I was at a conference last weekend in Syracuse, NY, at which a number of theologians, philosophers, and educators spoke and thought together. The theme was Feminism, Sexuality, and the Return of Religion. Regardless of what the event might have hoped to invite or engage, there was one significant theme I took away: women have, do, and will suffer.

Let me quickly say, on the heels of such a depressing statement, that I am not depressed by this. Rather, I was able to think about the reality of suffering as certainly inevitable but also as the context through which we know and offer much hope – and ultimately life.

Sarah Coakley was the speaker on Friday morning; she is the one to whom I must give credit for these categories in which I’m been ruminating this past week. She said that there are really three categories of suffering:

1) Suffering with no way out. No amount of will or agency or courage can change the situation. It is completely, 100 percent, out of our control. Examples might include the Holocaust, genocide, fatal disease and even some natural disasters.

2) Suffering but with the inclusion of agency. The circumstances are truly painful but there is the possibility that a woman could exert her will and begin to experience change. In so doing, we must quickly recognize that such change may, in fact, be a step out of one form of suffering and movement into another. The key, however, is that agency actually can be exerted. This kind of suffering is not completely out of her control. An good example would be domestic violence: horribly tragic and not at all occurring because the woman isn’t exerting agency. Rather, it’s a context in which the circumstances, though horrific, do still have room for movement and change (perhaps, at times, not by the woman herself but by the community around her).

3) Suffering that is chosen – freely, willingly, and on behalf of something or someone else. The quickest image that comes to my mind is that of a mother protecting her children. Mother’s throughout time have willingly sacrificed themselves – even their very lives – on behalf of their child’s protection, health, or very life. 

How might women begin to understand more clearly the dramatic difference between these three categories and then willingly, freely, even with exuberant hope step consistently, bravely, and willingly into number three? Discernment.

I met with my Spiritual Director this morning. As we talked about these categories – and discernment – she said that we make a mistake when we think we can just “do” discernment. “Rather,” she said, “discernment is a way of life.” It’s a way of being in relationship with God that is far more significant than particular aesthetic disiplines and practices that we employ when we’re in a bind. It’s a spacious place within our very soul that is able to wait, to listen, to wonder, to actually feel vs. just processing things at a completely intellectual level without ever engaging our hearts.

Not easy, this discernment thing. And certainly not easy to suffer, no matter the category.

As I’ve been thinking about this nearly nonstop since last weekend, I realize that suffering is everywhere – certainly in my life and all around me. My attempts to escape it are for naught and I must be one who tirelessly works to end it – in my own life and in the lives of others. In the in-between time, in the midst, I want to suffer well, with strength and wisdom and grace – not for suffering’s sake, but on behalf of it’s end…