Richard Rohr writes that beyond the age of about 30 we do not grow significantly except through suffering. As 30 is a little way behind me now I don’t relish that idea. I am certainly not eager to endorse it, and I’d like to keep open the possibility of learning in other ways too. Except that I know that my own most significant periods of growth in my adult life have been associated with times that have been personally challenging.
So why is it that suffering composts our souls? In my own experience it is because it is only really in challenging times that I discover the limitations of my own will. When things are going well I don’t notice my limitations, I am less aware of my need for grace. It is only when circumstances beyond my control pull me out into the deep water that I recognise my lack of self-sufficiency.
In those times there is no choice but to pray for grace – and I am always surprised by what emerges. Praying for grace isn’t a magic wand. It normally takes a while for things to shift. But the creativity of the new space that develops is always surprising. I often find a capacity within myself I didn’t know I had, and importantly, one or two relationships are usually strengthened in the process.
Rohr frames suffering as any experience where we are confronted with our lack of control. It’s a useful start, but it doesn’t quite hit the mark for me. I see suffering as those experiences where I discover the limitations of my will. Those times when either I cannot see a way through (and therefore I am unable to move in any direction), or when I can see what is required but I have no desire to go where I see I need to.
In these circumstances all I can do is pray for grace: To ask God to help me. And each time I have been through that, in retrospect it has been a time of growth. It is exactly this surrendering of will and the reliance on grace which Ignatius invites us to pray for at the end of the Spiritual Exercises:
‘Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding and my entire will. All I have and call my own. You have given all to me. To you, Lord, I return it. Everything is yours; do with it what you will. Give me only your love and your grace, that is enough for me.’
I think this is precisely why I resist Rohr’s unequivocal statement with respect to only growing through suffering. I think growth is possible at all times, but we have to learn to live in grace rather that through will power. I suspect I will spend the rest of my life stumbling into that truth occasionally – I wish it were easier to hold and to live by.