So as you can tell by this post’s title and the last one, I’ve decided to have the next few posts with a specific theme: different things as a means of salvation. The idea is that all these things are not in and ends of themselves but rather a path that leads us to salvation. Salvation is not just an event, but it is a path in which we were saved, I am being saved, and I will be saved, as Bishop Youssef says. This post follows the theme of suffering as a means of salvation.
On a side note, I’ve wanted to have these posts of this theme written by guests. I even asked someone specifically to write this one, but they respectfully declined. So instead, I guess I will be writing this one.
Everyone suffers; that’s a fact. And suffering is a part of everyone’s life. It is ordinary to experience some suffering throughout our lives here on earth. It is also impossible to avoid it. The idea of suffering and dealing with it has been a spectacle. Many people have spent their lives discovering and philosophizing the problem of pain for many years. There are, of course, different ways in which a person can speak about suffering, such as apologetic if we talk about the problem of evil as many apologetics refers to it. Suffering is such a unique thing. It is both universal yet very relative and individual. Maybe we’ve all experienced events that are similar but have different details. Or perhaps we’ve experienced the same event. Yet, our suffering is very personal and might be further from the other person. So today, I will share a window into my suffering because I can tell you firsthand it has been my means of salvation. However, I don’t perfectly perceive it that way all the time.
I’ll start by sharing that since other people are involved in this, I will not divulge too much information and keep it broad. If you follow my Instagram, you may be familiar with two posts about abuse. The first one spoke about the two kinds of abuse and the second one talked about the four domains of abuse. To summarize, the two kinds of abuse are invasion and abandonment; these two kinds of abuse occur within each of the four domains or human experiences, as Mark Laaser calls them. Those are emotional, physical, sexual, and spiritual. I can tell you I’ve experienced all of it. I’ve experienced both kinds of abuse within each of the four domains. And let me say, I’m a trained and still training mental health professional, so I know what I’m talking about, and none of this is stated on a whim. The very fact that as I’m writing this, I am triggered and can sense it physically in my body just goes to show how shaken I am that I’m putting this out on the internet. But it’s my story, and I own it. And I’m not sharing this from self-pity or to gain your pity either, but to show that suffering is a universal human experience. I can also sum it up by; home was not safe, and school was not safe. At home, there was extreme dysfunction while there was bullying, teasing, and being made fun of at school. Both of these were early and chronic. The church was “safer,” but I can honestly say the safest place for me was church, specifically during liturgical services. So I see how the grace of God has shaped my life to lead me to be where I am today. Now that doesn’t mean I’m over everything that’s happened to me and that I’m “healed.” It just means I see His grace in my suffering but at the same time the burden and weight of it. It’s not suffering if you’re not suffering.
On top of my suffering, I have been blessed to walk along with other people who suffered.
There is nothing more profound in my life than having seen four women suffer and struggle with cancer.
In December 2004, Janet Tawfik, a loving wife, and aunt passed away. She never had kids of her own but cherished her nieces and nephew as if they were. I remember she gave my brother a CD player as a birthday gift, and me being the brat that I was, got upset. So she got me one too. During her almost five years of suffering, I never heard her complain. I never saw her become angry and irritated with her husband or us; although, God knows, with the amount of pain she was in, she could’ve been, and we wouldn’t blame her. Tunt Janet was a loving soul who was the life of every gathering. By the way, if you don’t know, I can ‘zaghrat’ only because I learned from the best, and that was Tunt Janet.
Six years later, her sister would follow the same fate, Treza Garas. Tunt Treza was a boss y’all! She was all about getting a good education and getting a promising career. But she also had a profound love for the Church. I remember it was senior year of high school, and Tunt Treza’s condition had gotten to the point where the doctors said she didn’t have much time. Her youngest son, my cousin, was also a senior, and because she was the loving mother she was, she wanted to make sure he was going to be okay. And God granted her just that, and there were a couple of miracles that happened with St. Kyrillos VI. I remember by the end, though, Tunt was so frail. If you’ve had loved ones with cancer, you know how it changes the body quickly and immensely. But her faith and dedication never did.
Yet another six years later, and this time, my cousin Ireny passed away from cancer as well. Ireny was only 33 years old and the sweetest cousin to me when I was a baby. So Tunt Janet and Treza had ovarian cancer, whereas Ireny had liver; by the end, it had spread all over like Tunt Treza. I was in the Abbey by this time, so, unfortunately, I did not get to see her as much, but my mom told me something that blew my mind. Ireny’s cancer got so bad that the only way she could sleep with less pain was in a prostration position (metanoia); which, is ironic because cancer served as a metanoia (renewal of mind).
Last but not least, Tunt Isis. No, not the terrorist group. So Tunt Isis had cancer for the longest. She was diagnosed when my brother graduated high school so 2007, then passed away 11 years later in 2018. Tunt’s suffering was a little bit harder, not only because of the amount of time but everything in between. Just three years before diagnosis Tunt Janet passed away, then three years after Tunt Treza passed away. Seeing your beloved sisters suffer and pass away is hard enough. But to then see your firstborn child suffer in such a short time and then bury her, unfathomable. Tunt’s cancer was also very aggressive. She had to have surgeries done that really changed her way of living and almost made it a hassle to do certain things. Then God granted her rest.
Suffering is a means to salvation that can be likened to the analogy of making a glass vase. To make glass, sand is put under extreme heat to make it into a vase. This severe heat allows the person to form it into something that later is a finished product. Our suffering here on earth is for the refining and purifying of ourselves. Theophan the Recluse said, “Remember that each of us has his own cross. The Golgotha of this cross is our heart: it is being lifted or implanted through a zealous determination to live according to the Spirit of God. Just as salvation of the world is by the Cross of God, so our salvation is by our crucifixion on our own cross.” But the heart of the matter is the fact that Christ has changed the meaning of suffering Himself.
In Romans 8:16-18, St. Paul says, “if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” Christ’s suffering led to His glorification in His resurrection. We even say this liturgically in the Coptic rite in the gospel response, saying, “Jesus Christ the King of Glory, rose from the dead.” And this is the only feast where we say the King of Glory compared to, for example, when we say, “Jesus Christ the Son of God, was born in Bethlehem.” The Late Bishop Youanis of Gharbia noted, “The Lord Jesus Christ wants all His children to follow in His Holy footsteps. When sufferings intensify around us, we should meditate on the great glories which we are assured will follow.” But to be honest, that’s not easy. It is not easy one bit. In saying all this, I do not want to minimize the psychological impact of suffering merely to spiritualize it. In fact, in my opinion, I don’t think a person can have a healthy spirituality if they don’t deal with the psychological pain of suffering first. And we can most definitely hold space to grieve the suffering we have while being thankful for it. The biggest mistake we can make is thinking how we view our suffering is black-and-white/all-or-nothing. I can see my suffering as a means to my salvation while at the same time express the hurt, sadness, loneliness, anger, and fear of my suffering.