In my last post I laid out my view of suffering as a Protestant. There were things that just didn’t equate for me, such as the notion that in being a Christian, one can squeak by with hopefully little suffering in life and without giving much thought to personal sacrifice. As I read through the history of the Church, it seemed to me that Catholics had a tradition of suffering that did not quite match my Protestant understanding that suffering=just another unfortunate side effect of being trapped in this evil flesh.
On the one hand, there are many similarities in the Catholic understanding and the Protestant understanding of suffering. For example, neither party would deny that suffering reveals our true character, and that in dealing with pain, we are also given an opportunity to grow in virtue. “Not only that, but we even boast of our afflictions, knowing that affliction produces endurance, and endurance, proven character, and proven character, hope,and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Romans 5:3-5)
I also don’t think anyone would deny that it is exactly in our times of weakness that God’s strength is manifest (since that is, you know, stated in the Bible.) Blessed JPII states it more eloquently than I ever could in his 1984 encyclical, Salvifici Doloris (hereafter refered to as SD):
Those who share in Christ’s sufferings have before their eyes the Paschal Mystery of the Cross and Resurrection, in which Christ descends, in a first phase, to the ultimate limits of human weakness and impotence: indeed, he dies nailed to the Cross. But if at the same time in this weakness there is accomplished his lifting up, confirmed by the power of the Resurrection, then this means that the weaknesses of all human sufferings are capable of being infused with the same power of God manifested in Christ’s Cross. In such a concept, to suffer means to become particularly susceptible, particularly open to the working of the salvific powers of God, offered to humanity in Christ. In him God has confirmed his desire to act especially through suffering, which is man’s weakness and emptying of self, and he wishes to make his power known precisely in this weakness and emptying of self. This also explains the exhortation in the First Letter of Peter: “Yet if one suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but under that name let him glorify God”(75).
As I began to dig deeper into this wonderful (and relatively short, so read it!) letter, I was stretched by some thoughts that I had never really entertained in regard to the problem of suffering. Even though these are ideas that are explicitly stated in Scripture, I can’t say I ever heard them laid out in this way (kind of ironic how, as a Protestant, knowing the Bible is paramount, but huge swaths of it, especially the “hard stuff”, are pretty much ignored…) For example, I’m sure I had read this passage many times without getting it: “Accordingly, we ourselves boast of you in the churches of God regarding your endurance and faith in all your persecutions and the afflictions you endure. This is evidence of the just judgment of God, so that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God for which you are suffering.” (2 Thessalonians 1:4-5) Again, I’ll give you the words of Blessed JP II in SD:
Christ has led us into this Kingdom through his suffering. And also through suffering those surrounded by the mystery of Christ’s Redemption become mature enough to enter this Kingdom.
A verse which I memorized early on was Jesus’ words, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” It is exactly this sentiment that marks the beginning of this refining journey that leads to the Kingdom. So often, I think it is easy to focus on the endpoint and not on what it takes to get there. It’s really sort of a circular path: with Christ’s suffering, we have redemption, and in his redemption, we share in his glory, but we cannot share in his glory unless we take the same path, which is suffering, and suffering begins with a cross.
I am keeping this post on the short side and saving the rest for my last post in this series. It is by far, the heaviest stuff, and it’s something I had never at all entertained as a Protestant, and thus, it makes my little brain hurt. So stay tuned for my next post.