Suffering for Christ

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I don't know about you, but this is an aspect of Saints' lives that always bewildered me. God made life beautiful, wonderful, and glorious. Why would we want to go through it suffering for His sake? Wouldn't it be better to glory in it for His sake? To appreciate the good, and treasure it for all that it is, the gift God saw fit to bestow upon us? Yes, I know that we will return home to the Father, and we should look forward to that wonderful day, but should we discourteously dismiss the wonderful gifts that He has given us so that we can suffer more? Is that the way we treat the gifts of our human parents? Box them up and ship them off so that we can do without?

Last night in my reading, I stumbled across this reminder, which I recall from reading St. Thérèse, but needed to hear again.

from He Is My Heaven
Jennifer Moorcroft

It is well worth quoting this remarkable letter [249] in full, if only because of the superb advice it contains. But it also reveals so beautifully Elizabeth's spiritual outlook. It is full of common sense, taking full account of our human weakness and yet at the same time piointng to the heights of holiness. It is completely without self-pity; far from asking "why me?" her utter assurance that she and others are totally loved by God enables her to see purpose and meaning in suffering. But there is no hint of suffering for suffering's sake. Her conversation with Mother Germaine shows the same commonsense approach; if it cannot be avoided, and we have a duty to look after ourselves, then we must use it for his glory. The whole letter is permeated with Scripture, which she mediatated upon and lived. Above all, this was no theory, but only wat she experienced for herself.

As the Buddha pointed out (incorrectly) "All life is suffering." Well, ALL life is not suffering, but even the very best earthly life comes with its share of sorrow, disappointment, and pain. When these cannot be avoided, as Blessed Elizabeth and a great many other Saints teach, they should be embraced and offered up to God. What a great common-sense approach to things.

We will suffer. That is a given. There isn't a single human being who has ever lived that has not suffered. However, we suffer even more when we try to avoid the reality of suffering and spend our time complaining about it and trying to find extraordinary means of fleeing it (drugs, alcohol-abuse, etc.). If there will be suffering, then it seems better to accept this as part of what has come from God to us--a kind of bitter-sweet gift, and offer it back to Him as a share in His own suffering from us.

So when we read about suffering in the Saints, keep this in mind. Most were probably not masochists, but recognized the wonders and the beauties of life. But they also recognized that suffering is the human lot. If it is to happen to us anyway (even after we have taken pains to avoid it) than the best we can do is to offer it back to Jesus after we have cherished it. Rhonda Chervin has a book that examines this called A Kiss from the Cross. One important point to remember is that we needn't go out of our way to make ourselves suffer--this I suppose would be a sin against God's goodness. We have enough suffering in life that we needn't make more for ourselves or for others.

God loves us. Suffering is a fact of our mortal bodies and a consequence of the fall. By accepting that lot and offering it back in some sense we help to redress the upset in balance that resulted from the fall.

And small acts of mortification, small deprivations of God's goods also help us to acknowledge that God is more important to us that these lovely baubles that surround us. Giving up what is good and right for a time, as we do in Lent, we experience some part of that "suffering." If we are "using" it wisely, we are allowing it to change our hearts and our lives so that they are more closely aligned with God's Heart and His vision for our lives.

Suffering is not purposeless, it reminds us of the transcience of the present world, and it acts like a cattle prod to keep our feet moving on the path toward holiness.

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We are to follow in the footsteps of Christ, who gave His life for the world. If you consider what the purpose of life is, it is quite simple: to pour out our life to save souls. And the salvation of souls does not come without sacrifice. We are each made co-redeemers with Christ. Christ offered up His life in satisfaction of divine justice; and so the greatest saints have done likewise. Suffering is a great gift, for through suffering we help atone for others' sins. The greatest saints were always those who begged God to allow them to suffer for Him, and who accepted all their sufferings with love and equanimity.

Dear Christine,

Yes, but I always caution, because this is so misread--they accepted the sufferings and even desired the suffering, but they did not bring it upon themselves. They did not go out of their way to suffer (at least the majority of them) in any tremendous way.

To suffer simply to suffer is a fundamental abuse of the other great gift, life itself. So there is a very fine balance. To desire to suffer (which I can't myself work up much enthusiasm for) and to willingly accept and even embrace suffering are laudable. To cause suffering to oneself or to others is the antithesis.



Sounds like you're not a fan of Opus Dei. Or St. Thomas More's hairshirt. :)

thank you, mr. riddle, thank you. all of our wonderful saints were touched by God; and, not a few were also a little "touched." we must always be temperate...lessen we're praising Him!

ps - i don't wear hairshirts, my life is hairy enough without 'em.

Dear T.S.,

I know you were asking jokingly, but I'd like to take the opportunity to clarify. I'm personally not a fan of hairshirts. However, I suppose as a personal exercise in discipline, detachment, and mortification, they could have a place. But not such a place that wearing them endangers your health or your ability to continue doing the tasks God gives you to do (as extreme mortification practices in the past have done.)

Impairing the goodness of the body in a deliberate way strikes me as at least probably sinful in most cases. And that goodness includes health and ability to function.

On the other hand, if you decide not to take aspirin for a headache and offer up the headache to help complete God's work, I can't see the harm in that, and there may be much good in it.

If you have a headache and have no recourse but endure it (for whatever reason) then a great deal of good accrues to accepting the headache and offering it up for the completion of God's work. It is unavoidable.

Hair shirts only rarely impeded a person's ability to function, but when they did so careful and thoughtful spiritual directors demanded that the discipline be abandoned.



Steven, I think you've got a good balance on the kind of life a Christian should lead. Yes, Jesus did give His life up for all of us, and we should follow in His footsteps. But He also drank wine, ate with his friends, etc. He knew there was a balance, that it was not all about suffering all the time.

Dear Nathan,

Thank you for your kind words, but just so as to avoid a swelled head, I will note that others, far wiser and more well-versed in prayer than I actually had the notion. I just finally cottoned on to it.



No one is saying that one should suffer for the sake of suffering--what would that accomplish? We don't do anything for its own sake, we do all for the sake of Christ. Neither is anyone saying that it's about suffering "all the time." Of course we are to enjoy life in all its beauty! But who says that there is not profound beauty in suffering for the sake of Christ? The great saints unlocked the door to a profound mystery in their love--yes, love--of suffering: it wasn't a masochistic love, but a love that came from the knowledge that what they were enduring was for the redemption of souls. Even Bd. Elizabeth of the Trinity gloried in her own sufferings, knowing that they made her one with Her Lord. God also grants incredible consolations to such chosen souls, consolations that few experience--and these brief tastes of His glory make up by far for all of their trials.

Not everyone understands this great mystery--that to suffer is to love, and to love is to suffer. Only those to whom God chooses to reveal it. The rest of the world will always remain baffled, scratching their heads and writing it off as mere masochism. But intense ardor for their God and zeal to save souls underlie the willing, loving suffering of the saints. Look at St. John of the Cross, who at the end of his life had only one request of God: to be despised for the sake of Christ. Or St. Catherine of Siena, who literally begged God to allow her to suffer for Him. Or St. Faustina, who did the same, "all for souls."

BTW, Bd. Eliz. of the Trinity wore a hairshirt.

Note, too, that not all are called to suffer--only those who are chosen. After contrasting the ascetic life of John the Baptist with Jesus' own, Jesus said that "Wisdom is proven right by all her children." What did He mean? Only that God's will is accomplished differently in each of us; some are called to lead a life of intense asceticism, penance, and solitude, while others are called to live more moderately in the world. "Wisdom is proven right by all her children." And so, if you have no burning desire to suffer for the sake of Christ, you needn't try to work up any; the desire itself is a gift. And this gift has been granted to some saints, but withheld from most.

Last note... So yes, there is a sense in which the saints brought on their own sufferings, by asking God to allow them to suffer for Him. But God had to accept their request, because in His eyes it is a great honor to suffer for the sake of Christ. Not all are deemed worthy.

Dear Christine,

I don't think I have a problem with anything you wrote. And nothing I said should be construed to indicate such. But two points that I think critical:

(1) Blessed Elizabeth wore a hairshirt until such time as wearing it was sufficiently damaging to her health that she was forbidden to do so. Then, as is right and proper, she obeyed those in authority over her. No matter how great her longing for suffering, her obedience, humility, patience, and charity were far greater.

(2) I like very much your notion of gift. The gift being the longing for suffering. And I think you are absolutely correct, although I'm not sure it had occurred to me this way. However, everyone does suffer in life, even if they don't actively desire it. So long as this is so, there is the consolation of being able to offer up those sufferings to join Christ in some small measure on the cross. So while we don't all need to desire suffering, and as you point out, many of us won't, we do need to desire that whatever suffering we must go through more thoroughly unites us to Christ in His own suffering.

I think we're pretty well agreed on this and my comments are only to try to clarify or explain points that might be misconstrued or taken out of context. And I thank you for contributing to this as well.



I'm absolutely agreed with you that mortifications in contravention of obedience are deeply displeasing to God. You can see this by reading the Diary of St. Faustina, who is told by Jesus that all the mortifications in the world are worth less to Him than her simple obedience to her superior. I think self-imposed mortifications done apart from God's will reveal pride, not humility.

Thanks for a great topic of discussion.

Yeah I was being a bit flippant, but a priest at St. Patrick's once mentioned how much more valuable penances and mortifications that come from outside us - either from God or other people or nature - than our own self-imposed penances (which can not only lead to pride but also are, by their nature, within our control).

Personally, I'm allergic to the idea of self-inflicted suffering, which, for that reason, makes me suspect that it is of some good.



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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on March 11, 2004 7:59 AM.

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