For a little more than a month now, my health hasn’t been so good, despite various medicines and a lot of rest. In that time, plans have had to be cancelled – some at very short notice – and I have not been able to fulfil my commitments in various areas. Even the most basic things, such as eating food, became impossible – I spent the month on a diet of asparagus soup, something I don’t think I will ever want to eat again.
When we are physically poorly, it can become all-consuming, so that we find it increasingly hard to focus on anything else except how we feel, even as we hold onto the hope of some improvement coming along at some point.
Now, everyone suffers in one way or another at some point – it is part of the human condition, something which we cannot escape no matter how greatly we might like to. Suffering itself is neither positive nor negative – what makes it either good or bad is what we do with it and what we allow it to do with us. But that is not to say we embrace – nor even like – suffering, which we most certainly do not. Suffering goes against the grain. It rebels against our sense of self and our idea of what we desire for ourselves. It offends our ego.
As Christians, we know – at least, intellectually – of the redemptive power of the Cross. There, we see the very epitome of redemptive suffering, with Christ bearing in His own Body the sins of the world, remitting them and offering all of us salvation. His sacrifice on the Cross is infinite, spanning and encompassing every single person in all moments of human history. No-one is excluded from the offer of that redemption which Christ has achieved. We cannot add anything to this infinite act of redemption; but we can unite ourselves – our own sufferings – to it, and in this way play an active part in it.
In the Apostolic Era, there was a gathering of Christians a little east of Ephesus in the Lycus Valley of Asia Minor, at a place called Colossae. Saint Paul wrote to them and in his letter he spoke of his thankfulness at his own sufferings – “in my flesh, I am making up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of His Body, which is the Church” (Col.1:24). It may initially seem like a strange and unrealistic comment to make. Yet, the history of the Church and of the great Saints who have shone like blazing lights throughout that history, continue this message.
We speak of the blood of Martyrs being the seed of the Church. And we read accounts of Saints who suffered greatly – willingly – and in this way, achieved sanctity for themselves and for others. And so, either our reluctance to see a redemptive quality in suffering – depending on the use to which we put it, of course – is misguided in some way, or else suffering simply has no possible value. The history of the Church answers that dilemma for us.
What possible good can come from suffering? How can the acceptance of it be a positive force in our lives?
Perhaps at the most basic level, it helps us to let go of ourselves, of our ego, of our self-will. These three tend to get in the way of real holiness – we cannot serve both God and self and hope to do well. At some point, we must choose is of the greatest value to us. Suffering can, in a strange way, both present that choice and assist us in answering it.
Also, suffering can crystallise our priorities in large part. What once had meaning and value seems to lose it when more basic requirements cannot be easily met. What matters to us undergoes a substantial shift in our personal estimation, when seen through the eyes of suffering – particularly so if that suffering is intense, or prolonged, or both.
Suffering is, as I noted earlier, part of the human condition, just as much as death is similarly part of what makes us human; and both will find us, one way or another despite our best efforts to the contrary. Now to be clear, God generally doesn’t cause suffering directly; He does, however, permit it to touch us, whilst also granting us the necessary graces that we might bear it well – that is, with fortitude, with trust in Him, and with perseverance – so that it might achieve some spiritual good, whether at the personal level or perhaps more broadly. In this way, people can say with astuteness that the Lord “writes straight with crooked lines”. The presence of suffering in our lives is not a sign that God does not love us – but the presence of his redemptive and sanctifying grace throughout it and all at other moments, that most certainly is a sign of His infinite love for us.
If you are touched by suffering in any form at this moment in your life – or in those moments yet to be – don’t look for the absence of God in your life, but for His presence within and around you. It is there. It is there abundantly.
Use this moment as a means of opening yourself to the action of the Lord’s divine grace and to the power of His holy Cross, which we are all called to take up and to embrace, that we might be better able to follow Him.