I’m reading Eve Tushnet’s bit in the October First Things — a response to Douglas Farrow’s “Thirteen Theses On Marriage.” (You can find the theses, and the whole set of responses, here.)

Eve’s stuff is always worth reading. The theses themselves are pretty dry, albeit maybe only in the sense that Aquinas is dry: they succinctly distill a whole worldview, and so they don’t admit of much poetry. Eve characterizes them as having a “certain antiseptic sting,” and the same is true (maybe by necessity) of many of the responses. Not Eve’s, though. Her reaction is first of all a human one.

Here the bit that made me leap for tumblr:

For me, as a lesbian Catholic with no discernible call to monastic life, the absence within the Christian churches of a deep understanding of the human need for vocation is glaringly obvious. Too many gay Christians grow up learning that there’s simply a blank space where God’s vision for their future should be. There’s a list of do-nots and a free-floating sense of shameful disorder, but no image of a path in life on which God might call and lead them. But this void in our culture damages everyone.

Yes indeed. But then there was this:

In this world, no one is called to a life of sacrifice; they either choose the life they want and claim it, or long for it and never find it.

My first instinct was to disagree: everyone is called to a life of sacrifice, right? Marriage, the religious life, and any other legitimate vocation all involve sacrifice.

But then I saw that wasn’t what she meant. Her writing elsewhere consistently points to the necessity of serving others through self-denial. So maybe she meant something like this: that nobody is called to a life of mere privation; that is to say, a life defined by not having those things that, given your nature and the deepest desires of your heart, you hope to have.

A year or two ago, I would have disagreed with that, too, because I was very caught up in the notion that it was my job to suffer, to be deprived, and to offer that deprivation up for the good of anyone I could think of. That’s not how I think anymore. Now my M.O. has more to do with St. Irenaeus’ “The glory of God is man fully alive.”1

What do you think? Is there any such thing as a “victim soul”? Is there anybody who’s just plain made to suffer?

Or is suffering just an unavoidable, but still essential, part of the Christian (or any) life — to be endured and accepted and offered up and even welcomed, but never positively sought?

1 That smacks of being misquoted and/or misattributed, but I don’t know for sure. Still, regardless of whether St. I. or somebody else said it, it seems true.

14 thoughts on “Victim Souls?

  1. DC

    I read Eve’s line “In this world…” as a criticism of the current mentality, how no one accepts or recognizes the call to sacrifice: the rich simply have too many options and thus initiate a self-driven agenda while the poor simply long for something different.

    On the subject of victim souls, that’s an extremely interesting topic that I’ve likewise wondered about. Way beyond my paygrade both in my terms of my level of holiness and theological education.

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  2. Andy

    I would say there’s a place in the Catholic Church for victim souls. I don’t know about being made to suffer or it being someone’s job to suffer, but I think it’s a worthy pursuit to offer one’s sufferings and make sacrifices for the love of God in order to sanctify one’s self and for penance and reparation for souls on earth and in purgatory. If I recall correctly, Our Lady of Fátima did say that many souls go to hell because they had no one who made sacrifices or prayed for them. While everyone does experience some degree of suffering in their lives, there are many saints who have uniquely embraced their sufferings for said purposes. For instance, St. Paul writes in his letter to the Colossians, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.”

    That being said, I don’t think people should suffer just for suffering’s sake and just because a certain choice will lead to more suffering does not necessarily make it the right one. There are countless saints in Heaven, and just as many ways to get there (not to sound relativistic or anything, just meant that there’s a lot of different vocations and callings). So I don’t think the amount of suffering one experiences is a good gauge for whether or not one’s life is where it should be.

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  3. K

    I think Andy really nailed it. No one is meant to suffer for the sake of suffering. Instead, we’re supposed to seek the Lord in all things, and because of the fall, there is usually suffering involved. Victim souls aren’t victim souls for the sake of being so – if they are really victim souls, it is because they have a very particular relationship with the Lord who has asked them to share in his cup of suffering. (Just like some people seem to get a special dose of His joy.) I completely agree that the amount of suffering one has is not a good gauge for holiness or life in general at all. That is like a reverse prosperity gospel…

    the OT Jews had to work through all of this over centuries of prayer and grumbling and suffering and victory and defeat. And the only consistent answer they got was, “I will be with you.” Jesus came. He is still here. Sometimes it’s a wedding feast, and sometimes it’s a death bed. Often all at the same time.

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  4. Gabriel

    There are victim souls, to be sure: people who, like St. Paul, suffer much and are called to unite such sufferings to Christ’s own. I’d be hesitant to say we ought to seek suffering in a positive sense, though. Surely the purpose of every mere privation is to make room for something else God has of Himself for us, rather than the simple not-having of something — when Jesus commanded the rich young ruler to sell what he had and give to the poor, it was not so that the rich young ruler would become a poor young ruler, but so that he might “have treasure in Heaven”.

    Active suffering — suffering not merely a lack of something, but being actively afflicted by pains of some kind or other — appears, to me, to be strictly a result of the Fall: diseases, handicaps, bad dispositions, and conflicts and even persecutions. These things can certainly be redeemed, but, as a recovering hyperascetic (or one who fancied himself hyperascetic, anyway), it seems pretty sketchy to desire such things in themselves: the treachery of Judas transpired to be the best, as well as the worst, thing that ever happened (“Is Maleldil a beast that we should block His way, or a leaf that we should twist His shape?”); but woe to Judas nevertheless. I think Miss Tushnet is right, and that a wrongly sacrificial mindset — a mindset that concentrates on the destruction of the offering instead of the God to whom it is offered — is on the road to a deep spiritual perversion.

    Having said all that, I know that some saints (particularly in the Spanish traditions, like St. Ignatius or St. Josemaria) have spoken very differently; and I know that some vocations do, in point of fact, involve intense suffering and the sanctification of that suffering. I’m not convinced there is a substantial difference between that and what I am saying here; but I could be mistaken, and there is definitely a difference in emphasis.

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  5. Iris

    Definitely St. Irenaeus,.

    “the glory of God is man fully alive; moreover man’s life is the vision of God: if God’s revelation through creation has already obtained life for all the beings that dwell on earth, how much more will the Word’s manifestation of the Father obtain life for those who see God.” –CCC n294 quoting St. Irenaeus.

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  6. justanothermusician

    I think Andy got a lot of it right. I think no one is made for the explicit purpose of suffering (any more than we all are in the sense that we’re post-fall, imperfect humans which means that suffering is unavoidable). However, I don’t think that we shouldn’t seek out suffering, either. There are times where making the right choice means to suffer (breaking up with someone, chastity in some ways, etc.). I think you can also seek out suffering through acts of penance. Perhaps flagellation is a bit too far, but a fast every now and again isn’t such a bad thing.

    I suppose, also not trying to sound as a moral relativist, that I don’t see those two things (accepting what suffering comes and seeking out suffering) as mutually exclusive options. You can seek out suffering in small ways (we’re certainly not all called to be martyrs…though perhaps we’re all called to be prepared to be such…I haven’t actually thought about that, but the second comment struck me while typing out the first) without overdoing it. I think it might also have to do with the carrying our own crosses. There may be people who are more able – through holiness – to undergo suffering that we ourselves would be incapable of, even if we “wanted” to, and they do so voluntarily (the ascetic monastics, etc.). Also, remember, that we are all called in our own way to be part of Christ’s body, so perhaps there are some parts of the body more able to suffer willingly and offer that up to God, but that does not mean they are in any way more holy than those not called to it (First Corinthians 12:15-31).

    I don’t know if any of this made sense or stands up to not contradicting itself, but in my head it was poignant, so I hope you can glean something from it.

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  7. George

    I don’t know if the idea of “victim soul” has been adequately defined or developed theologically to answer this question. Or at least I am ignorant.

    As a personal opinion, I have never liked the term “victim soul” as to me it conveys either victimization or smells of a hidden pride. If any victim soul exists, it is Christ. His sacrifice is the redeeming sacrifice. We don’t need another set of souls to somehow “make up for” what is “lacking” in Christ’s sacrifice. And I think the concept of victim souls may insinuate something along those lines.

    Secondly, victim soul sounds negative. Sacrifice is characteristic of love. Sacrifice does not necessarily imply “suffering”. Suffering enters the picture when one loves in the presence of evil. And I would say that the bitterness of suffering is an effect of imperfect love. When one’s love is divinized and perfected, bitterness becomes sweetness. From my understanding of the saints, they were joyous people even in the midst of suffering, not resigned souls. They suffered generously, not seeking out suffering but courageously accepting whatever God’s will was for them.

    Thirdly, victim soul seems to draw distinctions among Christians, as if to say it is the lot of some to suffer, and for others not to suffer. We are all called to become identified with Christ, so that it can be said we are “alter Christus” (another Christ), even to the point of being “ipse Christus” (Christ himself). Suffering was an intrinsic part of Christ’s mission, as for instance we are each called to “take up [our] cross and follow [him]”. We cannot expect to be true followers of Christ without experiencing in some way the Cross.

    I am familiar with St. Paul’s point about how his sufferings complete what is lacking in Christ’s suffering, and with the message of Our Lady of Fatima. I think those messages are in a spirit entirely different with what I understand to be a “victim soul”. Rather they point to the mystery of the Mystical Body of Christ, how we are called to participate in his suffering, and the salvific nature of suffering through the power of Christ. If I could make the distinction, I much prefer the concept of “co-redeemer” than “victim soul”.

    Great post Steve. Gives me a lot to chew on; could probably go a lot deeper on this topic but I don’t want to steal any more of your thunder. :)

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  8. Karyn

    At Mass today, Father said something I thought might be relevant. “Our suffering ends. Having been through suffering never ends.” We may cease to grieve, or be ill, or our financial situation may improve, but the memory of going through it does not. His point was that we have two responses: bitterness or compassion. Something to chew on.

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  9. Babs

    Yes yes, George has it better.

    I’ve tried reading “Come Be My Light”, mother Teresas book. It’s sooo hard! But I have come to see that perhaps as she grew more like Jesus, she was able to endure more suffering. Very counter intuitive, or extra intuitive. Gosh I dunno!

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