Two old school anime got me thinking about this topic: Saint Seiya and Riki-Oh: The Wall of Hell. Most of our readers have never heard of the latter title, and it can’t be recommended to most. Riki-Oh is reminiscent of Fist of the North Star in its bloody martial arts violence, and 80’s anime tend not to shy away from gore. Despite some appalling scenes, one has to love a story about a hero fighting for the underdogs–the inmates of a ruthless prison in this case, and one who remains true to his ideals despite the odds against him.
At any rate, the first major villain of Saint Seiya, Ikki of the Phoenix knight, endures a hellish environment also, but his suffering makes him more evil rather than less. As a child, each prospective saint was exiled to a part of the world for training by the man behind the tournament in which our heroes now compete. In Ikki’s case, he was sent to Death Queen Island in order to prevent his brother, Shun the Andromeda knight, from being exiled there. Though the island was meant as a severe training ground for his body and will, his trials there warped Ikki’s kind soul into one of malice and hatred–even towards his brother! How is it that Riki-Oh comes out of prison more upright, while Ikki exits his land of exile as a malicious fighting machine? How can tribulation produce different effects in people when neither lacks courage?
On a purely natural level, one might expect bad experiences to produce bitter people. Yet, St. Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians contains this interesting passage:
But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves; we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed , but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be made manifest in our body. For we who live are constantly being delivered to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death works in us, but life in you. (2 Cor. 4: 7-12)
St. Paul’s very sufferings confirm his love for God and God’s people. He sees suffering for them as a badge of honor. The persecutors of the Church try to bring St. Paul death, but his patient endurance brings about his sanctification and that of his people through the merits and passion of Christ.
The miracle of holiness is brought about by the grace of God and is denied to none who strive to live according to righteousness. (Even pagans and atheists receive actual graces from God to do the right thing even if they lack saving or sanctifying grace.) There is no way to grow in faith, hope, and love apart from doing works of faith, hope, and love. Sure, these virtues exist in every Christian soul but often imperfectly. God permits suffering so that souls can perfect these three theological virtues.
If God permits suffering for the perfection of souls, then why do Riki-Oh and Ikki find themselves at opposite ends of the spectrum after their trials? The love of the one and the desire for revenge of the other. Ikki’s thoughts while he was on Death Queen Island revolved around avenging himself. The desire for revenge even overrode the love of his brother. Tribulation and isolation can bring out some of the worst aspects of human nature in the one consumed by his own sufferings. But, if we remain united to our brothers and sisters by love–even if they are not present to us, tribulation brings out the most glorious parts of the human spirit.
C. S. Lewis famously stated that those who argued about whether faith or works were more important reminded him of someone arguing about which blade of the scissor does the cutting. One might be tempted to rely on faith alone during a time of trial, but good works are the food of the soul and only a well nourished soul can hope to sustain faith in tribulation. Ultimately, faith and works are the two sides of the coin of charity. With charity, any suffering appears endurable; without charity, a light breeze can turn us cold.