The Gold in our Stars: Meaning in Christian Suffering

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I would like to connect-the-dots to see God’s loving plan and then frame it on my wall, especially when suffering is involved. Last month my brother and sister (both just entering mid-life) found out they had cancer.  It was very difficult to be away from family when they received this news. The tug to be with them grew with each phone call. Now I am physically present as they go through treatments and adjust their life to new circumstances.

Stain glass window in St. Michael's Basilica, Pensacola, Florida.

To be a Christian is to follow the crucified and risen Christ. Stain glass window in St. Michael’s Basilica,           Pensacola, Florida

Those who, like Jesus, seek to serve God in radical faithfulness recognize this journey as the way of the cross, the mysterious invitation to conformity with the one “who loved us and gave his life for us” (cf. Gal. 2:20). I gain perspective from Timothy Radcliff’s saying that “we are the narrative of Emmaus, of things falling apart that were expected” (Lk. 24:13-35). Then Jesus appeared on the road, opened the scriptures and broke the Eucharist with them with his still wounded and glorious hands. “Hope is…” Radcliff adds, “the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”[1]

John Paul II wrote that the meaning of Christian suffering is to “unleash love” by the opening of an interior disposition of the heart, a sensitivity of heart; in the external life, giving birth to works of love towards the neighbor; and in culture, transform­ing the whole of human civilization into a civilization of love.  This happens through acceptance, gratitude, and joy. These cannot be learned from a book, but can be learned only by going through actual suffering.[2]

Acceptance

Practicing faith while continually readjusting to new circumstances, to crisis, or suffering is challenging. It is in these circumstances that the invitation to transformation is given. Our former way of seeing and choosing no longer works, unsettling emotions emerge, unresolved past issues surface. We look for a new narrative and companions on this journey. Christians have the greatest story that can be told and a vocation to be story tellers whose lives bear witness to the gospel. During times of suffering we find inspiration, enlightenment, and meaning in the scriptures, in the lives of the saints, in the concern and prayers of our family, our friends, and in parish community.

As Christians we believe that Jesus’ suffering and death were not meaningless but brought about our redemption. Robert J. Schreiter in his book The Ministry of Reconciliation writes that “The cruelty Jesus experienced restored our humanity. He not only taught us how to suffer, but he takes up our pain in his own suffering so that it can be life-producing rather than death-dealing for us. Our suffering is not the end of us, but a moment on the road to full communion with God.”

To be a Christian essentially means to follow the crucified Christ and exist for others: “Truly, truly I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (Jn. 12:24). Jesus Christ opened up access to true life for us by letting himself be broken down and losing himself.

Acceptance of suffering is not passive. Acceptance is surrender and trust in God’s loving care that, when united to Christ’s suffering, can change the world. (This does not refer to suffering abusive situations or domestic violence)[3]. Baptized into Christ we were baptized into his priestly action to make the same offering that he made.[4]  Praying the Psalms, reflecting on the readings from daily Mass, receiving Holy Eucharist, receiving the sacraments of the sick, and reconciliation, are some active ways to respond in trust to God’s invitation to transformation.

Disciples at Emmaus, painting in the Redemptorist Center, Arizona.

“We are the narrative of Emmaus.”                                                    Disciples at Emmaus, painting in the                                               Redemptorist  Retreat Center, Arizona.

John Paul II says that Jesus is present in the suffering person, since his salvific suffering has been opened once and for all to every human suffering. “All those who suffer have been called once and for all to become sharers ‘in Christ’s sufferings.’ At one and the same time Christ has taught man to do good by his suffering and to do good to those who suffer. In this double aspect he has completely revealed the meaning of suffering.”

While we may feel powerless, acceptance places all in the hands of our loving God.  God gives us eyes of faith to see beyond what seems evident (see Heb. 11:7).

Gratitude

How is it possible to be grateful for suffering? Suffering, says John Paul II, belongs to human transcendence. We are in a certain sense “destined” to go beyond ourselves in this mysterious way. An early Christian writer, Pseudo-Dionysius, wrote, “In the dark night of the cross all the greatness of divine love appears: where reason no longer sees, love does.” Gratitude is found in the way suffering transforms our view of life, love and the mystery of God. “In it,” says John Paul II, a “person discovers himself, his own humanity, his own dignity, his own mission.”

Gratitude is a Eucharistic gesture. Eucharist” is Greek for eucharistos; to be grateful. We are able to live by the faithfulness of Christ. His life, suffering, death, and resurrection changes all we considered loss into gain (Phil. 3:8). Suffering presents an opportunity for transformation since it has been redeemed. The whole of our life now has meaning.

Gratitude recognizes that we are not alone in our suffering. God gives us the grace to carry our cross, to offer sufferings in reparation for sins, as prayer for other’s needs. Suffering purifies us, as gold tried in fire, “These trials will show that your faith is genuine. It is being tested as fire tests and purifies gold, though your faith is far more precious than mere gold. So when your faith remains strong through many trials, it will bring you much praise and glory and honor on the day when Jesus Christ is revealed to the whole world” (1 Pt. 1:7).

Joy

St. Paul reminds Christians that we carry in our bodies the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may be manifested through us (2 Cor. 4:8-10). We were immersed three times in baptismal water as a symbol of dying with Christ in order to live with Christ. We become true images of Christ when we share in his the sufferings. St. Paul also invites us to glory in our weaknesses so the power of Christ is manifested in us; “He will change our lowly body to conform to his glorified body” (Phil. 3:12). This is where joy emerges.  “Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church” (Col. 1:24). Just as we are co-creators in Christ, bringing beauty and goodness to our world, so we can be co-passionate, co-sufferers (Phil. 3:10). Our joy, writes John Paul II, comes from the discovery of the meaning of suffering. “Let us sing Alleluia here below while we are still anxious,” encouraged St. Augustine, “so that we may sing it one day there above when we are free from care.”[5]

What scripture passage do you read to find comfort and strength during suffering? Do you have a favorite prayer to share with our readers?

Copyright 2014, Sr. Margaret Kerry, fsp

Links:

Dan Burke’s experience with uniquely transcendent and beautiful joy in suffering:
http://spiritualdirection.com/blog/2014/09/08/dodging-widowmaker-heart-surgery#ixzz3CvS7id88

My brother Greg’s gratitude in suffering:http://www.weartv.com/news/features/top-stories/stories/routine-traffic-stop-turns-into-life-saver-49257.shtml

An Online Prayer Journal:http://www.pauline.org/portals/0/digital/AWorldatPrayer/index.html

[1] Passion for Christ, Passion for Humanity,181

[2] Salvifici Doloris,, 30.

[3] The Church’s response to abusive situations and domestic violence: http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/marriage-and-family/marriage/domestic-violence/when-i-call-for-help.cfm

[4] Torkington, David. The Mystic: From Charismatic to Mystical Prayer, 81.

[5] Sermon, 256

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About Author

A Daughter of St. Paul for 40 years Sr. Margaret continues to pursue new ways to proclaim the Gospel: sharing the Pauline Charism with the laity, writing books (St. Anthony of Padua: Fire & Light; Strength in Darkness: John of the Cross; Prayers for the New Evangelization), & through direct evangelization. She is available for workshops on the Vocation & Mission of the Laity, Media Literacy, and The New Evangelization. [email protected]

5 Comments

  1. Here is a prayer I am saying for my brother and sister “Lord in union with the priests who today are offering the holy sacrifice of the Mass throughout the world, I offer you through the Immaculate Heart of Mary my joys, sorrows, and sufferings of this day for the healing of Cathy and Greg, for the strength of their caretakers and families, for the peace of the world from this union with your sufferings. We believe in your resurrection and everlasting life as we place all our trust in Your, our hope, who loves us more than we can know and whose mercy is infinite.”

  2. My favorite verse in the bible that helps me when I’m suffering is Matthew 11:28,29,30. Praying for you and your family during your difficult time. Also hide under the shadow of my wings,, Psalm?

  3. Thanks for these thoughts. If I were to expand on one element – acceptance – I might highlight the balance of active acceptance and patience with our hearts as we work toward this. I was diagnosed with a chronic illness three years ago and am still working my way toward true acceptance. If I beat myself up for not accepting sooner, or “the right way”, that would just be another trial to work through. Prayers for your family.

  4. Margaret, My prayers for you as well! I created a Pinterest board called surrender because I also am not sure about acceptance even in my own life, and now the lives of my brother and sister. As you say patience in our hearts is acceptance. A great insight! Thanks for the reminder for us not to make acceptance something we “have to” attain right away or even a goal. I find myself reading poetry to understand that “being away from God is our hardest work in this world” (Hafiz). I also rely on spiritual reading that reminds me how holiness is God’s work that involves my “yes” in the present moment. Then I create a list of things I am grateful for to refocus on God’s love. Thanking God for you right now.

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