Introduction: Spiritual joy

By Mack Winholtz

A time of suffering comes to every life. It may come in the form of a serious illness or the death of a loved one; in the ending of a relationship that has been central to our lives; in the unraveling of a vocation to which we deeply aspired; or it may come in the form of natural disaster or war. When this passage of suffering comes to our lives it helps to have guides who have traveled that path before us, and whose lives and words can help show us the way.

Following are brief stories of five such people who, as a result of World War II, faced unavoidable suffering or felt compelled by conscience to take actions that led to their suffering. A time of suffering represents a critical juncture in our lives because, depending on how we respond to it, suffering can shadow our lives with sorrow, bitterness and despair. Or, as the lives of these five people show, suffering can be a catalyst for spiritual transformation—evoking a person’s inner capacity for courage, compassion, integrity, love and even joy. In his book New Seeds of Contemplation the Trappist monk Thomas Merton writes: “Spiritual joy ignores suffering or laughs at it or even exploits it to purify itself of its greatest obstacle, selfishness. Pain can serve him as another opportunity of asserting—and tasting—his liberty . . . Pain cannot touch this highest joy—except to bring it an accidental increase of purity by asserting the soul’s freedom.” Despite the diversity of their backgrounds and circumstances, the lives of these five individuals seem to offer confirmation of Merton’s words.

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