Suffering in union with Christ

Suffering in union with Christ
A Parent’s Perspective

Some years ago, I invited a woman to get involved in some pro-life activities. She’d been very involved in campaigning in the past but was adamant that her days of active involvement were over. I think she felt that as the aches and pains of advancing age took their toll, she didn’t have the energy and resilience to be an ongoing contributor in the pro-life battle. It’s not unusual for people to take such a position when faced with chronic illness, pain or a deterioration in physical or mental health. Our society can focus a lot on the burden of illness which has a very negative effect on how people see themselves. From feeling unable to engage physically in community life, it’s a short step to disengaging completely and feeling stripped of any definite role. This is also a risk in relation to matters of faith and involvement in the Church. We can be guilty of placing the physically and mentally strong on a higher plane, admiring their ability to push themselves to the limit and endure, long after others would have given up. If we’re sick, in pain or mentally fragile, the commitment and dedication of other Catholics and their faithful, enthusiastic involvement in numerous projects may seem like a slight to our own seemingly inadequate efforts.

One of my sisters has developed severe arthritis in her hands and, in her early fifties, has a level of pain that interferes with many basic functions. So many activities that she took for granted and enjoyed are now impossible for her.  It’s sad as, of all my siblings, she’s the one who most enjoys the creative arts and is upset that she probably won’t ever be able to do all the knitting she’d planned for any future grandchildren. Her own suffering and pains have given her a new ability to identify with all arthritis sufferers. She was commenting recently that she’d never thought much about the pains of those with the condition until she got it herself. One of the benefits of suffering is how it can expand our ability to empathise and put ourselves in another’s shoes. That gift alone is of great value in our interactions with others. Every Christian community has the movers and shakers and the doers but, to have the true spirit of Christ, we also need those who are the listeners and the carers, always ready with the sympathetic word of encouragement. It’s because of their pain that these members of our Christian communities may have more, not less, to offer.

While praying, I often use the excellent Conversations with God by Francis Fernandez. This series of books contains meditations for each day of the year aimed at the ordinary man or woman who wants to deepen his or her friendship with God. Writing about suffering, Fernandez says that suffering and tribulation are the lot of everyone here on earth. However, he observes that suffering of itself alone neither transforms nor purifies. It can sometimes even lead to a sense of rebellion against God or even hatred. Some Christians turn away from God when they encounter the Cross in their lives. The happiness they seek to find is merely human happiness free from any pain or hardship. St John Henry Newman preached how human beings place so much importance on the world of business, politics and entertainment as if these were what mattered most. He pointed to our embracing the Cross as giving the true meaning to all the shifting sands of our earthly existence and described it as “the tone into which all the strains of this world’s music are ultimately to be resolved”.

I sometimes suffer from severe migraine and get a little insight into the challenging world faced by those coping with chronic illness. It’s difficult to deal with looking after children, working and running a home while in good health and feeling strong and well. Trying to operate while under the haze of a migraine attack is practically impossible. It’s at times like this that I have to embrace the apostolate of suffering, a topic eloquently addressed by St John Paul II in his apostolic letter on the Christian meaning of human suffering, Salvifici Doloris. In this letter, Pope John Paul ll appealed to all those who suffer to become a source of strength for the whole Church praying that “In the terrible battle between the forces of good and evil, revealed to our eyes by our modern world, may your suffering in union with the Cross of Christ be victorious!” Rather than feeling useless or unable to contribute, our patience and prayer in times of suffering are a means to grow in virtue and share in Christ’s redemptive suffering.

We’re not less of a mother or father or contributing member of the Church because we’re incapacitated or ill. We can use our suffering to help transform our own life and the lives of others and use it to grow into the person God created us to be. That’s no small contribution. St Padre Pio said: “The more you are afflicted, the more you ought to rejoice, because in the fire of tribulation the soul will become pure gold worthy to be placed and to shine in the heavenly palace.” What great encouragement for those, who the world views as less able to take an active role, but who have so much to give to the life of the Church.