On the Christian Meaning of Suffering

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Photo Credit: Isaiah Eyre Photography

BE NOT AFRAID. I decided to return once more to the 1984 Apostolic Letter written by St. JP II titled Salvifici Doloris: On the Christian Meaning of Suffering that addressed the ever present question of suffering: why, what, and how? God transformed even something not part of His original design for humanity (suffering, pain, death, dying, etc.) into a means for transcendence: faith, hope, and charity.

We fear suffering. I can emphatically state in my greatest moments of suffering and the  suffering of my loved ones, I felt closest to heaven- the veil was lifted. Our suffering, united with Christ, can become salvific. “Suffering seems to be particularly essential to the nature of man. It is deep as man himself, precisely because 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 (3).”

We fear weakness. Weakness means vulnerability & lack of control. Christ chooses weakness as the vehicle for salvation. “To Suffer means to become particularly susceptible, particularly open to the working of the salvific powers of God . . . In [Christ], God has confirmed his desire to act especially through suffering . . . and wishes to have his power known precisely in this weakness and emptying of self (74).”

We fear the acquisition of virtue. Striving is the key word when acquiring virtue. Virtue acquisition takes hard work and doesn’t always “pay-off” in this life. “Suffering contains a special call to virtue . . . and this is the virtue of perseverance in bearing whatever disturbs and causes harm. In doing this, the individual unleashes hope, which maintain him the conviction that suffering will not get the better of him, it will not deprive him of his dignity as a human being, a dignity liked to the awareness of the meaning of life (75).”

We fear purgation. Purgation leads to heaven. God calls you and I to redeem ourselves and the world in our little way. “The Gospel of suffering is being written unceasingly, and it speaks unceasingly the words of this strange paradox: the springs of divine power gush forth precisely in the midst of human weakness. . . The more a person is threatened by sin, the heavier the structure of sin in which today’s world brings with it, the greater the eloquence which human suffering possesses in itself (89).”

We fear true compassion. Our culture & society throws around the term compassion. What is compassion? Compassion comes from the Latin root com (with) and pati (suffer). Together compatior means “to suffer with.” Compassion means “to suffer with” another person. “We could say that suffering, which is present under so many different forms in our human world, is also present in order to unleash love in the human person, that unselfish gift of one “I” on behalf of other people, especially to those who suffer (92).”

In the Gospels, Jesus repeats dozens of times, “BE NOT AFRAID.” It’s time to let go of the fear associated with suffering, death, & dying. And focus on living. Life is beautiful in all its forms & functions. It’s time to relearn how to suffer with each other. In the words of a man who understood and lived suffering: “In the messianic programme of Christ, which is at the same time the programme of the Kingdom of God, suffering is present in the world in order to release love, in order to give birth to works of love towards neighbor, in order to transform the whole of human civilization into a “civilization of love (96).” Let us go forth and build a civilization of love . . .

Abandonemnt: Steubenville NW & Charles Foucauld

Photo Credit: Prince of Peace/ Steubenville
Photo Credit: Prince of Peace/ Steubenville

Recently, I volunteered at Steubenville NW Youth Conference where I followed Jesus from the basement chapel to the opera house theater in which the Eucharistic procession took place. Darkened and filled with almost 1,300 youth, volunteers, priests, and religious, we all fell onto our knees before our Lord in Eucharistic Adoration. Though I’ve had “my first” moment with Christ, I watched in awe as many youth surrounding me experienced their “first” moment. My hope and prayer is that they continue in that spirit day-by-day.

As Jesus in the monstrance processed around the opera house, the band played “Oceans (Where Feet May Fail)” by Hillsongs. Suddenly, I wasn’t there anymore. Like a fly on the wall, I saw myself crying before Christ in a Eucharistic adoration chapel a year before. My brother was dying in an UC Denver hospital. With my eldest brother, father, his wife, and mother-in-law by side his side, I stayed with my mother who was on chemo and too ill to travel. I practically ran from Holy Family Hospital where I was work training to the nearby adoration chapel when I received the text.

I had no intention of crying. I don’t cry, let alone in public. But the foreboding reality of a life without my dear brother, my flesh and blood, and one of the loves of my life weighed heavily on me. If there was ever an “appropriate” time to cry, today was that day. I poured my heart and soul out to God as fast as the tears poured down my face. I knew that unless the emergency blood transfusion/ resuscitation worked within 30 minutes I would never hug or talk in this earthly life with my brother again. My heart shattered. All I could do was abandon myself in Christ.

Abandonment in Christ is an imposing task because it requires practice, much practice. It’s like falling in-love, well unconditional love, slowly but deeply and then there is no turning back. You choose it day-by-day, moment-by-moment. St. Charles Foucauld’s Prayer of Abandonment reads:

Father,
I abandon myself into your hands;
do with me what you will.
Whatever you may do, I thank you:
I am ready for all, I accept all.
Let only your will be done in me,
and in all your creatures –
I wish no more than this, O Lord.
Into your hands I commend my soul:
I offer it to you with all the love of my heart,
for I love you, Lord, and so need to give myself,
to surrender myself into your hands without reserve,
and with boundless confidence,
for you are my Father. Amen.

A friend commented on this prayer saying she was impressed by anyone who could pray the words and actually mean what they prayed because of the grave and challenging nature of the words prayed. I didn’t learn to abandon my potentially dying loved ones in Christ overnight. I didn’t even know I would until life happened. It took practice, years of practice, and something provided beyond my own capacity- GRACE.

While my brother lay bleeding to death and I sobbing in the Eucharistic Adoration chapel, I remember explaining to God the thousands of pieces my heart would shatter into if my brother died, how much I loved him, and how much I would miss his earthly presence, BUT I prayed, “He isn’t mine God, and if you need him more than me, you can have him.” I knew praying that simple line could change the course of my life forever, but I believed I would still have relationship with my brother in heaven. A miracle happened and my brother resuscitated after 14 liters of blood. After an eighteen day hospitalization, he returned home to WY a gaunt shadow of his usual vitality but very much alive. I know one of these days one of my family members won’t resuscitate. In the meantime, I treasure the time I’ve been given.

My brother enjoyed listening to Hillsong United’s “Oceans (Where Feet May Fail)” during his 18 day hospitalization. A little over a year later, at Steubenville NW, I sang:

“Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders
Let me walk upon the waters
Wherever You would call me
Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander
And my faith will be made stronger
In the presence of my Savior.”

AMEN.