The king has cancer

Is it virtuous to suffer?

Some think so and they organise it themselves. They take responsibility for their own punishment, particularly (though not exclusively) in religious traditions, where suffering has been over-valued; and on occasion, become an obsession.

Catherine of Sienna is a popular Italian saint; yet she fasted so relentlessly she starved herself to death at the age of thirty three.

It was called ‘Anorexia mirabilis’ in the 14th century and considered an inspiring example of devotion. These days it’s regarded as an illness, often related to the need for control.

And while our present Prime Minister Rishi Sunak isn’t in danger of starving; it has been revealed that he fasts from Sunday evening to Tuesday morning.

Why he does this, we don’t know. And as we don’t know his intentions, we can’t comment – because intention shapes the event.

But history shows that there are questions to be asked of spiritual masochism.

Is it possible that the adoption of stylised forms of pain – whether self-flagellation, horse-hair shirts, fasting or whatever – is simply to avoid engagement with the more threatening aspects of life that arrive without invitation?

Does the wearing of a horse-hair shirt make me more attuned to the suffering of the world? Does it make me a kinder, more generous soul?

Or does it somehow seal me in, protecting me from pain’s clammy reach, by giving me my own personalised suffering to contemplate. (And possibly even admire.)

Is spiritual masochism solidarity with the world or escape from it? Engagement or separation?

In my experience, we do not have to seek out suffering or diary it in. If we actively engage with the world and ourselves, it simply arrives; and sometimes with significant force. Life is difficult.

And so it has been for King Charles, who recently revealed his diagnosis of cancer.    

 This is not suffering he has organised into existence. Rather, it has arrived at his door unannounced; a brutal, wild and unwelcome guest at the palace.

And the thing is, he has been kind enough to tell us. He didn’t have to tell us; secrecy would have saved much speculation and a thousand unwelcome questions.

But he says that he wanted his own journey to be helpful to others experiencing the same.  

Cancer charities have understandably applauded his decision. The royal narrative, with its attendant publicity, gives many people the chance to process their own difficult story; and maybe, to have it heard for the first time.

Suffering is not, in itself, a virtue. But what we do with it might be.