“Through pain I’ve learned
To comfort suffering men.”
Virgil, The Aeneid (Dido to Aeneas)

The incomparable Virgil once again gives us words through which to see our own life. There is a reason that in Dante’s masterpiece The Divine Comedy Virgil acts as a guide. Including to Christians.

Why do we suffer? And what good can come of it? This is rightly one of the great recurring questions in human life. It is a theoretical question, worthy of much reflection and long treatises. It is also a profoundly personal issue, arising with poignancy for each of us, more at some times than at others.

The story of Dido and Aeneas highlights, among so many other things, a gift of suffering that we can easily miss. Common experience of suffering provides one of the deepest bonds between persons. It is unique, even irreplaceable.

“Come, then, soldiers, be our guests. My life
Was one of hardship and forced wandering
Like your own…”

Immediately there is a connection, a union, a shared vantage point. Indeed, how could someone who has not known suffering—at least in some way like or comparable to yours—really know you, and be with you in your journey?

A powerful, perhaps crushing, aspect of suffering is how it can isolate. We feel pushed into a space empty of what we most need: real connection and presence with other persons.

One of the most potent lines ever spoken to me was this: “You cannot avoid suffering. But you can avoid suffering alone.” Life-changing truth. And ah, a new insight into God’s all-encompassing providence, and his astounding plan of redemption. I need never be alone in my suffering, no matter what it is. Ever.

And so we can learn to be-with another by shared sufferings, whether the very same suffering, or the same kind of suffering, or just the shared reality of any real suffering. This is something to remember, and a gift to receive, when we wonder about the meaning and purpose of the particular sufferings in our life.

Have we not come to see this: the very fact that I have undergone this precise suffering—indeed, even one I have brought on myself by my folly—has positioned me one day to be the very one who can come to another in need. And I can say: “Fear not, this need hold no terror for you. I have been there, or a place nearby. You will never be alone. Ever.”

Virgil (70-19 B.C.) is the great Roman poet, author of The Aeneid and The Georgics. In the Divine Comedy he appears as Dante’s guide through hell and purgatory.


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