“Endowed with ‘a spiritual and immortal’ soul, the human person is ‘the only creature on earth that God has willed for its own sake.’ From his conception, he is destined for eternal beatitude,” states the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Or, in the words of the Baltimore Catechism, God made man to “know him, to love him, and to serve him in this world, and to be happy with him forever in the next.”
According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, St. Thomas Aquinas taught that “beatitutudo, perfect happiness, is the true supreme, subjective end of man, and is, therefore, open to all men, but is not attainable in this life…. Primarily, it consists in the activity of man’s highest cognitive faculty, the intellect, in the contemplation of God – the infinitely Beautiful.” In many ways, religion is all about happiness, about the pursuit of heaven – a state of being so beautiful that it can barely be imagined. But there are many ways in which God gives us a foretaste of it in this life.
This can be tough to believe at times. As a result, many people (even “religious” ones) seem to be unhappy. And so many people are faced with tragedies or misfortune or depression. Some, it must be admitted, seem to become less happy as a result of their religious pursuits, and it can be a challenge to convince some people who are suffering now that a brighter future awaits them in some afterlife scenario.
Then again, there have been plenty of people who are supremely happy in the midst of their earthly suffering. Blessed Teresa of Calcutta was infectious with her sense of joy and hope, and yet, after her death it was revealed that she had suffered a spiritual darkness for the last 50 years of her life, experiencing doubt, loneliness and abandonment. It was, as she herself wrote, a “terrible pain of loss, of God not wanting me, of God not being God, of God not really existing.”
For the Christian, suffering is given meaning by the fact that God himself suffered. Given that man could never atone for Adam’s sinful disobedience and fall from grace through pride (the sacrifice that was needed in order to forgive fallen man was greater than anything he himself could provide), God himself became man in order to be that sacrifice. And because man’s disobedience brought sin and death into the world, Christ – God made man – obediently suffered and died in man’s place.
“In his suffering, sins are cancelled out precisely because he alone as the only-begotten Son could take them upon himself, accept them with that love for the Father which overcomes the evil of every sin,” Blessed John Paul II says in Salvifici Doloris, his 1984 apostolic letter on suffering. “In a certain sense he annihilates this evil in the spiritual space of the relationship between God and humanity, and fills this space with good.”
The Pope continues: “He who by his Passion and death on the Cross brings about the Redemption is the only-begotten Son whom God ‘gave.’ And at the same time this Son who is consubstantial with the Father suffers as a man. His suffering has human dimensions; it also has – unique in the history of humanity – a depth and intensity which, while being human, can also be an incomparable depth and intensity of suffering, insofar as the man who suffers is in person the only-begotten Son himself: ‘God from God.’ Therefore, only he — the only-begotten Son — is capable of embracing the measure of evil contained in the sin of man: in every sin and in ‘total’ sin, according to the dimensions of the historical existence of humanity on earth.”
Thus, man’s redemption was accomplished through suffering — the Passion of Christ. The fact that God would go to such extremes shows that he wants man to be restored to the original happiness he enjoyed in the Garden. This is fully realized in eternal life in heaven, which the Holy Father calls “man’s definitive happiness in union with God.”
But although the work of redemption has been accomplished, we still suffer. “Even though enlightened by him in whom it believes, faith is often lived in darkness and can be put to the test,” says the Catechism. “The world we live in often seems very far from the one promised us by faith. Our experiences of evil and suffering, injustice, and death, seem to contradict the Good News; they can shake our faith and become a temptation against it.”
The question of suffering is as old as the story of Job. His was the first story of someone who seemingly couldn’t suffer anything worse – and then something worse befalls him. His friends believe that he suffers because of some sin in his past, but Job is a just man. “His suffering is the suffering of someone who is innocent and it must be accepted as a mystery, which the individual is unable to penetrate completely by his own intelligence,” says John Paul in Salvifici Doloris.
“Even the most intense prayers do not always obtain the healing of all illnesses,” the Catechism admits. “Thus St. Paul must learn from the Lord that ‘my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness,’ and that the sufferings to be endured can mean that ‘in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his Body, that is, the Church.’”
Christians have the opportunity to unite their sufferings with the redemptive suffering Christ experienced in the Passion. This “offering up” of one’s sufferings is seen as a participation in the salvific work of Christ.
Philosophers have struggled for centuries with questions of happiness and suffering. “God wants us to be happy as an effect of responding to the good: natural and supernatural,” says Ronda Chervin, author of Kiss from the Cross: Saints for Every Kind of Suffering. Chervin further expounds on this subject:
“When we try to be happy by clinging onto something for ourselves we wind up with fallen idols – that is, disappointment that what we got was not what we thought it would be. Happiness is not a goal but a result of union with the good, the true and the beautiful and especially the ultimate perfection, which is God himself experienced in heaven. When someone is tempted to be angry with God because he permits sufferings for oneself and beloved persons, we are making lack of suffering on earth to be our highest goal. It is as if a child would tell his/her mother, ‘You don't love me because you won't give me 10 candy bars this moment, or because you let the doctor inject me with an inoculation.’
“The ultimate truth of our lives is founded in the unique person we were meant to be. Sometimes getting there requires pain.”