The above quote from Venerable Fulton Sheen caused some consternation on the Ignatius Press Quotables Facebook page, and among some of my friends when I shared it. Frankly, I think it’s beautiful, so I thought I would try to explain it.
Like most one-liners, this quote can be easily misunderstood if taken out of context. In context, Sheen is discussing the anointing of Our Lord’s feet by Mary Magdalene. He is concentrating on the fact that she broke the bottle.
She could have poured the spikenard out slowly, drop by drop; but she did not. Instead, she gave everything. Sheen writes:
Mary Magdalene . . . did not do what you and I would do. She did not pour out the precious perfume drop by drop as if to indicate by the slowness of the giving the generosity of the gift. She broke the vessel and gave everything, for love knows no limits. Immediately the house was filled with perfume. It was almost as if, after the death of that perfume and the breaking of the bottle, there was a resurrection. Broken things are precious. We eat broken bread because we share in the death of our Lord and his broken life. Broken flowers give perfume. Broken incense is used in adoration. A broken ship saved Paul and many other passengers on the way to Rome. Sometimes the only way the good Lord can get into some hearts is to break them. (Through the Year with Fulton J. Sheen)
The first thing to understand when looking at this quote is that God is not the Author of evil. God is Goodness itself; He is Love itself; He is Mercy itself. He cannot cause or bring about evil, pain, or suffering. What He does is permit evil, because He knows a greater good will come of it. That is His prerogative alone, to bring good out of evil, to permit evil in order that a greater good may come of it. This quote is not promoting the idea that the end justifies the means. If this quote meant that the ends justifies the means, then it would mean that God directly causes the heartbreak in order to bring someone closer to Himself. As Goodness itself, though, He cannot directly cause heartbreak.
Do we feel like God has abandoned us and doesn’t care about our problems? He cried out on the Cross–not in despair, but in a moment of sympathy with all atheists throughout the centuries (Sheen, Life of Christ, 379)–“My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” (Mt. 27:46).
I’ve heard some say that this quote is sick and twisted, that pain and suffering can draw you away from God. And it is true that if we look at this quote in the wrong way–by viewing God as the direct Cause and Author of our heartbreak–then it is sick. If God, Who is all-good, all-loving, and all-merciful, were to directly cause pain and suffering and heartbreak just to teach us a lesson–then that would be sick. But He doesn’t do that. He’s not like that. Because of Who He is–Goodness itself–He cannot cause evil.
Because I believe that God cannot cause directly the heartbreak of which Sheen speaks, I am able to see a certain beauty and truth in this quote. By the grace of God, I believe that God is all-merciful, all-loving, all-good. I believe that, because He is Goodness itself, He cannot cause evil.
And, yes, pain and suffering can take us away from God; they can make us bitter, they can make our faith seem like an illusion and they can make us feel that the idea of God as a loving, provident Father is a lie. But if we let that happen, if we let the pain make us bitter; we’re doing what Pharaoh did. When the plagues hit, he “hardened his own heart,” as Ex. 8:15 reads; he willed to resist the grace of God. God was offering him grace and he resisted it. The commentary on the Douay-Rheims Bible for Ex. 7:3 explains: “I shall harden: not by being the efficient cause of his hardness of heart, but by permitting it; and by withdrawing grace from him, in punishment of his malice; which alone was the proper cause of his being hardened.” Again, God did not cause Pharaoh’s hardness of heart, but only permitted it; and because Pharaoh persisted in sin, He withdrew His grace from him, because mortal sin and God’s grace cannot exist simultaneously.
If we have a wound, the only way we’re going to keep that wound from becoming infected is to cleanse it with rubbing alcohol or hydrogen peroxide–and that stuff stings. If our hearts are hardened, bitter or closed against God, sometimes the only thing that will bring us back to Him, that will open our hearts to His mercy, His love, and His grace, is if He allows suffering to “break” our hearts, to help us realize that this world is not all there is and that in eternity His Love and Mercy and Goodness will make our sufferings in this life seem like nothing.