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Reflections on Human Suffering

In spite of our pain, we must remember that we never suffer alone.

(Editor’s Note – The italicized quotes are from the Holy Father’s letter.)

Satan never lied more cleverly than he did in the Garden of Eden, when he made his empty promise to Eve. The fruit of the forbidden tree would not cause her to die, he said; it would make her like God. Eve ate the fruit, and gave it to Adam, and they learned how foolish they had been to believe the Father of Lies. By their sin they brought suffering into the world. Their disobedience spawned every variety of pain, both physical torment and the anguish of mind and heart.

God in His mercy not only sent His Son to atone for original sin and to open the gates of Paradise, He went further. He transformed suffering, the bitter fruit of sin, and made it the means by which all people might indeed become like God. By our suffering we participate in Christ’s redemption. We become like God in pain and humiliation, that we might become like Him in the radiance of the Resurrection.

Christ has told us that no one comes to the Father except through Him. In the same way, no one comes to Christ without following Him to Calvary. The road is difficult and the journey is filled with pain. There are times when the image of the Risen Christ, resplendent in victory, fades behind a film of tears and is replaced by the Man of Sorrows, tortured and humiliated. The sky darkens and we cry out with Job, “I will speak from the bitterness of my soul. I will say to God: ‘…Let me know why you oppose me.’”

“Man can put this question to God with all the emotion of his heart and with his mind full of dismay and anxiety; and God expects the question and listens to it.”

God understands our confusion and anguish over suffering. He gives us consolation far beyond what was given to Job. He gives us His Son. Christ is Love incarnate, God Himself come to earth not only to redeem His creatures but to share their lives, to feel what they feel, to learn what it is to be human. Caryll Houselander, the English Catholic writer, said, “To the Christian, suffering is not a problem to be explored by the human mind, but a mystery to be experienced by the human heart.” This is the great humility of God, that he took for Himself a human heart, in order to suffer alongside His creation.

“Christ…was sensitive to every human suffering, whether of the body or of the soul.”

It would be wrong to think that Jesus approved of suffering for its own sake, or that He was content to sympathize with those in pain. He proved His compassion for them in the simplest way, by healing them. He cleansed the sores of lepers. He gave sight to the blind. He made the lame and the paralyzed walk again, He touched the sick and gave them health and strength. Those who suffered in mind and soul cried out to Him, and He heard their pleas; He cast out demons, He cured the centurion’s beloved servant, He restored life to the little daughter of Jairus. He was so moved at the sight of the widow of Naim weeping over her dead son that he brought the son back to life.

When our problems seem unimportant compared to the heavy crosses of death, disease, and deformity, we need to remember that Jesus understood the smaller sorrows of life. At the urging of His Mother, He spared a family from shame and embarrassment when they ran out of wine at their wedding party. From the beginning of His public ministry, Jesus looked upon people not only with divine compassion but with the tender human empathy He learned from His Mother.

“Christ gives the answer to the question about suffering and the meaning of suffering not only by His teaching…but most of all by His own suffering.”

There is nothing we can suffer that Christ has not suffered before us. He was a refugee while He was still a baby, carried to Egypt in His Mother’s arms to escape the murderous King Herod. When He began His public life, He was rejected by the people among whom He had lived. He knew loneliness as He fasted in the desert, and grief when His friend Lazarus died.

Jesus’ closest friends were often slow to understand what He taught them and why He had come. James and John, blind to Christ’s example of self-denial, asked Him for the highest places in His Kingdom. Even at the Last Supper the Apostles fell into an argument about which of them was the greatest. Jesus took Peter, James and John into the Garden of Gethsemane to be with Him in the moment of His deepest spiritual anguish; instead of keeping vigil, they fell asleep. Finally, one of His own betrayed Him.

Extreme physical agony was only part of the Passion of Christ. He was subjected to the basest ridicule and humiliation. Mocked and spat at, dressed in royal robes as a cruel jest, He was finally stripped naked before the crowd and raised up as an object of derision and desolation. On the cross He endured not only pain, thirst, and slow suffocation, but the taunts and jeers of the crowd and the soldiers.

It must have added immeasurably to the agony for Christ to know that His Mother stood and watched His ordeal, helpless to aid Him, except to stay at the foot of the cross till He died. Even in His torment He thought of her welfare, giving her into the care of St. John. When He gave John to her as her son, He made her the mother of all of us. If we must bear the searing grief and anxiety of watching someone we love brought low by sickness or disgrace, we can look to Mary for consolation. No one understands as well as she does what it means to grieve over the anguish of another.

The surest comfort we can find in our own pain and frustration is that Christ knows what we endure because He endured it Himself. If we are broken in body, so was Christ; if we are tormented in mind, so was Christ; if we are deserted by our closest friends, so was Christ. Even if it seems that all hope is lost and God no longer hears us, we know that Christ is there in the midst of our abandonment, crying, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

“Each man in his suffering can also become a sharer in the redemptive suffering of Christ.”

It is Christ who suffers in us, if we allow Him to offer Himself to His Father through us. We can place our suffering on the altar with the Sinless Victim; we can participate intimately with Him in redeeming creation.

Even when our suffering seems almost impossible to bear, we can offer Him our weakness. We can make our suffering fruitful by bearing patiently our own impatience, and trusting Christ to bring us at last to the perfect acceptance of God’s will. With St. Paul we can say, “I will glory in my infirmities, that the strength of Christ may dwell in me … For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

“The person who is a ‘neighbor’ cannot indifferently pass by the suffering of another… He must ‘stop,’ ‘sympathize,’ just like the Samaritan of the Gospel parable.”

Just as Christ suffers in us, He suffers in every other person. He told us so Himself when He said, “Whatever you do to the least of my brethren, you do to Me.” Is a child hungry? Christ is going without food. Does a woman lie forgotten in a nursing home? Christ has no one to visit Him. Does a refugee flee from war and poverty in his homeland? Christ has nowhere to lay His head.

Christ is crucified again in all who suffer. Though we could not walk with Him along the Way of the Cross, or stand on Calvary, we can alleviate the sufferings of Christ in His brothers and sisters. We can wipe His face, as Veronica did, by comforting the sick, or take His cross like Simon the Cyrenian by listening to someone who needs our counsel and friendship. We can raise the fallen Christ when His strength fails in the aged, the weak, and the sinner. We can plead for His life in the unborn, the handicapped, and the retarded.

We need to become sharers in Christ’s Passion not only by offering our own suffering, but by extending ourselves in love to Christ suffering in others.

“In weakness He manifested His power and in humiliation He manifested all His messianic greatness.”

It is Christ who suffers in the sinner, no less than in the virtuous. Sinless though He was, He took upon Himself the sinner’s terrible burden. In Gethsemane He nearly broke beneath the weight of all the world’s guilt for all time.

Is a woman so bowed down by her problems that she turns to alcohol or drugs to escape? Christ is too weak to bear His cross, and needs someone to help. Has a man begun stealing, whether from poverty or greed? The day Christ went to Paradise, He took a thief with Him. To love the sinner while hating the sin is a difficult thing to do, but we can make it easier in two ways: by acknowledging the sin in ourselves, and by seeing Christ in all sinners.

“The Gospel of suffering is being written unceasingly, and it speaks unceasingly with the words of this strange paradox: the springs of divine power gush forth precisely in the midst of human weakness.”

Suffering is woven into the fabric of life; it is part of everyone’s experience. Some crosses are visible, like illness or injury. Others, like rejection or loneliness, are mostly invisible. It is easy sometimes to fall into the trap of thinking that everyone around us is happy, and only we bear a burden. If we could see the invisible crosses, however, we would find that some of the heaviest ones are on the shoulders of the most tranquil and cheerful people.

Learning to suffer is an art as well as a prayer. It requires patience, practice, and perseverance. The way is stony and we are liable to fall often, but it is when we are weakest that God is most powerful in us. The most heroic act in history – the redemption of the human race – took place when Christ was stretched powerless upon the cross.

When we think we have reached the limit of our endurance, and the world seems black and empty, when there is nothing left except pain and the word “Yes,” then God is very near.

As we offer our suffering to the Father, we become one with Christ crucified. As we care for others who suffer, we become one with Christ the Healer, Christ the Lover. He has promised us that having shared His Passion in our own lives and the lives of our brothers and sisters, we will rise with Him and share forever in the glory of the Resurrection.

Claudia McDonnell is a former editor of Catholic Near East Magazine and a freelance writer.

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