The nature of suffering and its connection to growing in the virtue of charity is something that I spend a lot of time pondering. This connection has become even more prevalent in my spiritual life in relation to the Cross for a variety of reasons. We have a tendency when we are faced with suffering–especially someone else’s suffering–to try to fix it, offer theological maxims, or practical advice. We do anything we can to keep ourselves at a distance from the suffering person.
Another’s suffering makes us uncomfortable. It awakens fear within us and powerlessness. It destroys the illusion that we have any power or control. Suffering leaves us completely vulnerable. We don’t think this is the issue at the time when we confront someone who is suffering. We think that we are simply being helpful, but I truly believe that how we respond to suffering has a lot to do with our own lack of self-awareness about our motives and responses, as well as how we view and embrace/avoid suffering. Have we truly embraced the Cross in our lives including the crosses others?
Two figures who have loomed large for me in the last year are Our Heavenly Mother and St. John; both of whom stood at the foot of the Cross while Our Lord endured His Passion and death. The first reason for their influence in my spiritual life is because of my secondary vocation as a spiritual mother to priests. Our Lady’s example is the prime example of spiritual motherhood of any kind, but especially to the priesthood. My Marian consecration opened up the path to this vocation.
St. John is the priest who endured the Passion when no others would. He is an essential figure and intercessor for priests today in the midst of so much scandal. He is the father of mysticism and one word summarizes all of his writings in Sacred Scripture: agape (divine love). He knew the requirements of charity at a deep level and He embraced those demands alongside Our Heavenly Mother.
Our Lady and St. John’s example at the foot of the Cross is an essential lesson for all of us in learning how to endure and embrace suffering. We have a tendency to try to fix suffering or offer theological or practical advice to the suffering. There are times for this, but by-in-large, when the suffering is greatest, we are called to simply endure the suffering alongside of them. This is the real call of charity in suffering in communion. We can’t fix or take away someone’s suffering. We are called to love them and walk with them. That’s it.
The suffering Christian typically knows–at least at a basic intellectual level–the reasons for suffering or the fact that it is a by-product of the Fall. Part of what makes suffering greater is the knowledge that this is not how it is supposed to be. We are made for communion with God and that was ruptured with the Fall which ushered in sin and death. We know Christ has redeemed us, but that we must also endure our own Passion and death in this life in order to be with Him forever in the next.
There is a point, however, when suffering becomes so heavy and great that the use of reason becomes impossible. This is the moment when theological explanations or “practical” advice are utterly useless. The person who is suffering must simply endure and embrace the intensity of the agony until that moment of agony passes. It will pass and the use of reason will return for a time.
There are no words of explanation, theological platitudes, or practical advice that are of any use in these moments because the person has hit the point of unbridled pain and agony. They know these answers already, but the pain is so great that all they can do at the time is hurt. Instead, the person looking from the outside uses these explanations as a way of establishing distance and to comfort their own fear rather than enter into the suffering of the other person.
We must all learn how to embrace suffering together. Our Lady and St. John endured the Cross with Our Lord and entered into the mystery of suffering, the place where silence is the only response. I think we all must learn to be comfortable with that place. The only way to overcome this fear within us is through agape.
St. John’s writings are essential in responding to suffering in love. We have to reach the point when all we can do is look at the suffering person and tell them: “I’m sorry you are hurting so much. I know its heavy.” And then fall silent alongside of them and endure the moment of agony together. This is to love as Christ loves.
I know for myself, with the suffering God asks me to endure, that I reach moments when theological explanations actually frustrate me more, and I’m a theologian. There comes a time when I need someone to simply look at me as I am, to see me in my suffering and find the courage to look me in the eyes and say: “I’m sorry. I know it hurts.” It is an acknowledgment of the pain and to see me as I am rather than as someone to push back because of fear or discomfort. To do this for someone is to look directly at the Cross in all of its horror and glory and to choose to endure it with them in the communion we are called to as brothers and sisters in Christ.
All of us do this to one another at times: spouses, family, friends, priests, etc. If we allow the divine life to fill us up and embrace our call to love as Christ loves, then He will give us the courage to enter into one another’s suffering with all of its powerlessness and vulnerability. It is there where we will begin to learn the true depths of charity and communion.
Our Lady of Sorrows and St. John, ora pro nobis.