Dear reader(s),

Here is the first installment of what over time will be a more extensive discussion of the topics I raised in my talk last month at New Valamo. Comments welcome.

“I know what you’re going through” can be one of the hollowest expressions in the English language. It claims a kinship of experience that, ultimately, we may well not have. It is often spoken (or blurted) out of genuine compassion. But it doesn’t speak to the depth of the one who suffers, either as a human being or in the dimensions of their own unique experience. Better, surely, to be silently present with the one who suffers. Words minimize and reduce, rather than acknowledge, the experience of suffering.

Thus I am hesitant to write this. I know that speaking to the mystery of suffering can be an intrusion. But words must, somehow, find their place as well in the experience of suffering. Giving voice to our experience is at the heart of our humanity. By this I don’t mean that everyone who suffers must speak. If words come at all, they must come freely. Theologians sometimes make a distinction between theologia prima and theologia secunda: the content of the faith and its experience versus the second-order reflection on faith done in preaching, theological writing, art, architecture, dance, literature. Inevitably, anything we say about suffering has the character of that kind of subsequent meditation on the reality itself. However, I don’t want to press this distinction too far. In the desire to preserve the otherness of God, and the otherness of our experience of God, theology has created a dualism of experience and expression. That distance can be salutary; but it can also go too far. It can divorce us from our experience. Sometimes we bleed words as we suffer. Perhaps that flow is theologia prima as well.

What follows is an extended meditation on the Eucharist and its relationships to suffering. I recognize the immensity of the topic, and claim no grandiose project to provide “answers” to questions whose resolution is beyond words. I offer no more than a series of reflections on an inexhaustible subject. I’ll be using ritual theory, history of Christian and Jewish liturgy, exegesis of scripture, and a little bit of literary criticism in my discussion. Behind these reflections is a lecture on the Eucharist and suffering I gave at an international course on diakonia at the Valamo Institute, Heinävesi, Finland, on 21 March 2015. As has all too often been the case, there I presented my ideas in very condensed form which needed much more time to unpack. My thanks to the Valamo Institute, and to the organizers of the course, for giving me the opportunity to give the initial lecture and the chance to ponder these questions.