Solidarity in Suffering

Physical suffering is an unpleasant fact of life. Responses to a chronic disease can fluctuate from creative growth to self-pity. It can bring out the best or the worst in a person as well as sanctify or darken their soul. In other words, our response to physical disease can move back and forth on a spectrum between constructive and destructive. Our response can be an opportunity for growth in essential areas of human development, most importantly spiritual development.

What do the words “strong,” “healthy,” “weak,” and “sick” suggest? How we perceive these labels can perhaps reveal our individual attitudes about the merit of suffering and the value of those who endure it. A person who has a physical handicap can be less limited by the handicap than by the attitudes of people regarding the handicap. Within secular society, pain has no value or meaning. However, as Christians, we are the body of Christ and we are all connected by praying for each other, encouraging each other, and offering up our pain for others, and for the souls in purgatory. We are spiritually joined and spiritually united as we direct our energies, prayers, and sufferings to God. Finding meaning, purpose, and dignity in human suffering gives us a sense of solidarity as people of God. Aren’t we all links in a chain, interdependent on each other? Doesn’t Paul, the apostle, tell us to “bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ?” (Galatians 6:2)

Physical disability can often be a blessing in disguise. It opens a window to spiritual realities that nourish the soul. A disease or injury that alters a lifestyle can also introduce valuable new priorities. The quiet pursuit of deeper prayer, contemplation and soul searching infuses beautiful graces into our spiritual life. Therese of Lisieux said, “Life is your ship, not your home.” On this earth, there is no lasting city. In the light of eternity, things that once seemed so big and important to us dim in the holiness that radiates from doing simple, daily occupations and offering sufferings to God.

A journey through life marked with fragile physical health can be a uniquely rewarding and maturing experience. We can only strive toward wholeness. Nobody is there yet. True self-actualization comes after we pass through the gates of heaven. When a chronic disease is diagnosed, we strive to accept it, which is an ongoing challenge, and focus on ways to work with it. In other words, we use common sense and do our best with symptom management to maintain our health. Chronic pain can motivate us to trust in God’s providence. Patient suffering without complaint is a strong witness to authentic holiness.

Vincent

“Many suffering people need help. This may be a painful humiliation. And yet it may be an invitation to us all to be freed from the monstrous illusion that any one of us is self-sufficient. It is part of the beauty of being human, that I need others, in order that I may become myself. People with disabilities, who need help to get up in the morning or wash or shop, remind me that I, too, need others if I am to be truly human. Let me give you the example of my brother Vincent, who died a year ago. Vincent was blind from birth. He never saw another human face. He entered the Order when he was young, and soon became one of the most beloved members of the province. This is partly because he was a deeply lovable person, who was strong and humorous, and had utterly no self-pity.

“When I was provincial, every community asked me if I would assign Vincent to their community. Not only was it because he was lovable; Vincent gathered community around him. You cannot have someone in the community who is totally blind unless you really are a community. You have to ensure that nothing is in his way when he feels his way down the corridors, and that the milk in the fridge is always in exactly the same place, so that he can find it. All our decisions about our common life have to bear Vincent in mind. And this is not a burden but a joy, since around him we discover each other. He summons us beyond the silly Western illusion that anyone is self-sufficient. In his needs, we discover our own need for each other. He frees us to be brothers, mutually dependent.

“Because he was blind, he depended upon his hearing. He heard sound bounce off the walls. He navigated around the rooms with his ears. And this meant that he was wonderfully sensitive to what the brethren say. He was appointed to the Formation Team, because he could spot what was happening in the lives of the young, their strengths and weaknesses, more than most of us. His disability was a gift. He picked up the nuances that others miss. He heard our secret fears and hopes in our voices. We are all blind and deaf in some way, and sometimes the blind teach us to hear, and the deaf teach us to see, and the lame give us the courage to take another step.”

~ Timothy Radcliffe, O.P., “A Spirituality of Suffering and Healing,” Religious Life Review, September – October 2012

Pain Considerations

“Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding. Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its heart may stand in the sun, so must you know pain. And could you keep your heart in wonder at the daily miracles of your life, your pain would not seem less wondrous than your joy; and you would accept the seasons of your heart, even as you have always accepted the seasons that pass over your fields. And you would watch with serenity through the winters of your grief.”

~ Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet

A life without pain and suffering would be a life without healing and joy. Pain can be a recurring or constant issue and mystery in our lives. Pain has many levels, is subjective and an inevitable part of life. However, pain can also be an opportunity for growth as it draws us to face, examine and reform detrimental patterns in our lifestyle. We try not to trivialize or exaggerate the extent of our suffering. We can deny pain, make it the center of our lives, reject it as an enemy, or accept it as a teacher or a pathway to God. We can fight it or take it by the hand. If we obsess about our pain, we must change our focus. We need to stop thinking about ourselves and start thinking about others. Doing something for someone else pulls us out of ourselves. There are many small good deeds we can do even if we are bed-bound. Little acts of kindness are sometimes the most appreciated.

We learn to persevere in spite of the pain. No longer being able to do one thing can lead to doing another. A young man who enjoyed sweets was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes and became an advocate for healthy eating. A fashion model who tires easily due to her newly diagnosed disease becomes a clothes designer. A father whose arthritis no longer allows him to toss a ball with his son teaches them both to play chess.

Suffering can also give birth to works of love. A husband and wife whose young child died of a rare disease can establish a website and host fund raisers for that disease. Doing something that fulfills us in a different way does not mean we are settling for less. It means we are growing in a new way.

When pain tests us in unimaginable ways, daily prayer, and other healthy spiritual practices, can foster discipline and endurance, and motivate us to make positive changes. We can emerge from these challenges with a stronger character, better resilience, and greater faith. Mild to moderate pain, or other physical limitations, can purge us from self-defeating attitudes that mask the beauty of our unique selves. Adjusting to a long-term disease or a handicap gives us a good reason to slow down and step out of the frantic pace of modern life. Happiness is discovered in simple things and no longer in the superficial, short-lived trends of a contemporary culture. There is time for deep, meaningful conversations. What may have once seemed important to us, such as expensive cars, designer labels, or exotic vacations, is no longer an indication of our worth. As we reflect on the deeper meaning of life, self-worth is not defined by what we have. It is rooted in who we are as sons and daughters of God and how we live the gospel.

When appropriate treatments no longer alleviate suffering, we must respect the pain and acknowledge what we cannot do. We avoid things that aggravate pain beyond our level of tolerance. Time and patience teach us that suffering need not victimize or control us. “Suffering becomes beautiful when anyone bears great calamities with cheerfulness, not through insensibility but through greatness of mind.” (Aristotle) Energy can be redirected to a greater good. Daily prayer and other quiet spiritual exercises can bring about joy and inner peace. We can be healed at a deeper level even though we are not cured of our disease. Indeed, grace helps us grow through things we cannot change or do not understand.

The Cross

Edith Stein said, “May Jesus always lead me by the way of the cross. . . . The road of suffering is the surest road to union with Our Lord. The redeeming power of suffering, joyfully borne, is greatly needed in our world today.” Physical pain, endured with a graced contentment, begins at the cross. Because pain is real, tangible, and can be frightening beyond words, just looking at or holding a crucifix can give us courage, and helps a vibrant soul thrive in a fragile body. John of the Cross wrote, “The soul cannot reach the thicket and wisdom of the riches of God . . . without entering the thicket of many kinds of suffering. . . . The gate entering into these riches of his wisdom is the cross.”

The crucifix is not viewed in a morbid way, but rather in a way that is unsullied, filled with mystery and renewed hope. Prayer at the foot of the cross transforms us to become more thoughtful, more sensitive, and more kind to those around us. Teresa of Avila confirms that people with chronic diseases can pray quite well. “One must not think that a person who is suffering is not praying. He is offering up his sufferings to God, and many a time, he is praying much more truly than one who goes away by himself and meditates his head off, and, if he has squeezed out a few tears, thinks that is prayer.”

Changes that come about because of chronic disease can close some doors but can open others. Something once learned can be learned again at a new and deeper level. The noted author Flannery O’Connor said that her lupus was “more instructive than a long trip to Europe.” Itzhak Perlman, the legendary violinist, uses crutches due to polio. In autumn of 1995, when he was performing onstage at the Lincoln Center, a string popped. Perlman recomposed the piece in his head and new, beautiful sounds never heard before came from the remaining three strings of his violin. Later he said, “Sometimes it is the artist’s task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left.” Chronic disease may pop our strings, but what treasures will we discover in the breakage?

At the foot of the cross we are closer to Jesus as heart speaks to heart. When we are quiet by the cross it is easier to manage the crosses in our lives, and remain relatively calm in turmoil. Like Jesus on the cross, when everything seems dark and bleak, we commend ourselves to God, despite our doubts and struggles with faith. Ongoing suffering draws us deeper into the mystery of the cross. Pain is a very individual experience that is woven in mystery. Because we are unable to fully probe the mystery of our pain or the mystery of the cross, by reason or intellect, we must look at Jesus crucified with eyes of trust. Jesus did not promote suffering, he sanctified it through his passion and death. Because of Jesus, and through him, suffering is not wasted. Thomas a Kempis reminds us, “In the cross is the height of virtue, in the cross is the perfection of sanctity. There is no health of the soul or hope for eternal life but in the cross.”

Take up your cross, the Savior said,
if my disciple you would be;
deny yourself, the world forsake,
and humbly follow after me.

Take up your cross; let not its weight
fill frightened spirit with alarm;
his strength shall bear your spirit up,
and brace your heart, and nerve your arm.

Take up your cross, nor heed the shame,
nor let your foolish pride rebel:
for you the Savior bore the cross,
to save your soul from death and hell.

Take up your cross, then, in Christ’s strength,
and every danger calmly brave;
’twill guide you to a heavenly home,
and lead to victory o’er the grave.

Take up your cross and follow Christ,
nor think till death to lay it down,
for only those who bear the cross
may hope to wear the glorious crown.

Charles W. Everest

Redemptive Suffering

Redemptive suffering unfurls from our heart’s deepest desires and is anchored in the suffering of Christ. Suffering is redemptive when appropriate treatment modes are bravely endured, which is no small achievement. In an unknown and mysterious way, through the grace of God, and in union with the passion and death of Jesus, suffering is salvific and through it, graces for ourselves and countless others are gained. We who suffer become channels of the love of Jesus crucified.

To offer our pain to God the Father in union with the crucified Christ is an extraordinary act of love. Paul the apostle wrote, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church.” Christ’s death on the cross redeemed the whole human race and reunited it with God. We are his mystical body. Our suffering is the vehicle that conveys Jesus’ passion to the hearts and souls of humanity, and is how his suffering is lived out in the world today. As members of the mystical body, we patiently endure our pain so we can bear witness to others of Christ‘s timeless sacrifice for humanity.

Redemptive suffering is an incomparable grace that brings clarity to the confusion, difficulties, and trials of each day. In the light of redemptive suffering, we know that Jesus crucified infuses meaning and hope into our lives and keeps us moving forward. When we unite our suffering with the crucified Christ, we help others on earth and assist them in getting to heaven.

The extent of pain is usually known only to God, the person experiencing it, and significant others who are trained to assist the person in living with it. Redemptive suffering is normally lived without fanfare. It is when we learn to accept our own weakness, littleness and woundedness that God reveals himself to us. The pain makes us realize how little control we have over our own lives and how dependent we are on God.

Living the mystery of redemptive suffering is not limited to those who are afflicted. It is manifest through compassionate care giving. The God fearing people who share the vulnerability, the fear, the brokenness and the bewilderment of those who are in pain also model the practice of redemptive suffering. Compassionate caregivers who have a close relationship with God develop a greater capacity to understand, love, and accept those for whom they care. This capacity is not centered on the specific pain of the other as a patient, but rather on the unique person who happens to have a specific pain. The caregiver is transpierced by the pain of the other, and in this way the redemptive quality of pain is shared by him or her. Through this unique sharing, both people participate in and are the recipient of the ongoing, unfolding, never-ending ineffability of God.

New Vision

A new vision of life views pain in the light of God. Sustained by incredible grace, we embrace the good that is in suffering. We are so much more than our disease. “A pearl is a beautiful thing that is produced by an injured life. It is the tear [that results] from the injury of the oyster. The treasure of our being in this world is also produced by an injured life. If we had not been wounded, if we had not been injured, then we would not produce the pearl.” (Stephan Hoeller)

Francis of Assisi explains that perfect joy does not come from talents and abilities, since these are not ultimately ours, but gifts from God. He said the only true gifts we can give to God are our sufferings. If we strive to imitate Francis, we are able to say with Paul the apostle, “I will not glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Indeed, suffering is our gift we can offer to God, and he uses this gift to draw us, and others, closer to him. The foundation for all suffering is complete faith in the ultimate triumph of the cross of Christ. Edith Stein said, “For now, the world consists of opposites. . . . But in the end, none of those contrasts will remain. There will only be the fullness of love. How could it be otherwise?”

Almighty God, thrice holy,
I would be wholly thine,
A branch by grace engrafted
Onto the living vine.
Throb through my veins, O Love,
Enable me to bear
The baptism of suffering
I am constrained to share.

Lord Jesus, suffering Servant,
Suffuse me with compassion;
The cup of suff’ring overflows
The Garden of thy Passion;
Consume me with thy peace, thy love 
And joy of knowing thee,
As I pray thy Passion prayer
As in Gethsemane.

I tread the winepress, daunted:
Must it be daily trod?
The Cross repels yet draws me close
To union with God.
I quest the Lord in Eucharist 
And from the chalice drink
The wine of sacrificial love,
While from the Cross I shrink.

Yet, to the Crucified I cry,
“Nail me to the Cross.
Permit thy light to shine through me
To be theotokos;
Transform me by thy saving power,
My darkness purify;
Impart the glory of the Cross
My life to deify.”

O, Spirit of the Living God,
With love my soul attire,
To manifest the choicest fruit
Thy presence can acquire
To incarnate the Spirit,
The will of self efface,
Absorbing love to render love
By God’s perfecting grace.

When the cup of suffering is full,
Spilling o’er the brim,
May th’ world discern God’s glory
In a life poured out for him.
Thy Passion toil will then seem light,
Such is glory’s weight:
That burden, too, is heavy,
But the privilege so great.

Rosemary Radley
Mount Carmel
January–March 2013

An earlier version of this essay appeared in the 2021 Spring edition of Human Development.

Carolyn Humphreys, OCDS About Carolyn Humphreys, OCDS

Carolyn Humphreys, OCDS, OTR, is a discalced Carmelite, secular, and a registered occupational therapist. She is the author of the books: From Ash to Fire: A Contemporary Journey through the Interior Castle of Teresa of Avila, Carmel Land of the Soul: Living Contemplatively in Today’s World, Mystics in the Making: Lay Women in Today's Church, and Living Through Cancer, A Practical Guide to Cancer Related Concerns. Her latest book is Everyday Holiness: A Guide to Living Here and Getting to Eternity. You can find her reflections online at contemplativechristianityorg.wordpress.com.

Comments

  1. (Stephan Hoeller) …An author and scholar of Gnosticism and Jungian psychology,
    Hoeller is Regionary Bishop of Ecclesia Gnostica – Wikipedia

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