Suffering and Compassion: Sermon for November 6, 2011

Posted by admin on November 8, 2011 under Sermons | Comments are off for this article

©The Rev. Sarah C. Stewart

You know the story of Siddhartha Gautama. How, when he was born, a wise man  gave his father a prophecy that little Siddhartha would become either a great king or a great holy man. His father, knowing where the money was in that choice, determined that his son would never know suffering or want, never experience human hardship, never have any cause to turn to the ascetic life of a holy man. Siddhartha grew to adulthood without any wants in the world. He took a wife and started a family. One day, wanting to know what the world was like beyond the palace walls, Siddhartha asked his driver to take him out among the people. On that drive, for the first time in his life, Siddhartha Gautama saw an aged man, bent over with his years. “What is this?” Siddhartha asked Channa, his charioteer. “This is old age,” Channa replied.

Siddhartha realized he needed to know more. With Channa as his guide, he took more and more trips beyond the palace gates. He saw a person whose body was ravaged with disease. He saw a person’s corpse, decaying and open to the elements. He saw the thinnest man he had ever seen, and learned from Channa that this man was an ascetic, who had given up the pleasures of the world in order to become closer to the  Essence of Life. Realizing that he would never attain enlightenment by living a privileged and protected life within the palace, Siddhartha left his wife and family, his father and his hopes and dreams, and went into the world to become an ascetic himself.

Siddhartha Gautama, the man who was to become the Buddha, realized that he could not attain enlightenment or true happiness without understanding suffering. He had been given a life without want: a life of wealth, and love, and power; but he knew that the contentment he might have felt in that life was not the same as true spiritual enlightenment. For that, his journey had to take him into the human world of decline, disease and death; in other words, into the world of suffering.

We think of suffering as a bad thing. We try to avoid it when we can. But the word “to suffer” doesn’t exactly mean “to have bad things happen.” It means “to undergo.” We “suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” whether that fortune be good or bad. We “suffer the little children,” at least before bedtime. From a certain point of view, simply being alive is an act of suffering, of allowing things to happen to us at a minimum, or of actively seeking out engagement with the world. The less fear we have of life, the more of life can happen to us and with us. And the more we engage with our own spirits and the world around us, the more we take the risk that the “suffering” we undergo will sometimes be “suffering” terrible things.

When I think about the sorrows and losses I have suffered in my life, one of my first thoughts is that I ought to be grateful that my life has been so blessed. And I am, because it has. I’m aware that the struggles and losses I have had are much less than some people face. My husband and I lost a pregnancy before I became pregnant with our oldest son, and nothing in my life had prepared me for the utter loss I felt during that time. More recently, I have realized how a career in ministry will mean an accumulation of losses, as people who I come to know and love in ministry will fall ill, or age, and ultimately die. I say “in ministry,” but I could say “in life.” The fact that some people face more loss or face it sooner does not mean my own losses and suffering do not have meaning for my life.

Last year, when members of our fellowship were facing long illnesses which were likely to (and did) end in their deaths, I imagined myself skimming over the surface of my sadness. I thought I had a role to occupy in the fellowship, a role which would be hindered if I allowed myself to become too sad or too moved by these women and the illnesses they faced. But finally I realized I would never be able to minister to them and their families if I maintained that attitude. The way for me to make meaning out of my suffering has been to go deeper into it, to enter the sadness like a room with shuttered windows, to allow myself to feel the pain for as long as it takes and then to become a new person again on the other side. Through experiencing this sadness and suffering I connect more genuinely to those around me, for we are united in our suffering as in nothing else.

I say “make meaning out of suffering,” and this is a tricky thing. Because while we have the capacity, as human beings, to make meaning out of our suffering–out of all the things we undergo, whether great or small–that is not the same thing as saying we are suffering for a reason. There is no reason for the suffering of humanity. Disaster is not visited upon us on purpose. It is not a message from on high; we are not “given what we can handle”; there is no cosmic plan. All of us suffer in our lives. If meaning is to come out of that suffering, it is meaning we, working within our communities create. We are free to fight against suffering, to try to avoid it in the future, and (especially) to try to create a world where fewer people suffer unnecessarily. This is also part of our task as meaning-makers. We can’t abdicate that task to a divine agent any more than we can avoid suffering altogether.

However, to say that our troubles are not visited upon us on purpose, and to affirm that we have done nothing to deserve our losses, or our illnesses, is not to say that there is no reason for why some suffer more than others in life. Very human differences and inequalities lead to differences in the difficulties of our lives. I am hesitant to bring illness into this, because I feel we in modern society have an illusion that a perfect life can yield a life free from illness, which is an illusion. But many suffer because of the station of life they are born to. Recent research has shown that intelligence quotient differences in children worldwide can often be attributed to childhood infectious disease (Sample). If an infant has to spend precious resources fighting off illness, her brain does not have the same capacity for growth and expansion as if she had been healthy. Poverty, illness, and war all visit suffering upon people unfairly, targeting some individuals and communities much more than others. These inequities are owing to humans, and it is our calling in life to make the world more fair and equal. Suffering is inevitable, but suffering is not fair. There is so much more hardship in the world than there needs to be.

For a long time, Siddhartha Gautama pursued the life of an ascetic. He ate very little, and wandered India, begging for his bread. He was a wise man, and gathered a group of seekers around him. Together they vowed to take less and less sustenance from the world, striving to end their dependence on a cycle of want, deprivation and satiation. But Siddhartha could not resist when a woman approached him with a bowl of milk, desiring to share it with him. Disgusted with his weakness, his friends left him. Siddhartha began to wonder if the path of the ascetic would lead to enlightenment after all.

Sitting under a lotus tree, Siddhartha almost dozed off in the warmth of a summer afternoon. His mind drifted back to when he had been a boy, sitting in the grass as the workers cut the grain in his father’s fields. He remembered the sound of the men calling to each other, and the buzz of the insects amidst the flowers. His mind detached from wanting and striving; and Siddhartha realized that recapturing this childhood moment, this detachment from the cycle of desire and loss, was the path to enlightenment. It was no more about starving the body than it was about stuffing the body; no more about seeking suffering than about avoiding it.

Unitarian Universalist theology has taken this discovery to heart. A few years ago, two theologians who are also women, one a Unitarian Universalist and one a Christian, wrote the book Proverbs of Ashes about the dangers of thinking we need to suffer in order to be spiritually whole. They especially took aim at what is called “atonement theology” in Christianity, which is the belief that people must suffer as Christ suffered on the cross in order to be in right relationship with God. The authors, Rebecca Parker and Rita Nakashima-Brock, pointed out how a theology of suffering asked people who were being abused by other people to accept their abused in the name of religion. They also pointed out that such a theology turned God into an abusive parent. They held up healthier models of relating to God within Christianity, models that affirmed human life and well-being, models that celebrated God’s love. Suffering is not a path to enlightenment.

But we must also remember where Siddhartha started, because avoidance of suffering is not a path to enlightenment either. It is not hard to see that poor people suffer more than the rich in our society. Both can lose loved ones too soon, both can fall ill, but the rich have many more resources at their disposal to avoid suffering and to cope with it. But their efforts may still be futile. The social scientist Richard Wilkinson has found that the healthiest human societies are those where the gap between the rich and the poor is small, and where cohesiveness and social capital are thick. We all prosper when we have a sense of “being in it together.” Our health and longevity comes not from the objects we acquire, or even the services to which we have access, but from our connection to our neighbor. In the United States today, where the gap between the rich and the poor is so great and so stark, we are all opening ourselves up to greater suffering. Neither Siddhartha the pampered prince nor Siddhartha the ascetic found enlightenment. Once Siddhartha embarked upon the middle way, seeking connection to his fellow beings, he became the Buddha.

So how do you make meaning out of your life? How do you understand the losses and struggles you have suffered through? I liked the invitation in our reading this morning, by the late Unitarian Universalist minister Forrest Church. Church invites us to consider what we would put in a time capsule for the children we love today to open in 100 years. What of our lives would we bequeath to them? We could give them money, or the shares of stock, or the secret to financial success, if we have it. But would that really be the best of us? What if we could give them the sense of being loved? What if we gave them the compassion we have learned to have for ourselves and others? We could give them a memory of time shared with people we love. We could give them their own memories of our embrace. We could bequeath to them the meaning we have learned to make in our own lives, in the hopes that it will help them and their grandchildren make meaning of their own. These are the things that sustain us in this life and which will carry us forward into the deep. Our children, and our children’s children, will no more be able to avoid suffering than we have. Our greatest gift to them can be the love we have known which carried us through, in the hopes that their own hearts will open wider than ours ever could.


Church, Forrest. Lifecraft: The Art of Meaning in the Everyday. Boston: Beacon Press, 2000.

Nakashima-Brock, Rita and Rebecca Parker. Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us. Boston: Beacon Press, 2001.

Sample, Ian. “Lower IQs found in disease-rife countries, scientists claim.” The Guardian.  29 June 2010, online ed., main sec.: 13.

Wilkinson, Richard G. Unhealthy Societies: The Afflictions of Inequality. New York: Routledge, 1996.

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