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From Defeat to Victory: On the Question of Evil | Alice von Hildebrand

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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 success.

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 madness.

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 reason.

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 "victor."

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 be.

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 violently.

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." [1] 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" [2] ("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 use us.

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. [3] 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 another." [4]

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." [5] 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." [6] 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." [7] 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." [8]

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 Lord. [9]

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 peace.

One of the greatest sources of suffering is when "The Church lets us down." [10] 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 response?

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 talents.

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. [11]

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 the ground.

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." [12] 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.


[1] I, 64.
[2] Psalm 113.
[3] Paradiso XI XII.
[4] Chapter 72.
[5] Psalm 134.
[6] John 8:29.
[7] Matt. 26:50.
[8] Chapter VI.
[9] Isaiah 49:15.
[10] Father B. Groeschel, Rising out of Darkness, Chapter: "When the Church Lets Us Down."
[11] VIDA XIX.
[12] 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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