In my first and second post in this series I discussed my view of suffering as a Protestant. To sum it all up, it didn’t make sense to me that Christians should expect a life of ease and comfort when Jesus didn’t exactly take the easy route. Beyond that though, I wasn’t sure what to make of the “extreme” nature of suffering that people have been willing to endure for the Faith. I always wondered what it was with Catholics and suffering. You know, the hair shirts, the living on top of a pillar thing, the extreme deprivations, and etc.
Indeed, one of the standard Protestant criticisms of Catholicism is that Catholics keep
Jesus on the cross and crucify him over and over and in doing so, neglect the victory that was won by his resurrection from the dead; the crucifix and the Sacrifice of the Mass are two specific things that come to mind as “proof” of that. To embrace suffering is to beat a dead horse; if death has been defeated, why be so morbid and dwell on the negative when you can start living the good life that was meant for believers? People are drawn to happy, successful people, after all. So stop acting like a loser.
I’ve never heard anyone say it outright, but don’t a lot of people view those who suffer in that light? Suffering is for those who have lost out. Having to take the walk of shame is not attractive, especially in American culture. If you’re not fabulously successful, as defined by our narrow modern terms of what success means, then, well, you’re nobody. Nowhere is that more evident than here in the D.C. area where the first question you’ll be asked at social events is, “What do you do?” I’d love to see the look on some type-A, overachiever’s face if the response was, “I suffer.”
I mentioned this in the last post so I don’t want to harp on it, but the result of running from discomfort is the increasing need for a “hit” of good feelings. In the second episode of Father Barron’s Catholicism series, he talks about our modern addiction to good feelings and how the beatitude “Blessed are those who mourn” could really be interpreted as, “how lucky you are if you are not addicted to good feelings” and how not being addicted to good feelings can allow a person to follow God’s will, even if it involves suffering. Click on the clip below- his discussion on that beatitude starts around minute 2:18, although the whole thing is well worth three minutes of your time.
It seems as if that first step of releasing the need to feel good is the hardest. In fact, I’d say most of us never get beyond it. And here’s the hardest part- the stuff that has really taken some time for me to wrap my brain around, but there is a reason to look beyond the easy fix:
In the cross of Christ not only is the Redemption accomplished through suffering, but also human suffering itself has been redeemed…The Redeemer suffered in place of man and for man. Every man has his own share in the Redemption. Each one is also called to share in that suffering through which the Redemption was accomplished. He is called to share in that suffering through which all human suffering has also been redeemed. In bringing about the Redemption through suffering, Christ has also raised human suffering to the level of the Redemption. Thus each man, in his suffering, can also become a sharer in the redemptive suffering of Christ. –Blessed JPII in Salvifici Doloris
If suffering has been redeemed and if we are called to share in this redemptive suffering, then it makes perfect sense that there have been many throughout history who have embraced situations or trials that would seem completely abhorrent to the rest of us. These Saints had already grasped the notion that their own suffering could be “offered up” for the good of the Church. It is in this context that Colossians 1:24 finally makes sense in a way that it never had before to me: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church, of which I am a minister…”
So by redeeming suffering, Christ allows us to share in the redemptive process through our own suffering. Again JPII explains it far better than I can:
In the Paschal Mystery Christ began the union with man in the community of the Church. The mystery of the Church is expressed in this: that already in the act of Baptism, which brings about a configuration with Christ, and then through his Sacrifice—sacramentally through the Eucharist—the Church is continually being built up spiritually as the Body of Christ. In this Body, Christ wishes to be united with every individual, and in a special way he is united with those who suffer. The words quoted above from the Letter to the Colossians bear witness to the exceptional nature of this union. For, whoever suffers in union with Christ— just as the Apostle Paul bears his “tribulations” in union with Christ— not only receives from Christ that strength already referred to but also “completes” by his suffering “what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions”. This evangelical outlook especially highlights the truth concerning the creative character of suffering. The sufferings of Christ created the good of the world’s redemption. This good in itself is inexhaustible and infinite. No man can add anything to it. But at the same time, in the mystery of the Church as his Body, Christ has in a sense opened his own redemptive suffering to all human suffering. In so far as man becomes a sharer in Christ’s sufferings—in any part of the world and at any time in history—to that extent he in his own way completes the suffering through which Christ accomplished the Redemption of the world.
It is through this understanding that Catholics “offer up” their suffering, no matter how small. For a more in-depth discussion of the “whys” and “hows” click here. To offer up one’s trials is difficult to do; it requires letting go when at times the desire to just hold on to and wallow in the misery would be easier. Instead of turning inward, offering up our sufferings requires an outward turn.
With all of this laid out before me, I began to see that there is not futility in suffering, no matter how hard it may be or how senseless it may seem. I began to wonder as well at the view we in the West take of those who suffer in other parts of the world, often tinged with guilt and pity. I wonder instead if, while of course being willing to lend a hand to alleviate their troubles, we should also step back and respect the burdens given to these people that may potentially be offered up for a greater good. Really, I suppose that could apply to anyone we pity as victims instead of seeing them as fully human as ourselves, with equal, if not more, spiritual potential. As St. Therese of Lisieux put it so well, “The greatest honor God can do for a soul is not to give it much, but to ask much of it.”
Please do not understand me to be some kind of masochist. Personally, I don’t intend to seek out suffering in the near future, although I do think there’s something to be said for healthy mortification of the flesh, but I do think the Catholic theology of suffering offers great hope and purpose. And if you need any examples to emulate in times of trouble, look to the Saints. I think especially of Ignatius of Antioch, who thought it an honor to suffer and die for the cause of Christ. In a letter to fellow Christians in Rome he stated, “I am God’s wheat and I shall be ground by the teeth of beasts, that I may become the pure bread of Christ.” A happy ending to his life? Absolutely.