The Church teaches that each of us is called to seek holiness. We must give of our best to this God-given goal of our lives. But it will mean hidden heroism in the face of difficulty. And it is difficulty, or suffering in the doing of God’s will, which will constitute our greatest temptation. We shall be constantly tempted to avoid the suffering that is part and parcel of doing God’s will. So we must consider suffering, and put on the mind of Christ in regard to it. So let us consider the true meaning of suffering.
Suffering is very commonly seen as unjust and without meaning. Many philosophers assert that the life of a child born with great disabilities has little meaning. That is to say, their view is that unless a person is experiencing conscious pleasure in some sense, that person lacks the necessary quality of life to make life worth living. Life, they think, is for pleasure, and if instead of pleasure there is suffering, life has no value or purpose. And so severely handicapped infants ought be allowed to die. Euthanasia is thought to be justified. The suffering involved in having surgery is deemed to have meaning because it has a useful or enjoyable result. But many instances of suffering do not appear to have any useful result, and so that kind of suffering is judged to be without value. It all hinges around the apparent meaninglessness of any kind of suffering that does not have an obviously useful or enjoyable result.
How ought we evaluate this view of things, one obviously based on immediate appearances? We could begin by looking at suffering even in purely human terms and in terms of appearances, but within a larger picture. At times one can gain a clearer view of the significance of something if one stands back and looks at it within a broader canvass. So perhaps we could take some world event of tragic proportions and notice the sequence of events that at times results. For instance, there was the immense tragedy of the Asian tsunami, the earthquake under the sea that caused such a vast loss of life in Asia. Among other things it provoked a debate in the papers - for instance, in the Sydney Morning Herald - as to the very existence of God. If there is a God, he must be almighty and all-loving. But if God allows such a thing, how could he be loving? Or, if he cannot stop it, how can he be all-powerful? Now of course, we cannot understand why God allowed such a thing to happen, because of the limitations of our minds. But behind this view so much based on appearances there lies, I suspect, the assumption that there is no meaning in any suffering that does not have a useful or enjoyable result.
Of course, we could point out what God has revealed about the ultimate origins of evil and suffering. Ultimately it springs from man’s original sin. But the point to be noticed here about the tsunami is what happened in its aftermath. There was a vast outpouring of funds and charity to help the peoples of Asia who were affected. The world came together in a way not often seen. Australia offered one billion dollars, and was as a result brought to a greater collaboration with Indonesia. What it means is that this terrible event was the occasion when people had the opportunity to do great good. And they did it. While this in itself does not justify bringing on such suffering, clearly it was the occasion when great good was done. And what are we to think of all those lives that were lost in the process? Well, very many people responded magnificently and as a result grew in their moral stature due to their own unselfish actions. Perhaps - and we can only speculate - perhaps God took this laudable sequel into account when judging the lives of those who died so suddenly and were brought before him for their judgment. Their lives were lost but that occasioned a great surge of goodwill to those in need. In a sense they gave their lives, even if not freely, for that great good to appear. God may have rewarded them for this.
What is undeniable is that suffering is the occasion when good can be done, and indeed, when great good is often done.
Now this pattern of good being brought out of suffering and apparent evil can be seen on the small scale too. For instance, one episode of Australian Story (ABC TV) presented the story of a nurse whose life and personality showed great promise. She went with a group of friends on a holiday to King Island and as they were flying out to come home the plane had a crash. Three of them were killed, three survived, and the story followed the slow rehabilitation of one of them who had undergone terrible injuries. She has had a long and most difficult path, with more difficulties to come. But slowly due to her personal pluck and the help of many others she was on the way up and embarked on her retraining as a nurse. Why did this terrible evil happen to her? We cannot possibly say. But the striking thing about her was her determination to work at her long and difficult rehabilitation, and to recover her nursing profession so important to her. Now, and this is my point in mentioning her case, she said that she saw the whole event as the occasion to work at being a better person. She was working at being a better person. So suffering and evil were and are the occasion for good to be done, both by the person who undergoes the suffering and by those who help the one who is suffering. Suffering even from a human point of view can be seen as being not without meaning.
I remember following the story of a couple who had a severely retarded child. Many would have said that it would have been better to have let that child die soon after birth, or even to have had an abortion and so to have avoided having to live a life of such poor quality. But the parents would not hear of such a thing. Their dedication to that child transformed them and made them heroic people. The upshot was that the child, severely retarded, was the object of heroic love all her life and this love gave her great happiness. And even more, that retarded child was the occasion whereby the parents reached a high moral quality of life which they would never have reached without that child. Moreover, the heroic love of those parents was an inspiring example to others. So suffering was the occasion when great good was done, and without the suffering that good may not have appeared. So even from a human point of view, suffering manifests possibilities and meaning.
The point of these preliminary observations is that if suffering can be the occasion for the doing of good by man, and we see that in fact very often this is the case, then we can surely expect this of God, but much more so. God too draws good out of suffering. On one occasion our Lord was going along and he saw a man who had been blind from his birth (John 9:1). The disciples of our Lord, knowing that evil has not come from God but in some way from man, asked our Lord, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, for him to have been born blind?” They forgot that there was another alternative. It was that the blindness springs not from the personal sin of the one suffering, but from the original sin of man, the effects of which are handed on. In any case, our Lord answered them, “Neither he nor his parents sinned (in the sense that the sins of neither were responsible for the blindness). He was born blind so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” So the blindness and suffering of this man would be the occasion in which God would act and bring about good. That was the meaning that our Lord chose to put on the problem of why this man was born blind. God permitted it because he had a plan to bring more good out of the bad situation. Suffering and evil was the occasion when God would do great good. But of course, man must cooperate with God’s plan.
On another occasion a close friend of our Lord’s, Lazarus the brother of Martha and Mary, fell gravely ill to the point of death. The sisters sent word to him to come. Our Lord delayed, saying that “This sickness will not end in death, but in God’s glory, and through it the Son of God will be glorified.” Jesus knew that in the meantime Lazarus had died. So he went to Bethany where Lazarus was buried, and told them to take the stone away. He said to Martha, “Have I not told you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?” And Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. Lazarus’s death was an evil that caused suffering, and Jesus wept over it. But it was the occasion of God’s glory being manifested. God drew good out of the evil and suffering.
This pattern is shown especially in the suffering and death of our Lord himself. Our Lord went before the leaders of the people, the Sanhedrin, the chief priests, the scribes, the pharisees, the Sadducees, in order to bear witness to the truth about himself. He was condemned to death for bearing witness to this, scourged, crowned with thorns, beaten, dragged to Calvary and there crucified. The end of his life was an ignominious death, full of undeserved suffering accepted out of obedience to the saving plan of his Father. Nothing justified that death of the all-holy Son of God. But was his suffering pointless? No. Our Lord said repeatedly that in the plan of God he had to suffer. Out of this suffering of the Son of God came forth the redemption of the world. Incalculable good was drawn by God out of an incalculable evil. The very suffering involved in doing God’s will is revealed as having a special place in God’s plan to bring forth abundant fruit. As St Paul says, God brings all things come together for the good of those who love him.
We then ought understand that suffering has now been transformed from being simply the consequence and punishment of sin, to being the springboard and occasion of immense good, provided one suffers in union with Christ in obedience to God. How this is so, and why it is so, we do not fully understand. But Christ’s life and death shows that the suffering which doing or accepting God’s will entails will be productive of vast good. God works mightily with us in the midst of our sufferings, if in our sufferings we cleave to Him. Because of what our Lord has done, suffering has been transformed from being a mighty negative into a mighty positive, provided we remain with our Lord in the suffering. That is to say, if we die with him we shall rise with him, and this rising to new life will be the pattern of our life both here and hereafter.
So much is this so that we are encouraged to accept and even embrace some voluntary sufferings in union with Jesus who accepted and embraced his cross. That is to say, the Church encourages us to take on voluntary mortifications, even daily ones, in union with Jesus.
Let us resolve to appreciate the meaning of our Lord’s words, that if anyone wishes to be his disciple, he must renounce himself, take up his cross, and follow in our Lord’s footsteps. The attaining of holiness is inseparably linked with union with Christ in suffering. What we must learn to do is recognise the presence of Christ in the suffering that is involved in loving God and in being good. The cross is the suffering of the one who lives in Christ’s friendship.
Well, let us look at the crosses of the ordinary everyday life. It is important that we recognise these as crosses, for if we do not, we will fail to be on guard against avoiding them. If we avoid our duties because of the cross, we will stray from the path that leads to sanctity.
Firstly then, the cross will be present in the fulfilment of our daily duties. Obviously, a very important duty is to follow our plan for living a spiritual life consistently. Fulfilling this duty will involve lots of difficulties. Every day will be full of other duties and responsibilities and they will all involve difficulties. These difficulties ought be recognised as such and viewed in the light of Christ’s cross, as the opportunity to carry the cross with him. One ought very deliberately choose to do really well and promptly the very duty which is difficult. If one does not recognise the difficulty - let us call it the cross - which is present in the duty and recognise it as a temptation to avoid the duty, the duty itself may be shirked. Then the cross that sanctifies a person will have been missed.
There are so many little duties that we avoid because of the difficulty they involve. There is the duty to be charitable despite all the difficulties, within family, among friends and others, and everywhere. There is the duty to be truthful despite embarrassment and difficulty. The tendency in daily life will be to do just those things one likes to do and which one is able to do easily, and to avoid those things one does not like doing. We will constantly tend to avoid the cross, which is to say that element of our duty which is difficult or which causes some form of suffering.
A great field of struggle each day for everyone, and a field that is hidden and full of opportunities for duty and self denial is the field of our own thoughts - what is going on in our imagination, in our mind and in our heart. Are we putting on the mind of Christ in every respect that we can? Have you ever noticed people talking to themselves? I certainly have. It might be a person walking along, and you see their lips moving as if in conversation. He is speaking to people he is imagining. In fact a tremendous amount goes on in our minds and hearts each day. You may get up in the morning and you find yourself caught up in thoughts of frustration and anger over someone you are currently dealing with. It could be some member of your immediate or wider family. Your thoughts are full of what that person has done to you, the way he has spoken to you, the insult or neglect you have suffered from him. All this kind of thought could continue throughout the morning, constantly at the back of your mind. All through the life of so many people this world of unspiritual thought is going on almost constantly. I am convinced that so much of our prospects for personal sanctity will depend on how exercise self denial and mortification in the way we are thinking, in the movements of our heart. Let this mind be in you, St Paul writes, that was in Christ Jesus. There is a cross involved in thinking as we should.
The cross will also be present in ill-health. We must recognise it as a cross that God is permitting, and respond to it accordingly. It might be a bad cold, a toothache, headaches, the worry of some ongoing physical condition that could deteriorate into something worse. We can suffer from arthritis, a very bad back problem, from asthmatic attacks. Our medical problems could also be causing financial strain - that strain is the cross. These are all difficulties in life, the difficulties that God in his providence is permitting. They can be serious or very irritating. They must be recognised as the cross, as an occasion to suffer in acceptance of God’s will and providence, in union with Christ. Of course we must not bring these sufferings on ourselves due to carelessness and neglect. But if God permits our health to deteriorate despite our normal precautions, then the cross will be there, and that cross will help sanctify us.
The cross could be present in various other events permitted by God: a serious financial mishap, or in something that may happen to the car, the house, the mortgage, in rising interest rates, in the loss of a promotion one has applied for, or in something that has happened to some of our assets. The cross may be something that happens to a member of our family that is very disappointing, worrying, or even a shock. It could bring grief to our hopes and expectations. At times these sufferings will not be minor ones. They could be tremendous sufferings that seem at the time to crush us, sufferings related to family, material possessions, physical or mental health, one’s work in one’s workplace or even in the Church. The sufferings could stem from injustices from others or even from one’s own mistakes, limitations, faults and sins. God has a plan for each of us, and he will bring great good ultimately out of the evil and suffering he permits us to endure. But we on our part must recognise the occasion of such suffering as an opportunity to carry the cross in union with Christ for the fulfilment of God’s saving plan. That is to say, we must put on the mind of Christ when faced with suffering and when in the midst of it, and resolutely determine to do God’s will despite the suffering that will be entailed. When suffering we must work at bearing it with Christ, work at achieving what God wants. We must not be passive in the face of suffering. That seriously injured nurse was not passive - she worked at improvement. When St Bernadette Soubiroux entered into her last asthmatic illness, she said that this was her last job. She worked at it, and made her suffering something holy, the means of greater union with Christ.
There is more to the Christian doctrine of the cross than even all this. When Bishop Alvaro del Portillo, whose cause for canonization has begun, was in Sydney in 1987 he spoke of having a love for voluntary mortifications. If we wish to put on the mind of Christ, we will freely choose some mortifications beyond what would normally come our way in the providence of God and the duties of daily life. We will choose further little mortifications - such as denying ourselves something tasty in the line of food, and so forth. We ought start with what the Church wants us to do, such as making of each Friday a day of penance, and increasing to the point of choosing some little mortification perhaps each day. A Christ-like love of mortification characterises the mind of the true Christian. The saints invite us to apply the purifying touch of penance to all that we do, to all that we do.Let us then think of Christ on the cross for me. Christ loved me and suffered for me. He asks me to take up my cross daily and follow in his footsteps. If I do, he will lead me to holiness.