The bond between Catholics and suffering can seem awfully strange to an outsider — even to an insider. Many saints, even those among the gentlest and holiest, sought suffering as a way to get closer to Christ on the cross.
Despite all the sentimental associations as a lover of animals, St. Francis of Assisi was brutally hard on himself. Why would anyone strip naked in the town square, wander the countryside with no shoes in the winter in the barest amount of clothing and rejoice while being beaten by bandits? Why would he welcome the chance to kiss a leper?
St. Catherine of Siena also sought out the sick in a way that most of us might find bordering on crazy or just plain repulsive.
St. Therese of Lisieux struggled with tuberculosis that ravaged her young body and yet, “She believed that even suffering, however difficult, had a place in God’s redemptive love for us,” wrote Fr. John F. Russell.
“She was convinced that our suffering, in union with the suffering and death of Jesus Christ, could help to transform the world. What is the greatest truth of all may not be the most obvious. There is a hiddenness to the wisdom of God that catches fire in hearts and events and places and over time ever so gradually consumes the earth in love.”
What was it they and myriad others found in their search for not just their own suffering but also in the suffering of others?
Was this the search for Christ crucified? Why not go past the suffering into Christ risen, never to suffer his torments again?
I have an idea about why this was and why it might still be. Perhaps their search for suffering was to fully understand what was the cost of our salvation.
During my own convalescence I was given a copy of St. John Paul II’s Apostolic Letter, on the power of salvific suffering.
The first time I tried to read it I could not understand a word. It is not something to be read conked out on morphine. I read it again as I was getting better, and have since read it yet again.
This is one of the passages that has stuck with me:
“Even though Paul, in the Letter to the Romans, wrote that ‘the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now’, even though man knows and is close to the sufferings of the animal world, nevertheless what we express by the word ‘suffering’ seems to be particularly essential to the nature of man,” St. John Paul II wrote.
“It is as deep as man himself, precisely because it manifests in its own way that depth which is proper to man, and in its own way surpasses it. Suffering seems to belong to man’s transcendence: it is one of those points in which man is in a certain sense ‘destined’ to go beyond himself, and he is called to this in a mysterious way.”
Archbishop Charles Chaput addressed this directly in his beautiful book Render Unto Caesar.
“Someone once asked me how any sensible person could choose to become a Christian because Christians have such an unhealthy desire for suffering,” he wrote.
For an answer he turned to the French Catholic writer Léon Bloy.
“Man has places in his heart which do not yet exist,” wrote Bloy, “and into them enters suffering, that they might have existence.”
Chaput does not say that we should like suffering or go looking for it. Rather, he is more interested in what we do once suffering, “the truest democratic experience,” comes our way.
“[W]e can always choose what we do with the suffering that comes our way,” Chaput wrote. “We have that freedom. This is why suffering breaks some people, while it breaks open others into something more than their old selves, stretching the soul to greatness.”
It is Bloy’s comment I want to go back to. At first it seems harsh but then in thinking about it becomes less extraordinary than at first blush. We all know that suffering can make us stronger. Athletes know this, especially long distance runners. No one gets better at a sport by not pushing into that dark place in which the only thing we really want to say is “uncle.”
St. Paul said in Romans: “Not only that, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”
Most of us are drafted into the world of pain. We do not want it. We will do most anything to make it stop. But pain seems to have a will of its own. We have no choice but to face it because there is nowhere to run and hide. Even when taking pills there is awareness of pain looming just out of site ready to turn up the volume just as the pain medication begins to wear down.
For Catholics this is the moment when all our faith becomes visceral. Any ideas we had about pain in the abstract vanish. We are amazed at its power but also in what we can learn about ourselves and what we can endure.
I am not suggesting that anyone chase suffering or urge others to suffer. To be honest I still cannot explain why children must suffer. I probably never will. For that I have to trust in God.
I will make a suggestion with the caveat that this might be done by those who feel the strength to handle it: Prepare for the day – if not for ourselves at least for others — when suffering comes.
Pray about it. Read about the saints in a way that allows you to understand what they were doing. Try to think about Christ in the garden sweating blood at the very thought of the ordeal that was coming. This is not masochism but a step toward wisdom.
Charles Lewis is a regular contributor to The Catholic Register and a board member of the Catholic Civil Rights League. He has been writing for 36 years. He was also the religion reporter for the National Post until January 2014.
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