The forgotten value of suffering

I’ve never been a person who could endure suffering without complaining. Even a little suffering. I wish I could learn from saints like Padre Pio, who lived with the stigmata for 50 years, or Therese of Lisieux, who died at 24 from tuberculosis after terrible suffering.

Or the 14-year-old martyr St. Jose Sanchez del Rio, who defied the Mexican military with the cry of “Viva Christo Rey!” as they led him to his death. Or St. Josephine Bakhita, a religious sister who had been kidnapped from Sudan at 7 years old and was sold into slavery. I look at their lives and realize that kind of strength could only come from Christ.

We’ll all suffer in this life. No one is exempt. It’s part of the human experience, a result of original sin and living in an imperfect world. Suffering leads some people to anger and others to despair. Suffering leads many to atheism, and a privileged few to a deeper understanding of Christ’s Passion.

Suffering is a mystery we’ll never fully grasp in this life; however, it’s a spiritual certainty that our suffering offered to God can do miraculous things. I first encountered that idea a long time ago, not in my college theology classes but in my fourth-grade catechism lessons with the Sisters of St. Joseph in Shelton.

“Offer your suffering to Jesus, and he’ll do amazing things with it,” Sister told us young Catholics. “If you scrape your knee, offer it up. If you have a stomach ache, offer it up,” she said. It may sound juvenile, but Sister taught us that our little sufferings when united with Christ’s Passion would do wonderful things for people who needed help. Years later, I realize she was right.

Back then, I wasn’t sure what the “amazing things” could possibly be, and even now I sometimes wonder, although I’m certain I’ll find out in the next life and never regret offering up my pains, sorrows and trials. I’ll probably wish I’d done more for Jesus.

That doesn’t mean I welcome suffering. I dread it, especially when the pain has been excruciating, like that case of shingles or those kidney stones. My first words weren’t “I offer it up,” but rather a desperate plea something like, “Get rid of this pain PLEASE because I can’t take it!”

The coronavirus pandemic has been a time of suffering for many people, who faced illness, anxiety, loneliness, abandonment, or dying without their loved ones.

You don’t have to look far to see the face of suffering in the world. One of my friends spends the day in pain and he’s not even sure of the cause. Another cares for a child with cancer. Another is carrying the cross of addiction. Another is living with someone else’s addiction. Another is a caregiver for a spouse with chronic illness. Another lost her job and is facing eviction.

My mother did her share of suffering. She had cancer and eventually developed Alzheimer’s. What set her apart was she never complained. I’m convinced her suffering helped bring down a lot graces for family members and friends who might otherwise never have known Christ.

When I look at the picture of the Little Flower on my bureau and recall her short life, I ask for only a fraction of the strength she had. That strength, of course, came from Jesus, who though divine took the form of a man and shared our suffering … and embraced it so we could have eternal life.

Our only hope lies in Christ. Sometimes he shares his cross with us, and sometimes we share our cross with him. Years after Sister told us about the redemptive value of suffering, I read St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians, in which he said, “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…”

Such a curious concept, such a wonderful concept that another person’s conversion or salvation can be made possible through our willingness to carry a cross.

There’s only one place to go when your life is afflicted with pain, emotional or physical. Sit in front of the tabernacle. Words aren’t even necessary. Jesus understands everything. And always remember to turn to Our Lady of Sorrows, who endured suffering in a way we never will and who is always there to comfort us.