As I prepare to attend the funeral of a former student, I find myself contemplating the meaning of suffering. The unexpected and tragic death of this young man has left many in the community seeking answers to questions about suffering and its meaning. In his book, Introduction to Philosophy Catholic Philosopher Jacques Maritain highlights the universality of man’s search for the meaning of suffering. As Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition undoubtedly show, suffering is meant to bring us closer to God in ways we could not imagine. The Bible never promises this side of heaven a perfect world with no suffering but it does provide examples of those who have endured suffering perfectly.
When we suffer it is natural to turn to God in prayer and while it is okay to be upset in prayer we are reminded by the late Venerable Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen that we can never accuse God of not knowing what it’s like to suffer. Often when I am praying the sorrowful mysteries, I am reminded that Christ in his humanity suffered emotionally, psychologically, physically, and spiritually, encountering and enduring every type of suffering. To top it off most of his suffering took place publically in an attempt to embarrass him and add the element of public humiliation to his suffering. Therefore, we must not forget, no matter what type of suffering we are going through private or public God knows our pain in a very real way.
Jesus and Suffering:
From the cross, Christ exclaimed “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (Mat 27:46). At first glance this appears to be an additional suffering, namely, the abandonment of God. For many who are suffering this might be an all too familiar feeling; however, upon taking a deeper look we see that Christ was not in despair rather he was giving glory to the Father. In Jewish tradition, there is a scriptural technique known as Remez by which a rabbi quotes a single line or phrase as a way of pointing to an entire passage. In Matthew 27:46 Christ quotes the beginning of Psalm 22 “My God, My God, why have you abandoned me” to which his audience would have picked up that he was intending the meaning of the entire psalm. Psalm 22 is a triumphant psalm that concludes “And I will live for the Lord; my descendants will serve you.” What Christ is communicating from the cross is not a cry of anger and feeling of abandonment but a cry of triumph and glory to the Father. Christ on the cross is not running from the Father nor is the Father hiding from the Son, rather Christ is running into the Father's arms and the Father is there with arms wide open “Father into your hands I commend my spirit” (Lk 23:46). In times of suffering, it is tempting to feel abandoned but we must fight through that temptation and run to God not away from Him because He is always there with arms wide open.
Elsewhere while speaking on the conditions for discipleship Jesus says, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Mat 16: 24). Not only is suffering a natural part of life, Christ in a supernatural way requires us to embrace suffering. At first glance, this might seem odd but when we examine the splendor and glory of the Crucifixion, we see that God’s response to suffering in the world is to have His love flow forth and overshadow it.
In a perfect act of love, Christ willingly suffered on the cross for our sake and salvation, as a result, an instrument of torture was transformed into the ultimate symbol of love. This is God’s plan and call to us in times of suffering; we are called to be beacons of light in times of darkness to be symbols of hope and love and testify to the truth, which is God is more powerful than all evils combined. Therefore, just as Christ embraced his suffering to give glory to his Father in heaven, so should we embrace our suffering to give glory to Christ. If we pick up our cross and follow Christ in an act of love he will draw us into himself and honor his word “Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted” and “Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”(Mat 5:4,10). The lives of the saints and martyrs are the most vivid examples we have of Christ comforting those who mourn and offering his kingdom to those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness.
Mary and Suffering
Sometimes we encounter suffering indirectly when observing a loved one struggle with their crosses and for these instances, Mary is the perfect model of this struggle. In the second chapter of Luke’s Gospel Simeon reveals to Mary that she will not be immune to suffering throughout her life “You a sword will pierce” (Lk 2:35). Like her son, Mary knows suffering in a very real and intimate way and she models in a perfect way how we ought to endure suffering. Our Lady of Sorrows stood alongside her son with unwavering faith in God while he was beaten, mocked, spit on, abandoned, and murdered; therefore, when in a state of suffering we must remain faithful to God for His ways are not our ways they are higher than our ways as Isaiah 55 says. I know it can be difficult to accept His ways are not our own, especially in times of suffering but turning to Mother Mary in prayer during those difficult times can provide the strength, comfort, and example one needs to endure in times of suffering.
St. Paul and Suffering
In 2 Corinthians St. Paul states “Therefore, that I might not become too elated, a thorn in the flesh was given to me” (2 Cor 12:7). While much ink has been spilled debating exactly what Paul is alluding to, the vast majority of biblical scholars agree that Paul is referring to some type of perpetual suffering. One can turn to the twenty-fourth verse of the first chapter of his letter to the Colossians to see St. Paul’s attitude in times of suffering “ Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ for the sake of his body, which is the church.” Again it might seem odd that St. Paul rejoices in his suffering but when we read the last line we see that suffering is an occasion for rejoicing. Paul says that he makes up for what is lacking in Christ's body, which is the church, this means that our sufferings can be offered up for the healing of Christ’s church. Once we come to realize this reality our sufferings become reason for rejoicing because God calls on every one of us to offer up our sufferings for each other and His church. Therefore, suffering is not for nothing nor is it meaningless, rather God in His infinite goodness permits us to merit grace in times of suffering, grace which can be offered up to spiritually heal his church and others. I would like to remind you that all this only makes sense in light of the cross and the fact that Christ conquered suffering and death so that he lords over them and brings good from them. This makes Christ's command to take up our cross even more profound, Christ who lords over death and suffering brings good through our suffering by creating an opportunity to be drawn closer to him and offer up our suffering for his church.
St. Thomas Aquinas and Practical Advice
In the First Part of the Second Part of the Summa Theologiae St. Thomas Aquinas in question 38 provides some practical advice for those who are suffering. St. Thomas says that we can lessen the sting of grief and suffering through weeping, being with friends, contemplating truth, sleeping, and taking baths, all very practical and timeless forms of dealing with suffering.
In summation, suffering is an all too real part of our world and we are not promised that it will be eradicated this side of heaven; however, God has provided us throughout the ages with perfect examples of how to endure suffering so as to bring the most good from it. Remember, suffering is not for nothing it is an opportunity to grow closer to God and to unite your suffering to his so that you stand as a beacon of love and hope in times of darkness.