Eucharist as Theodicy

This article was originally published in Emmanuel in 2011, issue 117, number 2.

Christian thought about suffering cannot be reduced to explaining it away, in however philosophically sophisticated a way. It must rather embrace the fact that suffering lies at the heart of its formative story. (Frances M. Young1)

Our opening words come from the Methodist theologian Frances M. Young. She is known not only for her many distinguished contributions to patristic theological scholarship, but also for her personal struggle with theodicy—the effort to understand God’s goodness and omnipotence in view of the existence of evil. One of her sons, Arthur, has suffered most severe developmental difficulties throughout his life, and this has led her to explore in a very personal fashion the meaning of pain and suffering for a Christian, what she has called a narrative theology of suffering.2

Such a narrative theodicy stands head and shoulders, it seems to me, over a conceptual theodicy. Many theologians today view abstract conceptual attempts at theodicy with increasing skepticism, for example, the works of John Thiel, Terrence Tilley, and Kenneth Surin.3 I do not see how such conceptual attempts may be avoided if theology is to be understood along Anselmian lines as “faith seeking understanding,” but perhaps they may be thought of as secondary rather than primary responses to the realities of pain and suffering. Abstract conceptual theodicies can represent, as Paul Crowley puts it,

a calculus about suffering that fails to take into consideration the actual suffering of human beings. As such, theodicies devalue practical issues surrounding evil: they silence the cries of victims and marginalize their suffering; tend to valorize some forms of evil and minimize others; and ultimately promote complicity in injustice because systemic evils such as racism and sexism are rendered invisible.4

It would be difficult to disagree. Nonetheless, if such theodical attempts were thought of as secondary, perhaps we might move forward with a humble confidence, not explaining away suffering, but rather recognizing it at the very heart of the Christian story.

To put oneself trustingly into the hands of God, when one knows his power to break, or allow one to be broken, is difficult.

Such humble confidence may be found in the reflection of Margaret Spufford. Historians pay careful attention to detail. As they seek to reach judgments about the past, they scrutinize the accumulated detailed data about an event, the circumstances, the period with which they are dealing from a variety of perspectives, they reach towards mature and balanced conclusions that do justice to the evidence. Margaret Spufford is a well-known English historian, specializing in the seventeenth century.

She wrote a book entitled Celebration after the death of her daughter, Bridget, in 1989.5 If this book is to be thought of as a theodicy, it certainly does not fall under the strictures of Paul Crowley. Celebration is not an architectonic account of suffering, an abstract conceptual theodicy. While Frances Young may present us with a narrative account of suffering, Margaret Spufford does more. She presents us with a eucharistic account. In this reflection I want to scroll through her Celebration to find a segue into thinking about the Eucharist as theodicy.

Scrolling through Celebration

The book ends with this paragraph:

Two days after I returned home after writing this book, our daughter (Bridget) became ill with what was eventually diagnosed as a neurological failure. . . . Her decline was in no sense amusing. However, she was given the gift of clarity and serenity in the last month of her life and was precisely aware of what was happening and to Whom she was going. It was a month which all four of us (Margaret, her husband, her son, and her daughter Bridget) were mainly able to spend in her bedroom at home, reading aloud, listening to music, and surrounded by flowers. She died in all our arms, very soon after her twenty-second birthday on the Sunday after Ascension Day, 1989.6

The paragraph is revealing. It describes the difficult death of Bridget— “her decline was in no sense amusing.” It describes also, may I say, the beauty of Bridget’s death within the bosom of her family, with “the gift of clarity and serenity . . . in her bedroom at home, reading aloud, listening to music, and surrounded with flowers.” Notice also that Bridget was aware of “to Whom she was going.” It was an awareness of not only what was happening to her in the illness, but also of the God who was there and who was Bridget’s final end. Notice too how the date of Bridget’s death is given, “the Sunday after Ascension Day, 1989.” The liturgical reference clues us into the deeply Christian context of this dying and death.

Throughout the book Margaret Spufford offers her sensitive Christian commentary on the experience of living for so long, faithfully and lovingly, with her daughter’s illnesses. Describing pain and suffering, the sign of the cross in human life, is in a sense so much easier than describing joy and glory, the sign of the resurrection.

Even painters cannot, with the possible exception of Fra Angelico, paint heaven. Hell, or the fear of it, comes more easily off the brush. Three and a half of the four walls of fourteenth century frescoes by the significantly titled “Master of the Triumph of Death” in Pisa, are given over to Death, Judgment and Hell: only half a wall attempts paradise, and that is strangely inept.7

The ineptitude of painting paradise surely springs from its distance-in-hope from the enormity of human suffering. We see the joys of paradise so very, very darkly, in a mirror. We see the at times overwhelming reality of suffering, pain, dying, and death “face to face.” There is no evasion of the reality in Margaret Spufford.

As a result of twenty-two years of suffering with, in, and through Bridget’s pain and suffering she writes:

God does not defend his people from worldly evil, and he seems powerless or unwilling to protect them. The trust one has to develop in him lies far deeper, in the knowledge that he will be present in the deepest waters, and the most acute pain, and in some apprehension of his will to transform these things. No cheap belief in him as “insurance” will serve. . . . To put oneself trustingly into the hands of God, when one knows his power to break, or allow one to be broken, is difficult.8

These are very powerful but immensely difficult words, as the last sentence makes starkly clear. The theologically minded will find the first sentence especially challenging: “God does not defend his people from worldly evil, and he seems powerless or unwilling to protect them.”

One of the commonest Christian heresies is surely to glorify suffering as somehow “good.” . . . I have searched for a theological answer. I do not believe there is one.

Theologians may be tempted to rush too quickly to God’s defence, to develop subtle, metaphysical arguments demonstrating the simultaneous co-existence of the good and loving and almighty God with the facts of suffering and pain. This is the enterprise of theodicy, the justification of the good and loving God in the face of so much suffering, “conceptual theodicy.”9 Without abandoning human intelligence, the Lonerganian “unrestricted desire to understand,” one must admit the need of constructing theodicies. Theodicy as a conceptual construct, however, remains at a very great distance from the immediacy of suffering.

Spufford seems to me entirely right to say that a deep trust in God is invited, not an intellectually arrived at trust on its own, but a trust that reaches in an almost tactile way into the reality of God, “put(ting) oneself trustingly into the hands of God.”

This leads Margaret Spufford to conclude:

I cannot reconcile the images of tiny, deformed children with old men’s eyes, in great pain (children who shrank from human contact because so often it represented more pain, the stab of a therapeutic needle which they could not recognize as therapeutic) with what I am bound to believe of a loving, omnipotent Father. I will not assent to all this pain as anything but a manifest evil. One of the commonest Christian heresies is surely to glorify suffering as somehow “good.” . . . I have searched for a theological answer. I do not believe there is one. Would, or can, any theologian produce any answer other than that we are here in the presence of a mystery, insoluble in human terms?10

There we have one basis of this putting oneself trustingly into the hands of God, the recognition of the presence of sheer mystery, in the strictest sense of the word.

This is no capitulation to absurdity on her part. She returns to the traditional creedal epithet of God as almighty, as all-powerful. “The definition of ‘almighty’ means that there is no evil out of which good cannot be brought. This I have found, extremely painfully, to be true.” The classical Christian understanding of God as “almighty” does not remain at a logically abstract level; that is to say, if God is “creator” and not therefore “creature,” God must be “almighty” since creatures are anything but that. The logic of that is conceptually obvious up to a point.

Rather, Spufford brings “almighty” within the reach of the deep, existential trust of putting oneself into the hands of God: There is no evil out of which God cannot bring good. It is a deep, existential conclusion, a conclusion that she has found “extremely painfully, to be true.”11 That is the extremely painful truth of the Paschal Mystery that is our Lord Jesus Christ. There can be no persuasive glossing of the fact that the crucified Jesus experienced profoundly the evils of pain and suffering on the cross. He died. Death did not have the final word. Resurrection followed.

The definition of “almighty” means that there is no evil out of which good cannot be brought. The good, the final good of resurrection is brought by God out of the evil, the penultimate evil of death. Or, as once put in a sermon preached on Passion Sunday at St. Edward’s Church, Cambridge, “Good Friday is not the end of Holy Week.”12

That brings us to Spufford’s eucharistic reflections, the second basis of putting oneself trustingly in the hands of God.

The Eucharist in Celebration

At first sight a book which is about physical or mental pain may seem very oddly titled Celebration. But it is written by a woman to whom, over the years, participation in the Eucharist has become the most important part of living, and being in silence before the reserved sacrament the most important part of prayer. “Gradually, and with immense diffidence, I have come to see that my own participation in this offering of the Eucharist must involve the presentation of my own experience, for hallowing, along with ‘the best bread that can conveniently be gotten,’ in the hope that it, too, can be redeemed and transformed.”13

This is a profound eucharistic perspective. Three key issues emerge. First, participation in the Eucharist is for Spufford “the most important part of living.” From what has already been described there is simply no evasion in this utterance. Her living has been marked by the sign of the cross, as has Bridget’s. Her ongoing participation in the Eucharist, we may say, has conjoined the deepest pain and suffering, the cross, with the “darkly seen” joy of resurrection. She has come to see this in her own words “gradually, and with immense diffidence.” It is no easy insight. It is insight that comes from seeing darkly, but from the constant and regular seeing darkly that is the Eucharist.

Second, and following from her participation in the Eucharist, the most important part of prayer is for her “in silence before the reserved sacrament.” Contemplative moments, at times harshly contemplative moments in eucharistic adoration, prolong her eucharistic participation. Spufford reiterates a wisdom long held in the western Christian tradition. The Benedictine theologian, Jeremy Driscoll, exemplifies what Spufford is alluding to here: “…a meditative contemplation of what is too difficult to grasp and digest all at once during Mass. In prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, I am continuing in quiet reflection my communion with Christ from Mass, and I am preparing for the next communion… .”14

There can be no persuasive glossing of the fact that the crucified Jesus experienced profoundly the evils of pain and suffering on the cross. He died.

The reserved Eucharist is the Mass held in meditation. It takes time to appropriate the entire meaning and, as noted, at times the harshly appropriated meaning of the eucharistic event. In similar vein the French Jesuit theologian, Jean-Marie Hennaux writes:

I can only hope to participate in (the love of Christ) by also adoring it outside myself, thus plainly recognizing that he is, he alone, the source of love, the source that I am not. If I would adore him only in his immanence in me (at the moment of my eucharistic communion), I would perhaps risk forgetting his transcendence. My practice of eucharistic communion therefore leads me, in order that I might respect its total mystery, to the adoration of the host outside of me.15

Spufford does not use Hennaux’s language, but she knows his meaning.

Third, she affirms that her own experience of pain and suffering, conjoined to that of Jesus Christ in the eucharistic offering, hopes for and awaits redemption and transformation. God has brought the good of resurrection out of the death of Jesus. “Good Friday is not the end of Holy Week.” God will bring good out of this experience of Margaret Spufford’s Good Friday of pain and suffering.

This is similar to the point of view of the great Karl Rahner, SJ, who once wrote: “It seems to me that even today and in the future we must not forget what our Christian forebears practiced. The sanctuary lamp of our Catholic churches continues to invite us to a silent lingering before the mystery of our redemption.”16 This is exactly what Spufford is doing, but as an Anglican Catholic, not a Roman Catholic. She continues in what might be called “an anonymously Rahnerian” vein:

There is a completeness about attentive silence in the presence of God that leaves nothing else for me to desire. I am so ashamed that so often idleness or busyness and a lack of sense of priorities squeeze out the time in which I could at least put myself in the way of achieving this stillness. . . . There is a completeness about adoration: the soul is stilled in the presence of God, there is nothing left to desire.17

The Eucharist as Performative Theodicy

Let me cite one final passage from Margaret Spufford’s Celebration on the Eucharist.

The center of this pain, and also of this silence and light, lies in the Eucharist. Sometimes we are ill-served by familiarity. Even the language of the original events that we re-enact, Eucharist by Eucharist, has become so familiar to us that it has lost some of its force, partly through constant repetition. From the phraseology of picking up our cross, and following our Lord, we have to strip all the clothing of habit, take it back to its original meaning, and think of his torture and of his death on a gibbet. Sometimes I cannot understand our external placidity, as we stand there, faced now, afresh, with the agony of this death, and the flies on these wounds. The reenactment is a burning-glass, focusing pain, drawing together all those screams I have heard, all those broken branches and bruised flowers, all those fossils in the Grand Canyon, all the fears I have for my own future of cumulative fracture. There is nothing, ultimately, nothing that I can do of myself to transform all this pain. There have been times I wanted to scream … and I have not been able to bear to go (to Holy Communion) at all. I do remember how once my own pain was transformed for me by pure gift, by the presence of the Crucified…. But it is because the celebration of the Eucharist and Christ’s offering of himself in it seems to comprehend all the realities of acute pain and death that I have not handed in my ticket.18

Once again in this passage we see no evasion of the horror and the enormity of pain and suffering. The pain and suffering of the entire cosmos, her own personal narrative of pain and suffering, the suffering of the Lord Jesus on the cross, is re-presented in the Eucharist. There is a reference to Dostoievsky in his book, The Brothers Karamazov. There Ivan Karamazov speaks about handing in his ticket to God if the suffering of the innocent is to be justified somehow through some philosophically abstract theodicy. It is clear that Spufford identifies with Ivan in refusing such theodicy. It is no less clear that she finds her hope in “the celebration of the Eucharist and Christ’s offering himself in it.” There is further similarity to the thought of Karl Rahner in this passage:

(The Eucharist) is a sacrament which is meant to ensure that we live more and more “in him” and become ever more like him. Must not the holy Eucharist then draw us ever more deeply also into the mystery of the cross of Christ? . . . The Eucharist, moreover, renews the memory of the sufferings of Christ even by letting Christ’s sufferings flow over to us together with grace.19

Perhaps we might call this “performative theodicy.” Christians do not have an entirely persuasive intellectual response to the challenges of evil, pain and suffering. This is what I mean by an abstract conceptual theodicy. In the Eucharist, and missioned at the end of the Eucharist—“Go in peace…”—they perform a response. Incorporated into and conjoined with the presence of the Crucified in the Eucharist, they live out a theodicy. It is never evasive, never looking for some cheap solution. It is crucifyingly costly. While this performative theodicy is primary, the enterprise of thinking these things through intellectually remains, but it is secondary. The Eucharist is the primary Christian theodicy.


1 Frances M. Young, “Suffering,” in Adrian Hastings and others, ed., The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 689.

2 See Frances M. Young, Face to Face (London: Epworth Press, 1986).

3 See John Thiel, God, Evil and Innocent Suffering (New York: Crossroad, 2000); Terrence W. Tilley, Evils of Theodicy (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1991); Kenneth Surin, Theology and the Problem of Evil (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986).

4 Paul G. Crowley, SJ, Unwanted Wisdom: Suffering, the Cross and Hope New York: Continuum, 2005), pp. 78-79.

5 Margaret Spufford, Celebration: A Story of Suffering and Joy (London: Mowbray, 1989).

6 Ibid., p. 123.

7 Ibid., p. 21.

8 Ibid., pp. 28-29.

9 The term “theodicy” was coined by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Theodicy, 1710, to denote an attempt to demonstrate that this world is the best possible world that God could have created.

10 Margaret Spufford, op. cit., p. 73.

11 Ibid., p. 80.

12 From an unpublished sermon preached by Professor Margaret Spufford at St. Edward’s Church, Cambridge, Passion Sunday, 2005, available on line.

13 Margaret Spufford, op. cit., p. 20.

14 Jeremy Driscoll, O.S.B., “Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament,” in A Book of Readings on the Eucharist, Washington, DC: National Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2000, p. 80.

15 John D. Laurance, SJ, “The Eucharist and Eucharistic Adoration,” Louvain Studies 26 (2001), p. 330.

16 Karl Rahner, SJ, “Eucharistic Worship,” in his Theological Investigations, vol. 23 (New York: Crossroad, 1992), p. 116.

17 Margaret Spufford, op. cit., pp. 89-90.

18 Ibid., pp. 85-86.

19 Karl Rahner, SJ, “The Eucharist and Suffering,” in Karl Rahner, SJ, Theological Investigations, vol. 3 (New York: Seabury, 1974), pp. 161-170.


About Owen F. Cummings

Owen F. Cummings is the Regents’ Professor of Theology at Mount Angel Seminary St. Benedict, OR. He is a longtime contributor to Emmanuel.