By Fr David ORourke

Can we learn from suffering?

July 17, 2020
Column: Point of View

It is hard for an old man like me to talk about suffering. Most people I know, including me, are in charge of our lives. No matter the losses and illnesses, we still have access to care, to security, and a decent life. Suffering is not a real part of my world.

Just how far it is from my world became clear to me about a dozen years ago. I didn’t see it. I only heard about the suffering after the fact. Hearing about it was enough.

A dozen years ago, in the course of new work in the former Soviet Union, I heard an old priest describe the 25 years he spent in the cold and desolation of a Siberian prison camp. He had been arrested by Soviet agents in 1940.

Apparently he was known and respected by many. That is why the agents really wanted him to work with them: “Go along with us and we will make you a bishop. Fight us and we will send you to a place where you will not want to live, but where we will not allow you to die.” Everyone then knew about exile in Siberia, the slave labor camps in the Ural Mountains, and Stalin’s gold mines in the Arctic cold. Many were sent there, few returned. The priest refused to cooperate and was sent to Siberia.

An incredible sense of peace and serenity came through in his person and in his voice. I present it simply as a reality. I do not understand it. I would never try to explain it. I am not presenting it as a lesson for others, especially for myself. He was sitting there, talking about his arrest and imprisonment.

What I recall is the gentle manner, a reflective attitude, his quiet way of speaking. He did not preach. He spoke softly, smiling now and then as he spoke of the past. He turned terrible things I did not want to even imagine into the events of daily life.

As he sat there talking, he was quietly fingering a little wooden cross, which he often looked at. It was carved by another prisoner, a Russian Orthodox man. They had become friends. The carver said he understood how much it would mean because he was a Christian himself.

There were questions about his arrest, the trial, the long imprisonment. As he spoke, in moments of silence, he continued to run his fingers over the little wooden cross.

We interviewed other former prisoners who also described their life. To my surprise they said that not all the guards were that bad. “Some weren’t much better off than we were–they didn’t want to be in Siberia any more than we did.” How, I wondered, can you look at your guards and see any decency in them? In some way you had to see them as human too.

I grew up during World War II. My four brothers and many cousins were in the thick of the fighting, from Pacific sea battles to the invasions of Africa and D-Day. We weren’t victims. We won. For us, peace was what we imposed on the people we defeated. Despite what I might like to think about myself, I suspect that underneath, I still see peace that way. We get attacked, and I don’t think about making peace. I want to get even.

Can you learn from suffering? Either I’ve never had to or I’ve never let myself learn. But then there is my experience of one man who has learned that and much more. I honor it–but it also is unsettling.


Fr. David O’Rourke, OP, is pastor at the historic Our Lady of Mercy parish in Point Richmond, an accomplished artist, gardener, translator, author, family counselor and retired professor.  Donations to the small, beautiful parish church that needs so much repair are always appreciated and may be made here:  This article is reprinted with permission from CNS, copyright 2013 Catholic News Service.


Fr. David O’Rourke, OP, is pastor at the historic Our Lady of Mercy parish in Point Richmond, an accomplished artist, gardener, translator, author, lecturer, family counselor... MORE »

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