The Lost Art of Suffering

I was at breakfast the other day, talking to a friend about the spiritual power intrinsic in suffering. To my surprise, he agreed. He, too, understood the value of suffering and responded. “Suffering is a lost art.”

“Yes,” I said. “Yes, it is.”

We live in a world and a culture that runs from suffering. In North America, in particular, we have been conditioned by a culture striving for wealth and comfort to view suffering as an obstacle to happiness. The less we suffer, the more joy will be in our lives. Yet the saints present for us an entirely different world view. St. John of the Cross said, “Love suffering.” St. Ignatius of Loyola once remarked, True, I am in love with suffering, but I do not know if I deserve the honor.” And St. Sebastian Valfre tells us, “When it is all over, you will not regret having suffered; rather you will regret having suffered so little, and [having] suffered that little so badly.”

Why do the saints say such things? Have they gone mad? Indeed, has the Catholic Church canonized all the wrong people?

Our Lord told Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska, “If the angels were capable of envy, they would envy us for two things: one is the receiving of Holy Communion, and the other is suffering.” (Diary of Saint Faustina Kowalska, p. 1805) Suffering possesses such great power and worth that nothing equals it in heaven or on earth.

But why is this?

The answer lies in that suffering not only sanctifies our souls and forges us into saints, if we allow it to, preparing us to run ecstatically through the gates of heaven, but it also brings other souls right alongside of us. Our suffering is never meaningless. Suffering is always for someone.

As iron is fashioned by fire and on the anvil, so in the fire of suffering and under the weight of trials, our souls receive that form which our Lord desires them to have.

— St. Madeline Sophie Barat.

If we only knew the precious treasure hidden in infirmities, we would receive them with the same joy with which we receive the greatest benefits, and we would bear them without ever complaining or showing signs of weariness.

— St. Vincent de Paul

If a soul truly wants to convert the greatest number of souls and bring the greatest glory to God in this life, then it must strive for self-mastery, holiness, and accept suffering. As Saint Faustina said, “O my Jesus, I know that, in order to be useful to souls, one has to strive for the closest possible union with You, who are Eternal Love . . . I can be wholly useful to the Church by my personal sanctity, which throbs with life in the whole Church, for we all make up one organism in Jesus.” To illustrate this reality, she was later made to understand that behind the walls of her cloister ,she saved a thousand souls in just forty days through her prayers and sacrifices alone:

On the First Friday of the month, before Communion, I saw a large ciborium filled with sacred hosts. A hand placed the ciborium in front of me, and I took it in my hands. There were a thousand living hosts inside. Then I heard a voice. ‘These are the hosts which have been received by the souls for whom you have obtained the grace of true conversion during this Lent’

—-Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska, Diary, p. 640
We are co-redeemers of the world. And souls are not redeemed without the cross.

–Saint Teresa of the Andes

When we think of the suffering of the saints, perhaps extreme images can come to mind of terminal illnesses, torture, martyrdom, self-flagellation, fasting on the Holy Eucharist alone, etc. But the suffering the saints speak of isn’t primarily external, but internal—how we respond interiorly to all the Our Lord presents to us and allows us to undergo each day, such as to a toothache or a harsh word thrown our way. The goal is to aim for self-denial, whether we deny our taste in food, an impulse to correct, a temptation to disobedience, at attachment to our opinion, or a desire for comfort. These negations of self, done out of love for God and neighbor, require such great heroic virtue, that they can obtain more merit than that of martyrdom. How do we know this? Because physical martyrdom only kills the body, and is therefore inferior to martyrdom of the soul, which has infinitely greater worth. As Our Lady told to Venerable Mary of Agreda, “For I assure you, my dearest, that those who are perfect and punctual in their religious obligations can equal and even surpass the martyrs in merit.” Saint Therese of Liseux echoed similar sentiments: “There are trifles that please Our Lord more than the conquest of the world; a smile or a kindly word, for instance, when I feel inclined to say nothing or to appear bored.”

What burdens us so much in suffering, in addition to the physical and mental pain it brings, is despairing over how to get rid of it, ruminating over how it was never supposed to be in the first place, lamenting over how nothing good is coming from it, and believing it is a bitter poison of meaninglessness and woe. But what if suffering could be something different entirely for us? What if suffering were the source of our ultimate happiness and could forcibly obtain the salvation of not only certain souls we love, but many others in the world? Well, we need not ask, What if? Because this is surely the truth.

All the trials and tribulations, illnesses, aches and pains, failures, annoyances, disappointments, and frustrations we undergo in this life contain heavenly joys. The key to this treasure lies in accepting our sufferings with love and deciding to use our will to unite them to the sufferings our Savior. Of course this proves, in practice, to be anything but easy or automatic. In my case, when death knocks on my family’s door, when back pain strikes, when persecution comes, or even when my baby cries or my husband starts snoring loudly in my ear, love and joy are the last things on my mind and in my heart. Yet I know by faith that beneath the rubble of my suffering, lies a path of glittering gold, pointing my way, and the way of many, to our heavenly Jerusalem.

Faith tells me what the saints know through experience:

“One day, I saw two roads. One was broad, covered with sand and flowers, full of joy, music and all sorts of pleasures. People walked along it, dancing and enjoying themselves. They reached the end of the road without realizing it. And at the end of the road there was a horrible precipice; that is, the abyss of hell. The souls fell blindly into it; as they walked, so they fell. And there numbers were so great that it was impossible to count them. And I saw the other road, or rather, a path, for it was narrow and strewn with thorns and rocks; and the people who walked along it had tears in their eyes, and all kinds of suffering befell them. Some fell down upon the rocks, but stood up immediately and went on. At the end of the road there was a magnificent garden filled with all sorts of happiness, and all these souls entered there. At the very first instant, they forgot all their sufferings.”

–Saint Faustina Kowalska, Diary, #153
”If God gives you an abundant harvest of trials, it is a sign of great holiness which He desires you to attain. Do you want to become a great saint? Ask God to send you many sufferings. The flame of Divine Love never rises higher than when fed with the wood of the Cross, which the infinite charity of the Savior used to finish His sacrifice. All the pleasures of the world are nothing compared with the sweetness found in the gall and vinegar offered to Jesus Christ. That is, hard and painful things endured for Jesus Christ and with Jesus Christ.”
–Saint Ignatius of Loyola

Is it still hard for you to believe that joy can come from suffering? Does it remain simply the art of saints gone by? Perhaps the quotes above are too abstract. I will leave you with the following concrete example of the joy the Lord infuses in a soul who accepts suffering for love of Him. This is a joy the world cannot give. It makes no sense. It defies human nature. It tramples upon logic. And yet it is real. And it unlocks the gates of paradise. And it can be yours.

“Oh, if you had tasted the delights with which God fills the souls of those who serve him and suffer for him, how would you condemn all that the world can promise! I now begin to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, since for his love I am in prison, where I suffer much. But I assure you, that when I am fainting with hunger, God hath fortified me by his sweet consolations, so that I have looked upon myself as well recompensed for his service. And though I were yet to pass many years in prison, the time would appear short, through the extreme desire which I feel of suffering for him, who even here so well repays our labors. Besides other sickness, I have been afflicted with a continual fever a hundred days without any remedies or proper nourishment. All this time my heart was so full of joy that it seemed to me too narrow to contain it. I have never felt any equal to it, and I thought myself at the gates of paradise.”
–Blessed Charles Spinola

Copyright 2011 Christine Watkins

One Comment
  1. Erin
    January 10, 2011 | Reply

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