Transforming Suffering

An Interview with Basil Pennington
By Mary NurrieStearns


Basil Pennington is a Cisterian monk whose worldwide ministry focuses on bringing contemplative practices into the lives of spiritual seekers. He is a spiritual retreat leader, lecturer and author. He is most known for his work in the Centering Prayer movement, which is how I was introduced to his ministry. He resides at St. Joseph's Monastery in Spencer, Massachusetts.

Upon the recommendation of a friend, I read his recent book, Lectio Divina, a description of the meditative practice of praying with the Christian scriptures. I came to understand more deeply how sacred texts can bring us to union with the divine and how contemplating inspired words can ease suffering. Realizing that he had a depth of understanding on suffering, its transformation, and the use of meditative practices in easing suffering, I arranged to interview him by telephone. His spiritual presence and depth of understanding were apparent during the interview and are present in the words that follow.

Personal Transformation: Let's begin with the question: What is suffering?

Basil Pennington: First of all, it is important to distinguish between pain and suffering. As the Buddhists make very clear, suffering comes from wanting something and then not having it or feeling that you can't have it. Pain causes suffering because we think we should not have it. We think we should be free from pain, that we should be filled with pleasure. Suffering is when something is going contrary to what we want. That is why some Buddhist schools say the way to get rid of suffering is to get rid of desire. We Christians believe that we are made for God. St. Augustus says, "Our hearts will not rest until they rest in you, O Lord." There is always going to be desire, but happiness can be found in knowing either we have what we want or we are on the way to getting it. We can want to participate in a certain amount of suffering and pain, and find a deep joy, because we have what we want. For example, when a little child suffers terribly, the mother and father want to be with that child. Even though it will cause them to suffer, they want to be with their child in that suffering

PT: If suffering comes from desire, and there is a difference between pain and suffering, do young children suffer or do they have pain?

Pennington: From a very early age, not to want to have pain is there. Pain is alien to us, so there is probably some suffering, but not the same kind of suffering we have later in life. There is suffering because we instinctively do not want pain. Only somebody more mature can see a value in pain or can transcend pain so that it does not cause them suffering.

Children suffer, but not as much as somebody older who has a reflective consciousness and suffers not only the immediate desire to be away from that pain but also suffers from the frustration of their desires.

PT: Let's go back to the example of the parents wanting to be with the child when the child suffers. The parents want to suffer with their beloved.

Pennington: When you willingly enter into suffering, a lot of the suffering is relieved, even though suffering is very much there, because not wanting the suffering increases the suffering. When Christians speak of suffering we think of the crucified Lord and the tremendous sign of His Love for us. He said, "Greater love does no one have than He lay down his life for his friend." Jesus laid down his life in this graphic and dramatic way as a sign of His love, His concern for us. At one level, He suffered a great deal. Part of him did not want to go through that pain and suffering, and there was suffering because he took on all of our sins and stood before the Father in that sinful state. He suffered, but in the end He said, "Not my will but Thy will be done." Love conquered. The Beloved, His Father, wanted Him to go through this as a sign of love for us, and so He went through it. His love and concern kept overcoming his suffering. He was concerned about his executioners and forgave them, He was concerned about those being executed with him and promised them eternal life, He was concerned about His mother and saw that she was cared for. Even while He, at times, on the cross, prayed, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?," He went on to triumph. In the end He gave a magnificent cry and had such a victory over suffering and death that the centurion said, "This must be the Son of God." Suffering can be very much there, but love constantly overcomes it when one embraces that suffering because she wants the fruit that that suffering can bring about.

PT: Love overcomes the suffering whose love and the love of what?

Pennington: The persons suffering are less conscious of suffering because their concern is their love; they either want to suffer or are so concerned about something else that they don't notice their suffering. The Buddhist idea is to get rid of all desire so you don't notice the suffering. But love can be so great, going back to the parents who want to be with their child in the suffering, their love is so much with the child, that it would be more suffering for them not to be with the child in the suffering. The question is basically, "What do we want?" If we want to be free from all pain, if we want to be free from anything, and it is there, it begins to cause suffering.

PT: Buddhist precepts say it is our nature to suffer.

Pennington: Christians say suffering is an effect of sin. Because we are all sinners we all have suffering in our lives. Once we are able to completely overcome sin, we will no longer have suffering, or the effects of sin, which is in all our lives, because death itself is an effect of sin.

PT: How is death an effect of sin?

Pennington: The understanding of the Judeo Christian tradition is that God first created humans to live eternally, and because they rebelled against God in some way, part of the punishment was that in time they would die.

PT: For the sake of definition, what is sin?

Pennington: We understand sin as something that is contrary to the will of God, whether His will is expressed in explicit commandments, in the Revelation, or in the way God created things and meant them to function, what we call the Natural Law.

PT: Is there anyone who does not suffer?

Pennington: No, everyone has some suffering. Our Lord took on suffering voluntarily. The rest of us sinners suffer for our sins. We aim toward arriving at a state of complete union and communion with God. The result of that would be we would no longer suffer. In deep meditation we are completely free of suffering but we can't abide in that beautiful state all the time.

PT: What is the best medicine for our suffering?

Pennington: In a way, suffering is a sickness and the best medicine for it is love, although love itself can cause suffering.

PT: Does love transform suffering, is suffering sloughed off?

Pennington: Suffering is caused by desire, so when we change our desires, what was originally suffering can become a sort of joy. When someone you love greatly suffers and you enter into their suffering, their suffering remains, but there is a deep joy in sharing suffering, and that solidarity may ease their suffering. In Christian thinking, we believe that Christ's suffering is redemptive and, to the extent in which we can participate in Christ's suffering, our suffering can become redemptive. In our love for our brothers and sisters we are happy to enter into redemptive suffering.

PT: What are the most prevalent ways that suffering is manifested in our individual lives?

Pennington: Many people equate pain with suffering. Because they are so desirous of being free from all pain, pain immediately causes suffering. In meditation you learn to move to another state of consciousness and you leave pain behind, so you gain a growing freedom from pain. In lovingly going out to others, you forget your own pains and sorrows because you are concerned with theirs. For instance, when you visit a retirement home, you find some people in absolute misery. They are taken up with the aches, pains, and limitations that age has brought upon them. They are miserable and they make everyone who comes near them miserable; nobody wants to be near them. Other people who have as much or more aches and pain are outgoing and loving. They are a joy and people like to be with them. Throughout their lives, they gradually schooled themselves, from meditation perhaps and through outgoing love, to leave their pain and suffering behind. For most people, suffering is experienced through pain or frustrations in love being lonely, not having the persons they love with them, or not having anybody who is in communion love with them.

PT: I appreciate how you link suffering to desire, especially the desire to be free from pain. I thought suffering came more from a sense of separation from a spiritual self or from God.

Pennington: Separation from God is the essential suffering and we call it hell. Many people don't know that much of the emptiness or longing desire that they suffer from is because they are not in touch with God or whatever name they give Him. Separation is a very real form of suffering in this life. Many, many people suffer because there is nobody in their life. They are not in touch with God, with the inner spirit. They are not in touch with their true selves, and they are not really in touch with anybody else.

PT: When we suffer, whether that suffering comes in the form of physical pain, loss of meaning, or alienation, what can we do?

Pennington: Of ourselves, in a certain sense, we can do nothing. The Lord says, "Without me you can do nothing." But, by the grace of God, and coming directly from Him, or through others who reach out to us, we can begin to open up to reality. The reality is that we are infinitely and tenderly held by the divine. We cease to exist if God does not bring us forth every moment in His creative love. We are united with everybody else in our human nature and in our sharing of a divine nature, so we are never really alone, we have all this union and communion. Getting in touch with that reality is the greatest healing. We can adopt meditative practices which enable us to begin that journey of finding our true inner selves or transcending our separate selves and leave behind some of the pain and suffering. Relief occurs only during the time of meditation until, through meditation and the grace of God, we come to experience the reality beyond our individual selves that then flows over into our lives.

PT: What practices transform suffering?

Pennington: Meditation practices are found in all the major traditions. In our Christian tradition are many forms of meditation. One that is growing in popularity, which goes back to ancient times, is today called "Centering Prayer" and originally called "Prayer in the Heart." It is a simple form of meditation where we turn to God, who is within, and rest with Him. He says, "Come to me you who are heavily burdened, I will refresh you." In this practice we leave everything else and rest with Him within, silently uttering one word of love, such as God, peace, Shalom, to quietly stay with Him. That's a simple and ancient Christian form of meditation which is effective and fairly easy to practice.

The meditation practice of Lectio Divina is somewhat different. It is opening to the experience of God. One of the reasons we leave the words in Latin is because simply translated as "Divine Reading" conveys a false idea. I used to annoy my translators when lecturing in different languages around the world by quoting that old Latin phrase, "Traducta estraditor es," meaning that every translator is a traitor. If you translate a word, you leave so much behind and you pick up other meanings.

Lectio does not mean reading in the sense of printed symbols immediately conveying ideas to the intellect. Lectio is hearing a word whether you see it on the page, pronounce it yourself, hear somebody else speak it, or recall it from your memory hearing that word in the here and now being spoken by the one speaking it. In Lectio Divina, God himself is speaking. In the practice of Lectio Divina we read sacred texts which we believe have been inspired by God as a means of communicating with us. Lectio Divina is coming into communication with God and letting Him speak to us now, and reveal Himself to us now, through His inspired word. It is a type of transcendental meditation, at the same time it uses the rational mind to work with the words. In a meditation like Centering Prayer, you leave the rational mind and emotions behind, open yourself to rest in the Divine. St. Thomas Aquinas says, "Where the mind leaves off, the heart goes beyond."

PT: Lectio Divina is the practice of praying the scriptures

Pennington: I am not comfortable with that expression, because praying is a word that has different meanings to people, but it could be a valid way of saying it if praying is understood the right way.

PT: How do we need to understand prayer?

Pennington: It is being with God in His inspired word, meeting God in His inspired word.

PT: I understand Lectio Divina as allowing the Word to take life in us, to move in us, so that it is a living experience of God in our hearts, not just an intellectual exercise.

Pennington: It is letting God be present to us in His spoken word. You could read my books and know a lot about me and my thoughts but you wouldn't really know me. But if we have lunch together and visit for a while, you still hear my words but now it is a real experience of me and afterward, you know me.

PT: I am quoting from your book, "The simple little practice of each day meeting the Lord in His word and receiving from Him a word of life can indeed transform our lives." How does this practice transform our lives?

Pennington: The actual moment, the time of reception, is transformative in that God is present to us, speaking to us, reforming our minds and our hearts, and bringing us into His understanding. In order to remain as much as possible at that level, and there is only so much we can do, we take some particular word that He has given us at that Lectio session and we carry it with us. We come back to it as much as we can through the day. That word makes Him present with us but also invites us into His way of seeing things.

Maybe a concrete example would be helpful. Sometimes God seems very present, sometimes Lectio really speaks the word to you and you come alive with it. Other days, you listen and listen and it is just words you've heard before, and at the end of Lectio you have to choose a word on your own. One morning I was doing my Lectio and the Lord did not seem to turn up, so I chose the words, "I am the way." I let that word be with me when I was not tending to something else. A few hours later I was walking down the road from the monastery to the guest house, saying, "I am the way," and suddenly I realized, I am just not walking down a road, I am walking "in the way," the way to eternal life. Ever since then, when I walk down a street or a corridor, this comes back to me. I am, the whole of my life, is in the way. That word, at that moment, transformed my consciousness about walking through life. When I got to the guest house, a young fellow was waiting for me. The poor guy had about every problem in the book. I sat there listening to him, and I asked, "Lord, what am I gonna say to this fellow?" The Lord poked me in the ribs and I remembered. I told him about the Lord saying, "I am the way." As I shared that word with this fellow you could almost see the burdens falling off his shoulders. He now had a way to go. The word was a living word for him and it really changed his life. I remember, toward the end of that day, climbing the steps to the church. I was exhausted, and as I climbed up the steps, I said, "Lord, how I am going to get through Vespers? I will sing every note flat." Again, the Lord poked me, and I said, "Oh yes, You are the Way." I went up and sang Vespers and had a great time.

PT: If we look at Lectio Divina as a practice to transform suffering, the word for the day is something to hold onto, a word that guides us when we feel overwhelmed or lost.

Pennington: I am doing an anthology of Aelred and I read a passage this morning where Aelred said, "how sad it is for those who don't know that they can go into the field of scriptures when they seek consolation." He uses the image of Isaiah who, after his mother died, went out to the field in sorrow and in the distance saw his beautiful bride coming. He said, "They can go out into the field of scriptures and lift up their eyes and the Lord will come to them, the beautiful bride will comfort them." In our time of suffering and sorrow we can find consolation and divine love in the scriptures, if we know to go there.

PT: This leads to my next question. I am again quoting your book. You say, "We need to separate ourselves from the enslavement of this world's values. We have to be in the world, we cannot be of the world." How can we be in the world, but not of the world?

Pennington: It is taking the world in two different senses. We live in this world, this creation, but are not of this world, in the sense that we don't accept the materialistic outlook and values. We are invited to see the world the way God sees it, as a wonderful evolving process which has been going on for millions of years. Evolution has reached a high level in us humans who can now, through Grace, be transformed to participate in the divine life. We are destined to pass beyond or transcend the materialistic world to enter into the divine level of being in life and love. The revelation of God through the scriptures reminds us, calls us to, and assures us of the help and the means we need to go beyond this material creation and enter fully into the divine reality.

PT: Talk about the four-stage process of lectio, meditatio, oratio, contemplatio in Lectio Divina.

Pennington: In practice, sometimes we separate these phases, although more naturally this process takes place at the same time and in varying degrees, depending on what's happening in the relationship at the moment. Lectio is primarily opening ourselves to let God speak to us, to be present to us in, through His inspired word. You can do Lectio with Nature too. God speaks to us through everything in Creation the flowers, the wind, the beautiful child. You can do Lectio in a broad sense through everything, but His inspired word is the vehicle of His communication with us. He says: "I no longer call you servants but friends because I make known to you everything known to me." Lectio is meeting the Lord and letting Him speak to us and invite us into deeper relationship with Him, to realize our call and our destiny.

Meditatio, in the earlier Church tradition, is when we take and carry that word as a way of having the Lord as a presence, walking with us throughout the rest of the day, beginning in the session itself. This particular word speaks to us and we let it drill down into our hearts, into the powerful experience of the presence of God and the transforming call.

Oratio is translated as prayer. Here prayer means the complete response of giving oneself to God, trusting God, who has spoken to us through the Lectio. That word has become alive in Meditatio and our response is prayer, a trusting response to His word.

Contemplatio is when we rest together and nothing more needs to be said or even be thought of. It is being together with God. I learned contemplation when I was four years old, sitting with my grandparents on the porch. They sat there for hours saying nothing. I felt wonderful and I loved to sit with them. I realized later that they were with each other in love and that love embraced their little grandchild. I experienced the Contemplatio of love in that presence of my grandparents. So it's coming just to sit with the Lord in that embrace of refreshing love. You can't love what you don't know, and Lectio is where you get to know that loving.

PT: We are talking about intimacy with God. What is your understanding of God?

Pennington: My understanding flows out of the Catholic expression of the Christian faith, of knowing that Jesus is God incarnate. God became man so that He can bring us into the fullness of the divine life. Jesus is the Son of the Father, and they have in them immense love, they embrace each other in Holy Spirit. I experience God as an immensely loving Father. I am very compassionate and sympathetic with women and others who have a problem with that name of Father, but it has been there for me for over sixty years. Also, I was blessed with a very special father, so it makes it easier for me to use Father. I look to Jesus in the gospel to help me understand this tremendously loving Father. As a monk of the Cisterian tradition, I have been fed by St. Bernard of Clairveau, who spent the last eighteen years of his life commenting on the Song of Songs, the beautiful love song in the Hebrew Bible. Their God is very much the lover, and I have grown to enter into that experience with God as an immense mother, an all-embracing love and creative energy. To enter totally and be completely embraced by divine love has all the richness of the very best experience and understanding we can have of personal love, and yet is so much more. Trying to talk about my concept of God is complex and difficult because it is so rich, and yet in experience it is absolutely simple, it is simply a communion in a totally satisfying love.

PT: I am quoting you, "Herein is the true purpose of our practice, to free ourselves from the empirious domination of our own thoughts, passions and desires, to free the spirit for the things of the Spirit." What are the things of the Spirit? I ask this because I see a relationship to things of the Spirit and the reduction of suffering.

Pennington: The first and most fundamental one is reality. The virtue of humility means acceptance of reality. If we are not in reality, then we can't possibly be in the things of the spirit. The reality is that God is good, all loving and that his creation is good. What immediately follows upon the perception of reality is beauty and goodness, and what follows that is love. We love this immense beauty and we love most of all the author of this goodness and beauty, God himself. These are things of the spirit. It is astounding when we start to reflect that God, the source of all goodness, all truth, all beauty, all life, all love, did, in His enormous love, enter into our struggling evolving human reality and accept our suffering. Suffering is a thing of the spirit, too, for that reason. It has been made a vehicle of love and everything can become something of the spirit when it is informed by love.

PT: We have talked about suffering, particularly as we experience and relate to it in our personal lives. Let's shift to social issues. First, I would like you to talk about suffering in a social context. Then I would like your comments on the war in Kosovo and Yugoslavia. Can we have any impact on suffering in Kosovo and Yugoslavia?

Pennington: We all suffer because of our parents. One element of maturing is realizing that our parents were poor stupid sinners like we are. Even if they did their best, they failed in ways. However, we can never thank them enough because they have given us, with God, the gift of life and being. Along with that comes struggling. If that happens in the individual, it also happens in the social level. The failures of many, or the limitations of many, build up and become our inheritance. Kosovo is an example of that. The suffering in the Balkans, except for the short time that Tito held it in an iron grip, goes back centuries to the time when Islam invaded and conquered parts of the area, leaving this heritage of strife. The willingness to live together and share was never engendered, which is what we have to learn to do everywhere in the world today. They are not the only ones who did that. We did it to the Native Americans, the Scotch Presbyterians did it to the Irish Catholics in North Ireland, and the Jews have done it to the Palestinians in the Holy Land. We can find instances of it all over history.

When you take away people's land, when there is not a willingness to live and work together in some way, inevitably there begins to be a minority group and that minority suffers, like the Native Americans in the United States. At some point that minority revolts or seeks violent means, after decades of non-violent means not getting them anywhere. Sometimes just a few turn to violence, but it involves all the others. Then there is the problem of what the oppressive majority does in the face of that violence. They usually react with even more violence. These days the human community steps in to try to relieve that situation, often making it worse before it makes it better.

It is out of the complex heritage of our poor sinful struggling human family that these situations arise. Sometimes media makes us intensely aware of things going on and sometimes it doesn't. There is less awareness of what is going on in Afghanistan and East Africa. When we hear about violent oppression we are confronted as fellow humans. Those of us who are Christians should be conscious of how Christ suffered and died for every human person. Therefore, these people are precious to Christ and they are precious to us.

PT: Then comes the question, what can I do about it?

Pennington: We believe in the power of prayer. God and Christ have told us that our prayer is effective. "Ask and you shall receive." God, who constantly brings this creation forward in his creative love, is affected by what we ask and seek of Him. Prayer is important because of the deep inter solidarity of the human family and the whole cosmos. Creating deeper peace in ourselves creates a level of peace for the whole human family. By giving up violence in our own attitudes, feelings and spirit, and seeking peace, we can become an instrument of peace. We are just one among billions and that may seem little, but sometimes we have to be content with doing the very little that we can. There is always political action. We have to discern, in each case, the appropriate political action we need to take. Certainly we should try to move our own government toward a less violent attitude. It is extremely difficult, when the situation is occurring, to say what we can immediately do, apart from prayer to try to bring peace. We can do whatever is possible to provide relief for the people suffering. This kind of suffering brings us into strong and painful contact with our limitations.

PT: Is there anything that you want to add about suffering?

Pennington: It is extremely important to have hope. The evolution of human consciousness has gone on for hundreds of thousands of years, and is a powerful movement. Divine Creative Energies, which are pure love, are at the base of this movement. Humanity, in its evolutionary course, has gone through terrible periods, yet has moved on and on. We are at a fairly high level of human consciousness in the rational period we live in. More and more people realize that we have to move to a more integrated level. One of the enormous challenges lying ahead of us is the full equality of men and women and the full integration of the masculine and feminine dimensions of our being. This will make an enormous difference in the way the human family lives and functions. Hopefully, we will be much more peaceful. That integration is a coming together as a human family, a human community. We are most empowered and find the greatest possible security and the fullest happiness in community when we embrace each other as brothers and sisters, as children of the Father.

Each of us needs to live the hope, realizing that we are in this wonderful evolving course. Even if there is suffering and struggle in the course of it, the grain of wheat that falls on the ground comes forth with a hundred grains; it is in process.