Apr 2, 2021

Extraordinary Suffering, Amazing Grace

The spiritual advice often given to Catholics is "to unite your suffering to Christ's." I've struggled with  the Church's theology of redemptive suffering through many years of my children's, my husband's, and my own suffering. I've had a shallow understanding of our "participation" in Christ's suffering until recent news about someone else's suffering cast new light on the subject for me. 

I haven't allowed myself to think of my nuclear family's suffering as "unfair," although it clearly has been extraordinary (that is, out of the ordinary) compared to most families I know. Not many families deal with two children with rare conditions causing life-long travails. It's painful to contemplate the (possibly) lost potential of my beautiful, brilliant girls. 

Nor do many people live a charmed life with little suffering, although it's better for everyone's character to be grateful for our blessings rather than bemoan our curses (Jordan Peterson says "better to think of yourself as a perpetrator than a victim). We're friends with three couples who have also experienced extraordinary suffering through the tragic loss of their children. But, something about this recent example allowed me to "go there" and to finally see how unjust suffering changes the world for the better, and how the sufferers really do participate in the redemptive suffering of Christ. It's one of those mind-blowing paradoxes of the Christian faith.

Let's face it. No one is moved by the suffering of people who get their well-deserved comeuppance. Can anyone say they feel compassion for Hitler in a burned out bunker with a bullet in his brain? Or Mussolini shot and hung upside down from a girder over a service station? Or does anyone have a conversion experience because heartless bastards like Mao and Fidel Castro die peacefully in their beds at a ripe old age? We may feel angry toward God for the temporal injustice of such undeserved endings, but we have some consolation in believing God will have the final say about these killers' eternal destinies.

But, it's unjust suffering that changes hearts, both for the sufferers and those who love them. I write this on Good Friday, when Christians observe the Passion and death of our Lord Jesus Christ. As part of the Liturgy of the Word, Catholics will recite the Passion narrative, with the congregation taking the part of the crowd shouting, "Crucify him! Crucify him!" It's terrible -- my least favorite observance of the liturgical year -- and it's meant to be. It's meant to finally impel us to turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel, as we were instructed upon receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday at the beginning of Lent. Because anyone of good conscience who participates in the re-presentation of the Passion will be heartbroken about his sinfulness leading to the torture and slaughter of the Innocent Lamb of God. It's painfully apparent to me, God wants us heartbroken, because that's how He finds His way in and redeems us. 

I've been heartbroken by my little family's suffering. So has Mr. Chauvinist. And the softening of our hearts has drawn us closer together -- and closer to God. Sometimes I'm startled by how tenderhearted Mr. C is toward others who suffer. It's not unmanly -- in fact, it's a sign of being more fully human. More Christ-like. 

I finally appreciate Saint Paul's rejoicing in  his suffering for the sake of souls. My pastor once told us that we "are at the very heart of the Church" because of our suffering. Now, because of this other innocent's suffering, I can see how he is united in Christ's suffering -- how his suffering will move hearts toward God -- for the sake of the whole world. Pope Saint John Paul II once said, "suffering unleashes love." My loved one may not know it yet, but he's been privileged to share in Christ's suffering -- and so have we. 

Let us bear all things thankfully, be it poverty, be it disease, be it anything else whatever: for he alone knows the things expedient for us. . . Are we in poverty? Let us give thanks. Are we in sickness? Let us give thanks. Are we falsely accused? Let us give thanks. When we suffer affliction, let us give thanks . . . Affliction is a great good. "Narrow is the way," so that affliction thrusts us into the narrow way. He who is not pressed by affliction cannot enter. 

-- Saint John Chrysostom