Suffering: Freedom from Fear
Man suffers most through his fears of suffering. —Etty Hillesum 
I would like to reflect on the role of Jesus as the one whose very presence is incarnational testimony of how to approach our life and the ways we suffer. In the Christian tradition, the cross is right at the center of this great mystery. Jesus is the archetypal master teacher, who reveals his teaching through the very concreteness of his life. What is it that allows Jesus to face all kinds of suffering, including his own, and how can we follow him?
We might start this way: In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus sweat blood because he was afraid (Luke 22:44). It is possible that he was infinitely more afraid than we could ever be. But the difference is: Jesus was not afraid of being afraid, because he knew it was just fear. So why are we so afraid of fear? We are afraid of fear because we believe that it has the power to name who we are, and it fills us with shame. We feel ashamed that we’re going around as a fearful person, and so we pretend that we’re not afraid. We try our best to find our own way out of feeling afraid, but this is our dilemma, our stuck place, that Jesus wants us to be liberated from. But we cannot do it on our own.
When we start on our path, our hope is that we will be liberated from fear in light of the mystery of Christ. Certainly, this includes doing our best to be as safe as we can be and to help others do the same. And when scary things are happening, it always includes doing our best to find our way to safer places and to help others do the same. But as for the fear that remains, Jesus invites us to discover that our fear is woven into God’s own life, whose life is mysteriously woven into all the scary things that can and do happen to us as human beings together on this earth. This is liberation from fear in the midst of a fearful situation.
As we long for and work toward this kind of liberation, it is important not to romanticize a person’s fear and painful experience by speaking in spiritual terms that can leave the person who is hurting feeling unseen and unmet. At a very basic level, any real response to suffering must always include letting the hurting person know sincerely, “I am so sorry you are having to go through this painful experience. What can I do that might possibly be helpful?”
Here we might also turn to our teacher Jesus who was not one who had risen above human frailty; to the contrary, he discovered directly through his presence that inexhaustible compassion and love flow through human frailty. Our practice is to become present to that infinite flow of compassion and love and bring it to bear in a tender-hearted and sincere manner in our very presence to the painful situation. We do this knowing that God is sustaining and guiding us all in unexplainable ways that are not dependent on how the painful situation might turn out.
~Adapted from James Finley, Thomas Merton’s Path to the Palace of Nowhere, disc 5 (Sounds True: 2004), CD.
 Etty Hillesum, Diary entry (September 30, 1942). See An Interrupted Life: The Diaries, 1941–1943 and Letters from Westerbork, trans. Arnold J. Pomerans (Henry Holt and Company: 1996), 220.