Through liturgy and devotion, we’re asked to enter deeply and intimately into the Passion of our Lord. Many in the Western Church are in the midst of Holy Week celebrations, focused on distinct elements of Christ’s final days. And through Adoration I’ve stood watch with Christ on the Mount of Olives – often falling asleep, as the Apostles did. I’ve cried out in the mob that chose to save Barabbas over the Redeemer. I’ve seen the lacerations my sins have left on His holy body, and watched my cowardice and infidelities crown the Lord with thorns and make mockery of the King of Kings. I’ve wept – not enough – with the Virgin Mary on the road to Calvary, and I’ve watched as the Agnus Dei expired on the Cross.
It’s an intense period, one in which a thousand emotions – sorrow, awe, anticipation – vie with one another for dominance. We are approaching a summit of the Christian year, and the season demands a reckoning with all of the complexity and profundity of the Paschal mystery.
St. Paul calls the crucifixion a skandalon – a stumbling block for the unfaithful. My skandalon this time of year has to do with the sufferings of Christ; specifically, how our sufferings are to be united to those of Christ. Pope St. John Paul II, whose heroic witness to suffering ended 10 years ago yesterday, wrote in his Apostolic Letter Salvifici Doloris, that:
Christ has opened his suffering to man, because he himself in his redemptive suffering has become, in a certain sense, a sharer in all human sufferings. Man, discovering through faith the redemptive suffering of Christ, also discovers in it his own sufferings; he rediscovers them, through faith, enriched with a new content and new meaning.
I’ve got a chronic pain condition. I get some combination of tension and migraine headaches most days, if not every day. It interferes with my work, my marriage, my friendships, my ability to write for Fare Forward – pretty much everything. And, according to the Christian tradition, I should rejoice in this! In the revelations to St. Faustina, we find written: “[i]f 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.” Since, through the Cross, we are made sharers in the suffering of Christ, this is nothing more than my share in Christ’s redemption!
I would of course like very much to experience things this way. But no matter how many times I have read St. Paul teach that we “will not be tempted beyond our strength” (1 Cor 10:13) and that he is able to “rejoice in [his] sufferings” for the sake of the Colossians (Col 1:24), when I do suffer I can’t seem to manage much more than a barely coherent Big Three (Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be).
Suffering has become medicalized to the point that it is thought of as the enemy of good health; perfect, unassailable comfort is increasingly the goal of medicine. Caffeine withdrawal! was classified as a ‘mental disorder’ in the 2013 version of the DSM. The elderly are seen out of life in an opiate cloud, if not prescribed suicide as a pain-management technique.
What ends up happening is that we become fundamentally alienated from our sufferings. I have spent as long as I can remember trying to fight suffering, running away from it in an endless stream of medicines and distractions. I’ve always seen suffering as a problem to be resolved, a disease to be healed. It’s strange to describe, but the reality is almost one of experiencing pain without letting that pain really become part of our being.
But that can’t be the way St. Paul understood his sufferings when he taught the Corinthians that: “[f]or as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.” (2 Cor 1:5). I’m starting the learn that the key for living out the Christian way of suffering isn’t to treat pain as a hardship to be overcome. We have to learn to just be with our sufferings, to embrace them as Christ embraced the Cross, for the sake of their participation in Christ’s redemption. If we remain alienated from suffering, instead of present with it, we cannot enter Christ’s Passion through it. Suffering, then, must be recaptured as part of the natural ecology of man if we are to experience it in a truly Christian way.
Practically speaking, for me, that has meant to actually clear my mind of all thought, and to focus deliberately on my sufferings in order to direct them to the Cross in prayer. Trying to unite my sufferings to the Cross without engaging them first doesn’t work; the inclination to fight the pain is too deep-seated to naturally be-in-pain. St. Jane Frances de Chantal writes that when you are ill, even if you cannot pray, “suffering borne in the will quietly and patiently is a continual, very powerful prayer before God.” That is to say, to simply be alone with suffering – while obedient to the will of God – is to “pray always” (1 Thess. 5:17) in a profound way.
It’s also deeply suited to drawing nearer to Christ’s Passion. It is easy through devotion and liturgy to experience the Triduum as an observer. We can watch the Paschal scenes unfold as though in a movie theater, but a natural way to identify with Christ carrying the Cross and his crucifixion is to suffer along with Him. It’s a taste of the sweetness of the Cross.
Through being present at the Passion, we look forward to the promises of Christ. St. Alphonsus Maria de Liguori teaches that, “the brightest ornaments in the crown of the blessed in heaven are the sufferings which they have borne patiently on earth.” O felix culpa quae talem et tantum meruit habere redemptorem!