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THE CATHOLIC REVIEW: Better or Bitter?

Suffering as a Redemptive and Transformative Experience

08/18/2017 | Comments

The mettle of our spiritual life is proven not during the times of great joy or spiritual conversion, but more often we find our greatest maturity in times of suffering. Such was true in the life of St. Paul, but like us, he realized the ultimate purpose of his trials only afterwards, through the insights of life’s rear-view mirror, as he writes to the church in Corinth:

And to keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it should leave me; but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians 12:7–10 (RSV2CE)

In our day, one man who has earned a similar perspective is Father Robert Spitzer. Formerly President of Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, Father Spitzer has, like St. Paul, experienced a similar “thorn in the flesh” as St. Paul in dealing with his own growing loss of eyesight since his early thirties.

In his recently-published “The Light Shines On In the Darkness: Transforming Suffering Through Faith,” Father Spitzer completes his four-part book series with the detailed examination of three major questions of any viable faith:

1. Can we be sure that there is really a personal transcendent Being?

2. If so, is the personal transcendent Being unconditionally loving?

3. If so, then why does he allow suffering and evil within the world? (from the Introduction)

In keeping with Scripture and church teaching, Father Spitzer first locates any hope for faithful confidence in the reality of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Giving strong evidence for Christ’s resurrection (from criteria of historicity, the scientific evidence from the Shroud of Turin, corroboration by medical studies of near-death experiences, and contemporary miracles done in the name of Jesus or through the intercession of his Mother), we can then take greater faith and confidence in our own resurrection (pp.42-43).

Armed with the faith that whatever we suffer is temporary, we gather strength to be able to suffer well. He points out some of the most common mistakes people make when trying to interpret God’s motives for allowing or alleviating suffering (starting with perhaps the oldest book in the Bible, the story of Job). Spitzer also returns to the Parable of the Prodigal Son (in reality, the Parable of the Prodigal Father, whose unconditional love is the true message of Jesus’ story) to both disabuse us of false notions about God’s character, and to clarify the unconditional nature of His love.

Spitzer discusses how God uses suffering to lead us to greater compassion for others, and greater reliance on the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, explaining the signs and interior movements that reveal the Spirit’s actions.

In a world too often dominated by “name-it/claim-it” feel-good gospels of prosperity that pollute our airwaves, Father Spitzer dares to say — boldly and unapologetically — that evil and pain can be ingredients in the providential design of a loving God. Father Spitzer combines a keen insight into Scripture, the Church’s history, the lives of the saints, and a fierce and inexorable intellectual rigor to drive home his insights. Indeed, I often felt I was reading a modern version of St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, with its premises, hypotheses, and rational proofs.

“The Light Shines in the Darkness” is the fourth volume of Father Spitzer’s “Happiness, Suffering, and Transcendence Quartet” of studies that survey Christian spirituality. “Finding True Happiness” identifies true and false sources of human satisfaction; “The Soul’s Upward Yearning” is a cogent argument for the recovery of faith in God and the human soul in light of scientific materialism, and the third volume, “God So Loved the World,” paints the thesis and all proofs for the case of the incarnation, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

With this fourth volume, Father Spitzer’s arguments come full circle — we can find happiness even in the midst of suffering, and through suffering sharpen and deepen our insight into the divine will. We become better in our hearts, not bitter in the midst of our circumstances.

These writings are not easy to completely grasp, but are worthy of the effort. Father Spitzer’s careful structuring of assertion, argument, illustration, and proof are geared not simply to provide us information, but to assure formation of our own faith if we listen with mind and heart.   

(For more information or to suggest a book for review, contact Deacon Bauer at

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