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Is there such a thing as “suffering well”?

JESUS ON THE CROSS
Zwiebackesser | Shutterstock
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Pain is inevitable; misery is a choice; the Cross is the remedy

What if you faced this choice: 1) Relief from your pain; or 2) Compensation for your pain. You could only choose one, and the choice couldn’t be undone. Which would you choose?

It’s a false choice. Some pain can’t be relieved; some pain can’t be compensated for. What can compensate for the loss of a child? While that pain might be lessened, can anyone say that such pain is relieved, cured, forgotten?

In this life, pain is inevitable, but misery is a choice. In a fallen world, there will be pain—physical, emotional, spiritual, moral…Misery is a choice (either active or passive) to let the pains of this world define and defeat us. Pain is stubborn, demanding as a tyrant, clouding our view of time and eternity.  Poet Emily Dickinson:

Pain has an element of blank;
It cannot recollect
When it began, or if there were
A day when it was not.

It has no future but itself,
Its infinite realms contain
Its past, enlightened to perceive
New periods of pain.

Christians admit that pain is inevitable but not misery. The choice for Christians is whether our pain will become fruitful, that is, good for ourselves, good for others, useful for God’s purposes.

From a 14th-century biography of Saint Francis:

One night, while he was thinking about all the trials he was enduring, he felt sorry for himself and said interiorly: “Lord, help me in my infirmities so that I can have the strength to bear them patiently!” And suddenly, in his mind, he heard a voice: “Tell me, brother: if you were to be given a great and precious treasure in return for your sufferings and trials…, would you not rejoice?… Be joyful and happy in the midst of your infirmities and trials: from now on live in as much peace as if you were already sharing my Kingdom.”

Francis, who bore in his body the wounds of Christ, saw in his sufferings an opportunity to become more Christlike, that is, to be more conformed to Christ in his body and soul, suffering (even unto death) for the life of the world, and being vindicated by a great victory in the resurrection. That’s the basis of the distinctively Christian response to pain—that it can be made fruitful and a path to victory the more our sufferings are united with those of Christ.

The call of every Christian disciple is to follow and become like the Master. The vows of the religious (poverty, chastity and obedience) are freely undertaken as a way of conforming themselves to Christ. A priest is to imitate the sacred mysteries he celebrates, modeling himself on Christ who is both priest and victim, Christ who cannot be found apart from his sacrifice on Calvary.

And that’s why I think we have such difficulty with pain and suffering in our times, demanding a pain-free existence (courtesy of pharmacology, technology and gratifications) and panicking (to the point of addiction, suicide or euthanasia) when suffering remains. The great saints and martyrs weren’t freaks with unusually high tolerance of pain. What separates them from most of us that they knew and loved Christ crucified.

  • They looked at the altar and saw Calvary and not a table; they emphasized sacrifice over meal.
  • They knew that the shed Blood of Jesus was their remedy and their hope.
  • They spent time, lots of time, with Christ crucified as they prayed the Stations of the Cross, as they worshiped him for hours and hours in Eucharistic adoration, as they meditated on his agony and victory aided by Scripture and the Rosary.

Thereby they came to love Christ so much that they wanted to not only comfort him in his agony but unite their agony with his, to make their sufferings like his—fruitful, life-giving, a gateway to glory.

Saints and martyrs, unlike most of us, inscribed in their memories and above all in their hearts, the command of Hebrews 12:2 to look to Jesus, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”

Our ability to persevere in times of trial, the opportunities for pain to become fruitful rather than embittering, directly depend on whether we know and love Christ so well that we choose to unite ourselves to him in imitation of his choice to die and rise for the life of the world. If we are to avoid bitterness in this life and attain beatitude in the next, we must imitate the saints in their intimate knowledge and love of Christ crucified, risen, reigning and returning.

When I write next, I will offer some contrarian views on Advent. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.

Listen to Fr. McTeigue discuss this column with John Harper at Relevant Radio here.

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