“And anyone who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me”
– Matthew 10:38
I hate suffering.
I also hate to say that so bluntly, but to put it any other way would be dishonest. I don’t imagine anybody likes suffering, or else it wouldn’t be suffering at all. You and I, we like comfort: we like our warm beds, we like our food to taste good, we find ourselves complaining, inwardly or outwardly, when things don’t go as we want. I would venture to say that this very desire for pleasure is an indication that we are made by and for the Good Lord: it shows that happiness is the goal of life. God made us to be happy, and that’s what we spend most of our time wanting to be.
And yet, the state of happiness we exist for isn’t reached by being happy as we think of the word (i.e., as pleasure). Paradoxical as it may be, we can only make ourselves permanently and truly happy if, throughout our lives, we willingly bear that which makes us unhappy.
In other words, if we suffer.
Suffering is not the end of our life: happiness, beatitude, is the end of our life. But suffering, allowing ourselves to be unhappy here and now by offering our sufferings for the sake of holiness, is the means to achieving the beatitude for which we live. Think for a moment: Christ Our Lord shows how to live an ideal human life. And as Fulton Sheen so eloquently put it in Life of Christ, “. . . to Christ, death was the goal and fulfillment of His life, the gold that He was seeking. Few of His words or actions are intelligible without reference to His Cross . . . The story of every human life begins with birth and ends with death. In the Person of Christ, however, it was His death that was first and His life that was last” (Life of Christ, Ch. I, pg. 5). If Christ’s life, centered on suffering, is the exemplary life, then should we not view suffering as our own modus operandi?
Our Good Lord said to the Samaritan woman at the well that those who adore the Heavenly Father must do so “in spirit and in truth”, for that is the adoration God desires (John 3:24). Additionally, we’re all familiar with the section of Scripture where Christ said that “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me” (Douay-Rheims Bible, Luke 9:23). In light of these two passages, our participation in the Sacrifice of the Eucharist is gaged not by how lively we are in making responses or by how many roles we perform in the sanctuary, but rather, by how much we manage to unite our personal sacrifices with the sacrifice of Our Lord presented on the altar. The Roman Canon mentions “these holy and unblemished sacrifices“, Latin sacrificia, and there’s a reason for the plural use: the Mass isn’t just the Sacrifice of the Cross, it’s our own sacrifices, too. And if we don’t suffer, we have no sacrifices, and if we have no sacrifices, our assistance at Mass is pointless, our relationship to Christ is more or less severed, and our very lives have their purpose obstructed.
If the Eternal Son of God, perfect, innocent, and infinite, did not begrudge suffering, why should we, who are so much more deserving of suffering than He? If the Blessed Virgin Mary, the one sinless member of this fallen race, needed to suffer with the Lord at Calvary, why should we demand less for ourselves, who sin daily? We have a job to perform, which St. Paul was able to see clearly: we must use our sufferings to complete whatever is lacking in the effectiveness of Our Lord’s death (Col. 1:24). No one will deny that the sacrifice of Christ covers all the sin of the world; no one will deny that it was complete, infinite, and entirely pleasing to the Father. But we humans have free will. We can spurn the grace which Our Lord handed to us on the Cross, and so He has established that, taking up that cross we’ve been given, we work to ensure that people turn to the Cross and the graces it won. Christ opened the floodgates of Heaven and offered the grace to man, but He would never force man to accept it. And so, because those who refuse it won’t use their free will for His purposes, He asks for our free will instead, and uses that to soften the hardened wills of unbelievers.
Thankfully, any suffering fits the bill. You can offer any and all of your sufferings for the well-being of yourself and others. Don’t want to get out of bed in the morning? Offer it in union with the Cross of Christ. Having trouble sleeping? No good food in the refrigerator? Have house cleaning to do? Is an obnoxious sibling pestering you? Do you feel self-conscious, lonely, or bored? Are you stressed about something? All of it can be used for the higher purpose of uniting yourself with God. To borrow from St. Paul again, “Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (NIV, Col. 3:17).
It’s worth pointing out that suffering not only unites us with Our Lord and works for the welfare of souls (our own and those of others), but it also can remove the temporal punishment we receive as a result of our daily venial sins: that is to say, it shortens our time in Purgatory. If we don’t willfully suffer now, we’ll need to spend a greater amount of time in Purgatory, the pain of which, to borrow from St. Augustine, “will be more painful than anything man can suffer in the present life” (Comment on Ps. 37:3. Journel, no. 1476, qtd. here). As I wrote earlier, we human beings are made for God. If we suffer here and now, we will be united with God in Heaven much sooner and might very possibly bypass Purgatory altogether. If we wait until Purgatory to suffer, however, not only will we have to wait longer (possibly a good deal longer!) before we enter Heaven, but the very pain of being absent from God in Purgatory will make the suffering there all the greater!
Like I said, I hate suffering. If we—you, I, and everyone—didn’t hate suffering, it wouldn’t be suffering. Of course it’s tough. But if you ask for the grace to bear your sufferings, not only will they become less difficult, but you’ll even begin to actively appreciate suffering, as an opportunity to unite yourself and others around you more closely with your Creator, Who has purchased you with His own Blood (Acts 20:28). And it’s highly likely that, the more you offer up your sufferings for the cause of holiness, Our Blessed Lord’s words will become reality for you: “My yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light” (New Living Translation, Matt. 11:30).
Written by Michael B.