the tragic
question that every single human being is bound to raise: Why should we
suffer? Why should human life--which seems so promising--constantly
disappoint us? Why should man long for a happiness that keeps escaping
him? Evil and suffering: these are key questions of human existence
which clamor for an answer. WHY?
The majority of those who deny God's existence base their
reasoning on the following argument: "You, believers, claim that God is
both all powerful and all good. Now, look at the world, soaked in evil
and suffering. Why does your God allow this? The obvious answer is that
either he is not all powerful and is therefore incapable of curbing evil
or is not all good, and does not seem to hear the cries of anguish and
despair that his so-called children raise toward him.
No serious metaphysician can escape from this dilemma. Can
a satisfactory answer be found?
The gamut of human suffering is almost unlimited. There is
no particle of the human body that cannot cause excruciating pains. From
his birth to his death, man is exposed to diseases and pains. "A vapor,
a drop of water suffices to kill him" (Pascal). But physical pain is far
from being the worst source of suffering: It is rivaled by psychological
pains which--once again--cover an immense range of possibilities. They can
start in early youth: how many children are unloved and rejected.
Rivalry between siblings leads many to bitterness and resentment. How
many children are ill-treated by their peers (children can be shockingly
cruel toward other children), or abused by adults who rob them of their
innocence. Parents can be crucified in witnessing the sufferings of
their children, and often stand helpless and in tears. In our "brave new
world" there are millions of little ones who do not know their father,
or have step-fathers and step-mothers who do not care for them. Broken
families are the fashion of the day, and one of the main curses of our
affluent society. A young child can harbor bitterness and resentment,
and is likely to develop into a rebellious adult who finds satisfaction
in harming a world which has caused him pain. Many are tempted by
suicide. Numerous are those who are "failures": they have achieved
nothing; they have succeeded in nothing. Resentment oozes out of their
pores, because in the secular world achievement is the key to praise and
There are also "secret" sufferings, totally unsuspected by
others. There are also noble tears: let us recall that St. Francis of
Assisi wept bitterly because "love was so little loved."
From the very beginning of the world, men have sought an
answer to the anguishing question of evil and suffering. No human mind
has ever succeeded in solving the riddle. There is a plain reason for
this: these thinkers have treated evil and suffering as a
"problem"--i.e., a difficulty that can be solved by patient research. The
Buddha thought he had found an answer by highlighting the fact that an
unfulfilled craving is the cause of pain. "He who has one hundred loves,
has one hundred sorrows . . . he who has only one love has one source of
sorrow." The conclusion is obvious: by extinguishing in us any sort of
desire, we shall reach an inner calm that no event can disturb. He
thought the "problem" was solved.
The gist of Marxism is the conviction that suffering is
caused by economic inequality: i.e., the tremendous injustice which
reigns in the world. A small segment of the population possesses the
greatest share of this earth: inevitably, the many are victimized. If
the State were the only possessor of riches, so it reasons, and would
distribute them according to people's needs, "a paradise for the
workers" would be established. History has taught us (if we are willing
to learn) that this paradise is linked to Gulags.
Obviously, evil and suffering are not "problems"--the sort
of intellectual difficulty one encounters in science, and for which an
answer can be found by patient research. Following Gabriel Marcel, we
shall call them "mysteries," (not supernatural ones), questions which
have a dimension of depth that precludes their being "solved," but
which, nevertheless, can be enlightened by wisdom.
Greek tragedies all address this thorny question: the best
answer they could give is that the meaning of suffering is to teach
foolish men wisdom. Ajax, driven by hubris declared boldly that "to
succeed with the help of the gods is no great accomplishment." He wanted
to succeed on his own without any aid. The gods punished him by
In the Old Testament evil and suffering are clearly linked
to sin: man's revolt against God. Throughout the Old Testament, the
"chosen people" rebel against God's laws. He sent them prophets; many of
them were murdered because man's rebellious heart did not savor their
message. God punished them severely. Then they bowed their "stiff neck"
for a while. But soon afterward the same scenario was repeated.
My claim is that it is through the supernatural, and
through the supernatural alone that the excruciating question of evil
and suffering can be satisfactorily enlightened. For it reveals to us a
dimension of suffering inaccessible to natural man: suffering as
expression of ultimate love. Indeed, "there is no greater love than to
give one's life for one's friends."
But many are the Christians today who have totally lost
sight of the supernatural whose sublime message has gradually been
downgraded from the renaissance on. Secularistic views have become so
prominent that the very notion of the supernatural has lost any meaning
for many so-called Christians. The supernatural can only be understood
in a spirit of faith which Kierkegaard calls a "trombone" compared to
the "toy-trumpet" of reason! Having conquered most universities, the
secularists have succeeded in convincing "modern man" that reason and
reason alone deserves our intellectual respect. Faith is for the
weak-headed, for the untalented who try to compensate for their
deficiencies by accepting "fables" that cannot stand the test of sound
The supernatural can only come from above. The song it
sings cannot be perceived by man's fallen nature. It can only be
received on one's knees--as an unmerited gift that man could never
conquer by his own strength. Both my husband and Edith Stein discovered
the supernatural by reading the lives of saints: Saint Francis of Assisi
for him; Teresa of Avila for her. This discovery, which can be called a
"Damascus experience," radically changed their lives: they discovered a
world the beauty of which they had never suspected. They discovered the
madness of divine love that leads God to sacrifice his only Son for our
salvation. The supernatural unveils a new morality which does not cancel
the natural moral law, but transcends and fulfills it. "Love your
enemies"; "do good to those who persecute you"--a morality which combines
justice and mercy; strength and weakness--features which cannot be
reconciled in purely natural morality.
The message of Christ is a message of joy and peace: but
the promise of Mount Tabor is preceded by Golgotha: "let him who wishes
to be my disciple carry his cross and follow me." Even though it is the
supernatural and the supernatural alone which can heal man's soul, the
medicine is not to the taste of man's fallen nature. Humility is bitter
to those who "preen" themselves with their accomplishments. When one
craves for praise, it is bitter to discover that one is nothing but dust
and ashes. It is bitter to acknowledge oneself to be a sinner
desperately in need of redemption when one feels oneself to be "a just
man" who is not in need of help.
From our very youth, the secular world has taught us that
success, accomplishments, performances, creativity, should be the goals
of our earthly existence. We are trained to feel some sort of awe for
those who "have made it," be it in the world of business and finances
(Ted Turner is a billionaire); or in the world of sports, entertainment
or politics. This unhealthy adulation is dangerous because when a person
succeeds we all tend to lose sight of whether the path leading to
success is due to authentic personal achievements, or achieved by
Machiavellian schemes: alas, in our society any means leading to power
and wealth is welcome. Whether Papa Kennedy was a business genius or a
crook becomes irrelevant as soon as his efforts are crowned with
success. Recent history has taught us that to become President of the
United States does not guarantee the moral integrity of the
Not only does the secular man wish to succeed, but he
craves for the admiration of others. Man's fallen nature longs for
praise (often confused with flattery), for commendation. He wants to be
"affirmed," admired, looked up to. He likes to be given the first seat
and play the first fiddle. Not only does he crave for the praise of
others, but he wants to please himself. Narcissism is deeply implanted
in man's fallen nature. We want "to feel good about ourselves," to find
ourselves lovable and attractive. Consequently we resent any criticism
that seems to challenge our self-image, however justified it might
The inevitable consequence of this attitude is that many
men expose themselves to all sorts of sufferings: they suffer when their
vanity has been offended; they suffer because they are allergic to
criticisms. They suffer because another has succeeded where they have
failed. They are tortured by the "green eye of envy." They suffer
because they have been humiliated and are likely to respond with hate to
those who dared criticize them.
He who, through God's grace, has adopted a supernatural
stance will victoriously fight against these "illegitimate sufferings,"
i.e., the sufferings which are consequences of our false and sinful
attitudes. God does not give his grace for such self-inflicted
sufferings--this is why they are unbearable--but in his goodness--he does
come to the help of those who carry a real cross--a cross that he has
chosen for them for their sanctification, and for which they can count
on his grace. This is why St. Paul writes that "God does not try us
beyond our strength"--something that the natural man contests
Supernaturally speaking, we should be very little
concerned about the "ratings" we get from our fellow men. Our one great
concern should be: "Is God pleased with us?" If the answer is "yes," we
should be totally indifferent to what other men say about us. The
judgments of most men are mostly flatus vocis --just sounds blown
away by the wind.
Supernaturally speaking, what matters is not
accomplishments, but humble service in the vineyard of the Lord. Mother
Teresa of Calcutta put it very convincingly: "God does not ask us to be
successful; He asks us to be faithful." Moreover, for man's fallen
nature, success is fraught with danger. It flatters our pride; it tends
to make us arrogant and to view ourselves as superior to other men, to
nourish our hubris. Twenty-four centuries ago, Plato wrote in his last
work, The Laws that "victory has been and will be suicidal to the
victors."  Success is a heavy fare to digest. Only the saints can
handle it because they keep repeating in their heart: "Non nobis Domine,
non nobis Domine, sed nomini Tuo da gloriam"  ("Not to us, O Lord,
not to us, but to Thy name give glory"). They know that he alone is the
victor and that they are useless servants. Supernaturally speaking, it
should make no difference whatever whether I or another succeed in the
work we perform in God's vineyard. The only concern of the
supernaturally motivated person is that God is glorified. If we
accept a defeat with humility, we can glorify God more and better than
if we had succeeded and fall prey to pride. The workers in God's
vineyard should always remember that God does not need us. He deigns to
The secular world thrives on competition: one big company
competes with another, and succeeds to the extent that it can convince
clients that their products are "better" and "cheaper." If they fail,
they will head for bankruptcy.
The word "rivalry" should not be found in the supernatural
vocabulary: all those who truly work for God work for the same holy
cause--and not for themselves. How profoundly meaningful it is that in
his Divine Comedy, Dante has St. Dominic sing the praise of St.
Francis of Assisi, and St. Bonaventure sing the praise of St. Dominic.
 All of God's servants are members of a divine symphony in which each
plays the instrument that God has given him; the trumpet player does not
envy the violinist; the second violin does not envy the first. All of
them are granted the privilege of singing the glory of the great king
and this should be their joy.
Religious communities and religious lay organizations
which allow the spirit of rivalry to creep in have allowed secular
poison to penetrate into their souls. If religious orders have often
been in need of reform, it is always for the same plain reason; they
have become secularized. But there is one type of rivalry that should be
welcome: the holy rivalry of becoming better and better servants of God.
From this point of view, monks and devout Christians should "vie with
one another" to become more humble, more charitable, more and more
conscious that "without God, they can do nothing." St. Benedict writes
in his holy rule: "Let them (his monks) vie in paying obedience one to
Life is full of hurdles and pains. But he alone, who
through God's grace has adopted a supernatural posture, will
experience--after long and painful struggles and defeats--that every
single difficulty, every single suffering can be transformed into a
victory for God. A few concrete examples are called for.
Let us assume that someone has a physical appearance which
is definitely not attractive, and suffers from it because he is often
the butt of unkind remarks. He has not chosen his face or his figure.
Much as he would like to look differently and in spite of all the
unfulfilled promises of aesthetic surgery, his physique remains for him
a cross. Supernaturally speaking there is an answer: if we are not
responsible for the face that we are born with, we are responsible for
the face that we shall have in eternity. Every act of love, of
generosity, of humility, of contrition chisels the face that will be
ours in heaven. Apart from the fact that many Cleopatras have lost their
souls because of the appeal of their face, physical beauty--like
flowers--wanes and wanes fast, and all the tricks of cosmetics cannot
salvage the ravages of time. Why spend one's life lamenting the fact
that we have not the face we would have chosen had we had a say in the
matter, when we can work daily for the face we shall have in
eternity--where time will no longer exist and will therefore not militate
against our accomplishments.
Let him who suffers from bad eyesight, pray for the grace
of spiritual eyesight that makes us perceive God's precepts. This will
give him eyes as sharp as eagles, whereas those who enjoy a 20/20 vision
and turn their back to the divine teaching are like those gods mentioned
in the Psalm: "they have eyes and do not see; they have ears and do not
hear."  Let him who is hard of hearing, daily beg for the blessing of
perceiving every single whisper of God's voice that the sharpest
physical organ cannot register. Let him whose intellectual dowry is
meager--like a Curé d'Ars--keep begging for the grace of faith and a deep
understanding of God's holy word. What good does it do a man to have a
sharp mind when put at the service of error? We all know "brilliant"
contemporary theologians who write lengthy books, loaded with footnotes,
but sway from the perennial teaching of the Church. St. Thérèse of
Lisieux left school at fifteen, but her love and humility make her to be
a doctor of the Church, whereas the chances of many of our "brilliant"
contemporaries to receive this honor are slim indeed.
Let him who feels lonesome and rejected meditate on the
words of Christ: ". . . he has not left me alone, for I always do what
is pleasing to him."  To feel alone does not mean to be alone: he who
is close to God is never alone, even though he may not be given the joy
of "feeling" it.
Let him who has been betrayed by someone he considered a
friend, ponder upon the fact that the Savior of the world was betrayed
by Judas, one of the twelve. And yet, when the traitor embraced him,
Jesus addressed him with the word "Friend."  Not a word of reproach,
not a word of bitterness.
Christian revelation is a spiritual revolution that opens
up a world of sublime beauty which, at first, scandalizes the purely
natural man. In his Holy Rule, Saint Benedict writes: "the fourth degree
of humility is that, meeting in this obedience with difficulties,
contradictions and even injustices (emphasis mine) he should with
a quiet mind hold fast with patience and enduring and neither tire nor
run away." 
Let those who have been rejected by their parents (and
today, their name is legion) read the life of St. Francis of Assisi.
When his father disowned him, he stripped himself of his clothing, put
them at the feet of the Bishop of Assisi, and said "from now on I shall
say 'My father who art in heaven.'" Indeed, it is written in the Bible
"even if your mother abandons you, I shall never abandon you" says the
The same Saint Francis describes perfect joy as brutal
rejection when, coming to a convent he is treated like a robber, refused
entrance, beaten and thrown into the snow. Man's nature bristles at any
small injustice. But Francis had acquired a supernatural vision which
rendered sweet what, to nature, is bitter. He had understood the
supernatural privilege of making up for what is lacking in Christ's
sufferings. He wanted to meet the Beloved of his soul at Golgotha; he
had understood that to accept to suffer is an ultimate form of love.
St. Ignatius of Loyola, who devoted his whole life since
his conversion to the foundation of the Society of Jesus, once said that
if his whole work would collapse, it would not take him more than a
quarter of an hour in front of the Blessed Sacrament to regain his
One of the greatest sources of suffering is when "The
Church lets us down."  A supernaturally motivated Catholic never
loses sight of the fact that even though the Church is the holy bride of
Christ--all pure and without wrinkles--alas many of her members are great
sinners. Corruptio optimi pessima. Many saints have been censured
by authorities in the Church in a most unjust fashion. What is their
Jesuit missionaries founded a very successful mission in
Paraguay and through God's grace brought many Indians into the Church.
This great work--the fruit of innumerable sufferings and difficulties--was
destroyed overnight by Church authorities yielding to the pressure of
secular powers. They carried their cross without rebellion. The great
Jesuit order was suppressed in 1773 by a decision of Clement XIV
pressured by Freemasons in various European countries (particularly the
Portuguese Minister Pombal). The ordeal suffered by thousands of St.
Ignatius's sons, rejected by most countries--can hardly be put in words.
They were literally crucified, and offered their sufferings in a spirit
of penance. Some of them were saved when Russia and Germany opened their
doors to them, because they valued their exceptional educational
The very moment that St. Teresa of Avila devoted herself
to her mission of reforming the Carmel, she became the butt of
calumnies; she was attacked from all sides, and took refuge in the heart
of Christ. But not one word of bitterness and resentment came from her
mouth. As a matter of fact, she found that all the criticisms leveled at
her fell short of the mark: she deserved much harsher criticisms.
Jeanne Jugan--who founded a religious organization in
Brittany to help the poor, and was named superior, was demoted by
another nun who claimed--falsely with the support of a priest friend--that
she and she alone was the foundress. Jeanne never defended herself, but
humbly went back from door to door to help her beloved poor. Today, when
people hope to obtain favors, they do not go to the richly adorned tomb
of the "superior," but turn to the humble one of Jeanne.
During her novitiate, St. Thérèse of Lisieux tells us that
she was constantly reprimanded for faults she had not committed. She
never defended herself. She knelt in front of her superior and kissed
Padre Pio was for years "under a cloud" for he had been
maligned and Pius XI prohibited him to say Mass in public. It was a
crying injustice, but the holy monk accepted the censure with humility,
and did not defend himself. We can hardly be wrong in assuming that he
prayed the words of Psalm 118: "It is good for me that I have been
humbled that I might learn thy statutes." In his own good time, God
rehabilitated him, and now his name has been glorified.
One particularly sorrowful episode is the life of the
saintly Cardinal Mindszenty who, forced by the Vatican to leave his home
country, was given the solemn promise that he would remain primate of
Hungary as long as he lived. He went to Rome, was embraced warmly by
Paul VI, and then exiled to Vienna (where my husband and I had the
privilege of paying him a visit). Shortly afterwards, he was informed
that he had been demoted and replaced by someone more acceptable to the
Communist regime of Hungary. It broke his heart, and he died shortly
afterwards. The news of what could be called a betrayal shattered the
Catholic world and Father Werenfried van Straaten (the famous Bacon
priest who founded Aid to the Church in Need) was literally flooded by
letters of protests. His answer is so sublime; it deserves to be quoted.
He wrote the following words in his bulletin (The Mirror): "You,
your Eminence, were led along a way of the cross such as hardly any
cardinal had had to tread . . . God considered you mature enough to bear
what was to exceed everything that had gone before. . . . You were to
bear the cross of disciplinary measures and stand as one whose obstinacy
had to be broken; that you did not fall to the temptation of justifying
yourself publicly, but accepted rather that the cross came from where
you had least expected it is, when seen with the eyes of faith, the
crown of your great life."  This is a supernatural victory that
grace, and grace alone can achieve.
All of us--except the saints--are "failures." All men (with
one blessed exception: the Holy Virgin) have taken part in Christ's
crucifixion. All of us--like Judas--could be tempted by suicide upon
discovering the blackness of our guilt. But once again, there is a
supernatural answer: and this answer was given to me when--age five--I was
receiving instructions for my First Communion. The nun who was teaching
us brought to the classroom a church bulletin sent her from a very poor
parish in Paris. A priest was teaching catechism to a group of slum
children, and told them about the betrayal of Judas. Upon realizing that
Christ was condemned to death, he threw into the temple the thirty dirty
pieces of silver that he had collected, and hanged himself on a tree.
The boys were struck with horror. There was a moment of silence, and
then one little fellow raised his hand, and said to the priest, "Father,
why did not Judas hang himself on Christ's neck?" A small child, born in
the Parisian slums but blessed by the grace of his baptism, raised a
question so sublime that few great theologians could match it. Indeed,
we are all facing the following alternative: to hang ourselves on a tree
or to hang ourselves on Christ's neck. May God grant us at the moment of
death to choose the second alternative. Leon Bloy was right when he
wrote, "There is only one real sadness: NOT TO BE SAINTS."
This article originally appeared in the June 2002 issue
of Homiletic & Pastoral Review.
 I, 64.
 Psalm 113.
 Paradiso XI XII.
 Chapter 72.
 Psalm 134.
 John 8:29.
 Matt. 26:50.
 Chapter VI.
 Isaiah 49:15.
 Father B. Groeschel,
Rising out of Darkness, Chapter:
"When the Church Lets Us Down."
 VIDA XIX.
 The Mirror, March 1974
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Dr. Alice von Hildebrand was born in Brussels,
Belgium. She earned her Ph.D. in philosophy at Fordham University. She
was the wife of the famous philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand. She is
the author of Introduction to Philosophy, The
Soul of a Lion: The Life of Dietrich von Hildebrand and The
Privilege of Being a Woman and collaborated with her
husband in the writing of Situation Ethics, Graven Images, and The Art
of Living. Dr. von Hildebrand has written and lectured extensively and is
Professor Emeritus at Hunter College of the City of New York.
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