The Power & Beauty of Suffering
I was thinking about redemptive suffering and its unique place in Catholic theology- and its absence from Protestant theology. Of course this is something Jesus Himself told us:
“If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me." Mt 16:24The saints would also often say that their greatest desire can be summed up in one phrase; to love and to suffer.
Saint Catherine of Sienna: "...every suffering they bear from any source at all, in spirit or in body, is of infinite worth, and so satisfies for the offense that deserved an infinite penalty...[even though]...these are finite deeds in finite time."
Servant of God, Fr. John Hardon S.J.: "Love wants to suffer for the Beloved... Love wants to expiate the sins that have so deeply penetrated mankind. Love wants to make up for the lack of love among those who sin. Love wants to relieve the debt of suffering that sinners owe to God. Love wants to give God what sinners are depriving Him of by their sins."
Saint Therese of Lisieux, Story of a Soul, p.27
"I understood that to become a saint one had to suffer much, seek out always the most perfect thing to do, and forget self. I understood, too, that there are many degrees of perfection and each soul was free to respond to the advances of the Our Lord, to do little or much for Him, in a word, to choose among the sacrifices He was asking. Then, as in the days of my childhood, I cried out: 'My God I choose all!' I do not want to be a saint by halves. I'm not afraid to suffer for You. I fear only one thing: to keep my own will; so take it, for I choose all that You will!"
Ven. Mary of Agreda, Mystical City of God, Book VI, Chp. V
Words of the Queen: "I remind thee that there is no exercise more profitable and useful to the soul than to suffer....Therefore, my daughter, embrace the cross, and do not admit any consolation outside of it in this mortal life. By contemplating and feeling within thyself the sacred Passion, thou wilt attain the summit of perfection and attain the love of a spouse...I find so few who console with me and try to console my Son in His sorrows..."
Diary of Saint Faustina
"Jesus says; 'My daughter, I want to instruct you on how you are to rescue souls through sacrifice and prayer. You will save more souls through prayer and suffering than will a missionary through his teachings and sermons alone. I want to see you as a sacrifice of living love, which only then carries weight before Me... And great will be your power for whomever you intercede. Outwardly, your sacrifice must look like this: silent, hidden, permeated with love, imbued with prayer."
My very real and powerful experience of suffering makes this a reality for me more than any sort of intellectual conviction. Through my own loss, degradation and suffering, I felt always at one with Jesus, and united myself to His suffering, I often felt that I was clinging to the Cross in so much mental pain that I could hardly bear it. I still bear this pain, but I have learned how to live with it. I have also learned how speaking about this experience can help other people.
As often happens to me, Fr. Jeff posted a link to this blog from Hannah Vaughn-Spruce, author of Transformed in Christ, the acclaimed Confirmation programme. I wanted to post it here in full because it provides a beautiful and powerful summary of these ideas:
Have you ever been in a situation where, to everyone outside, it looked like everything had fallen to pieces? A failed plan, a project or job fallen through, a serious illness, a financial loss, some kind of suffering. And yet, buried in that suffering, and bearing its pain, deep down you had a sense that there was something “good”, “true” or “real” about this desolation. That God had allowed it to happen for a reason that was his, a reason that could not be glimpsed yet, but a reason that you sensed was something quite beautiful, even if you could not glimpse even the edges of this beauty, just yet.
To reach that small sense of goodness in the ruins lying around you, you have to “go through the mill first”, as a priest said to me once. There is no escaping this, no shortcut. In whatever suffering our life brings us, there is no way over, around, underneath or beside it… There is only through it. In the midst of this darkness, mess, confusion, we appropriate all the human responses to pain: anger, resentment, self-pity, and we cannot bear to be near those who trivialise it or cover it in clichés. This is real Job territory, and there is rarely a human life that avoids this altogether.
My (meagre) experience has taught me that suffering and pain can only be faced head on. How tempting to throw over ourselves the comfort-blanket of Netflix, arms-full of treats, friends who will coo soothing words. Or, what temptation there is to distract ourselves with activities, even good works and service to others, but to avoid all eye contact with a reality God wants us to look at. No, the biblical approach to pain is to experience it, to wrestle with it, and more importantly, to enter it with God. Only in the light of the Father’s eyes can the sense of our suffering be glimpsed. To do this, there are some truths we have to cling onto, even if our experience suggests that they cannot be true anymore:
- That God is utterly and overwhelming Good, and everything he does is good.
- That he is our Father who desires such great happiness for us, we can scarcely imagine it.
- That he can transform every evil, pain or suffering into what will make us more free, and therefore, more happy – if we suffer it with him.
How easily we can scan over these truths and nod our heads – and yet, how hard it is to deeply believe them. You see, I think deep down we often distrust God. When something bad happens to us, our pre-rational response is that this is a punishment from God, or a sign that God does not really love us. Part of our transformation in Christ is – through the work of grace – shedding these lies and suspicions about God. Part of our transformation in Christ is realising that he is trulygood, and that all things work together for our good. Part of our transformation in Christ is realising that he can be utterly trusted – in all things, at all times.
How important, then, when we are going through a season in our life that is painful, dark – even at times unbearable – that we have space, silence, solitude… to be alone with God… to allow our hearts to be “pounded”, and yet to reach out to the One – who we might experience as absent – but who we know is Good, and who can be trusted. How can we do this? Sometimes it means retreating into our hearts in the early morning stillness, knowing God is there and experiences within us all that we feel. Sometimes it might be while walking the dog, or swimming lengths at the local pool. It might be going to sit in an empty church. In a season of suffering, we have to find that place where we can be alone with him and receive his love. Undoubtedly, this will be an experience of love that is new, that we had not experienced before. It is a love that cannot be expressed in words, that is a mystery, beyond all feeling. But it is real.
Going through this, there will come a point when we can make an act of surrender: Whatever is your will, O God. I place all things into your hands. And it will be the most truthful, honest, heart-wrenching surrender we have ever made. Because surrender that comes out of suffering is powerful. We will even feel there is something “dangerous” about this surrender, because we know we are giving God free reign. But there will also be something that we recognise as solidly Good, honestly True, and tenderly Beautiful about this act. This act of surrender deepens the union of our heart with God’s. It is, truly, the work of Redemption in us, and it is why God allows our hearts to be broken. In the words of Pope St John Paul II,
“…this is the human dimension of the mystery of the Redemption. In this dimension man finds again the greatness, dignity and value that belong to his humanity. In the mystery of the Redemption man becomes newly “expressed” and, in a way, newly created. He is newly created! … The man who wishes to understand himself thoroughly – and not just in accordance with immediate, partial, often superficial, and even illusory standards and measures of his being – he must with his unrest, uncertainty and even his weakness and sinfulness, with his life and death, draw near to Christ. He must, so to speak, enter into him with all his own self, he must “appropriate” and assimilate the whole of the reality of the Incarnation and Redemption in order to find himself. If this profound process takes place within him, he then bears fruit not only of adoration of God but also of deep wonder at himself.” Redemptor Hominis, 10