Walking along the Monsal Trail in Derbyshire a few days ago I came across a plant whose large leaves were in the process of being devoured. It looked like the main culprits were voracious snails, which were attacking from both sides of the leaf. Slowly but surely the capacity of the plant to photosynthesize sugars from sunlight, CO2 and water is being diminished. Yet its leaves still turn to the light and, for the time being at least, their chlorophyll continues to work its biochemical magic. Deep down, below ground and well out of sight, the plant will be storing food. It will depend on this to carry it through the bleak and dormant winter months to the point at which it will experience Spring for itself. Then it will turn this stored energy into new growth which will push upwards through the soil and into the sunlight once more. Nature never fails to amaze me.
Reflecting on my own personal experience and on those I have met during many years of pastoral ministry it is clear to me that this is a pattern which has its spiritual corollary. To be a damaged person, someone who knows what it is like to be diminished and hurt significantly by others, by life events, or to bear the scars of self-inflicted and avoidable distress, is to some degree an inevitable part of being human. To recognise that such things need not be our governing truth, define who we are now or in the future, or turn us forever away from God, is a precious step to take.
There are those who never take it. In the face of hardship and suffering there will always be those unfortunate souls who store up only bitterness and resentment. As such their damage goes deep below the surface and Spring seems impossibly far off. And to some of them, God - like the snails - is clearly to blame.
To be able to speak of a loving God in a world such as this is the enduring task of Theodicy. The plant I saw at the side of the path, with its damage in plain view, yet with its leaves still fully open to the light and with another truth of springtime hope for the future deep down out of sight, was like a calling-card from God. A reminder that superficial appearances are not the whole story, that damage need not be the final word, and that love can still work its marvellous spiritual alchemy, even when all seems at a loss.
When one meets people like this for whom faith is undiminished by the vicissitudes of life, looking upwards as it were from the underside of their hurt and suffering, it is sometimes possible to glimpse within them a similar radiance to that which shines through the leaf in the first photograph. And if we look closely, we can see that same radiance in the pages of the Bible too. Life can be hard and always has been, even for those of us who are pampered in the developed world, let alone for the global poor and dispossessed. It is this world of which the scriptures speak, not some fantasy world in which there is no pain or death. It is precisely in this damaged world that faith must make sense. It is in the here and now of this world’s pain and distress that the light of love yearns to work its spiritual miracle.