Asking the Question with Julian of Norwich and the Buddha

This is a concluding reflection for the class “Asking the Question” (John 9:1-7, 38-41), part of the Lenten series “Beholding the Lamb, Being Held by the Shepherd: Exploring the Question of Suffering in the Gospel of John” taught at St. Clement’s Episcopal Church on Sunday February 12, 2012.

“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2)

The disciples’ question about suffering serves as an invitation for us all to bring our questions to God in Christ through our prayer. Although many of us petition the Lord and offer thanks (which is meet and right for us to do), I wonder how many of us ask questions, especially around the subject of evil and suffering, like “God, why did you let my best friend die?” or “What did so-and-so do to deserve that horrible disease?” or, more generally, “Why is this world full of so much suffering?” Job and the Psalmists asked these questions to God in prayer, along with many other Christian saints and mystic. There is an invitation in the disciples’ question for us to bring our own questions to God in prayer and furthermore, to expect a response. In her text “Showings,” Julian of Norwich, a 14th century English Mystic and anchorite, brings her questions about suffering to God in prayer. Although she did not receive the kind of answers we might expect or even hope to receive, she did receive profound “revelations of divine love”, which poets and theologians still find comforting and challenging today.

Although not part of the Judeo-Christian tradition, a young Indian prince named Siddhartha Gautama observed suffering when he left the palace grounds. He saw an elderly person, a sick person and a corpse and, like Jesus’ disciples, he wanted to know the origin and cause of such suffering. He asked this question to the universe and then waited for a response by fasting and meditating. He eventually found an answer, which woke him up, thus giving him the name “Buddha” which means the “Awakened One.” His answer became the foundational teachings of Buddhism, which of course still thrives today.  His answer came in the form of The Four Noble Truths: 1) Life is suffering. 2) Suffering comes from desire. 3) If you extinguish desire, you extinguish suffering. 4) You can extinguish desire by following the Eightfold Path (Wise Attention, Action, Concentration, Speech, Intention, Livelihood, Understanding, Effort). Although these ideas are way outside the scope of this study, we will be talking about desire and how it is deeply related to suffering and violence when we discuss mimetic theory….

But the main point of the Buddha’s story in this context is that asking the question of suffering and expecting an answer can have radical and life-changing (even world-changing) consequences for us. By asking this question of God through the Christ whom we encounter in the Fourth Gospel, we may find ourselves “waking up” to some truth that we have been missing. Although we might not become Buddhas, we may very likely become more enlightened, which would be very much in line with Johannine theology, which sees Christ as the true light who came to enlighten everyone. (1:9)

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