“Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hatred. Hatred leads to suffering.” This quote comes from Star Wars’ Master Yoda in in an exchange with the young Anakin Skywalker. An interesting statement to say the least but our faith tells us more. As Paul writes in Romans 5:3-5: “Not only that, but we even boast of our afflictions, knowing that affliction produces endurance, and endurance, proven character, and proven character, hope, and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the holy Spirit that has been given to us.” These two lines are the basis of a meme I saw recently on Facebook this month, and with the influence of a few books I’ve been reading, has led me to this article on suffering.
So what is suffering? Webster’s defines suffering as pain that is caused by injury, illness, loss, etc.: physical, mental, or emotional pain. So how does that translate to us as Catholics? I’d like to present two degrees of suffering. In doing so I hope to be able to show that the first degree, what I will call lesser forms of suffering, can be offered up for those enduring the second degree, more severe forms of suffering. In turn the second degree of suffering serves as a witness to Christ.
The Trials of Suffering
Let’s face it, we are all tasked with enduring some level of suffering during our time on this earth. That suffering can manifest itself emotionally or physically and can be temporary or permanent. Even if you are not facing some form of suffering yourself, you will undoubtedly be faced with the suffering of others. Families, friends, co-workers, no one can escape the trials of suffering. The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary points out that suffering takes many forms: physical pain, frustrated hopes, depression, isolation, loneliness, grief, anxiety, spiritual crisis, and more.
What is the point of suffering? Suffering is quite simply the result of original sin. This is not how God intended things to be. Quite frankly the disobedience of our ancestors Adam and Eve resulted in a sinful world where the threat of pain is constant. That pain can manifest itself in many forms. One example that many of us have either faced or know someone currently facing is a battle with cancer. There is nothing quite as emotionally draining as watching a loved one slowly fade away before your eyes. A second example are those forced to spend a lifetime dealing with a more permanent affliction such as multiple sclerosis. One last example would be the end of life battle with dementia. Pretty depressing examples, but the point is there is some good that can come out of each of these.
Offering Up Suffering
Early in my conversion I can still remember my wife telling me to “offer it up.” Actually 20 years later she still tells me to “offer it up.” I’m a slow learner. What can I say? So what is all this talk about offering it up? St. Paul says in Colossians 1:24: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, which is, the church”. St. Paul is telling the Colossians, and us, that he is offering his sufferings for the Church…..and the Church is us. The discipline of offering it up can extend to anything. Drop something on your toe? Have an overbearing boss (see last my last column on labor)? Having a particularly bad day capped off with one of the worst migraines in recorded history? Driving home behind someone driving 10 miles under the speed limit? Spill the milk? Don’t fret, don’t over-react, don’t apply the reverse of the Yoda quote above and allow the suffering to lead to hatred and anger. Offer it up.
You may hear of people offering things up for the souls in purgatory but I would like to make a suggestion, perhaps a slightly more personal method. Offer your daily sufferings up to those facing the ultimate suffering. I’m speaking of our Christian brothers and sisters facing persecution and martyrdom in the Middle East. I will not soon forget, and I am certain neither will many others, the image of the 21 Egyptian Christian men in orange jump suits beheaded by ISIS in Libya.
Martyrdom has been a challenge faced by Christians since the earliest days of the Church. We as humans were gifted by God with free will. This free will, unfortunately, allows individual to hurt….and even kill others. Cardinal Donald Wuerl has recently written a magnificent book on the subject titled To the Martyrs: A Reflection on the Supreme Christian Witness. His book serves as a glimpse at what ultimate sacrifices have meant through the ages. I had the opportunity to interview Cardinal Wuerl and he had this to say about what caused him to write the book:
“I’m sorry to say it was the daily news. The posts coming from the Middle East and elsewhere remind us that Christians are, in every age, called to follow the footsteps of Jesus. In ancient times the Romans killed Christians during “games” in the most public places, in the arena. Now the arena is YouTube. The persecutors post video of their executions online. Their goal is the same. They want to terrorize Christians and make us afraid and ashamed of our faith. With this book I wanted to provide the biblical, historical, and doctrinal context for a true understanding of these contemporary events”
What are some examples of these Christians through the ages? In the early church we can turn to Saint Ignatius of Antioch. Ignatius composed seven letters on his journey from Antioch to Rome. On this journey he was a prisoner and being led to his execution in Rome. He willing took on this suffering. In fact, he wrote of lions grinding him in their teeth like wheat into flour. Many individuals wanted to free Ignatius, their captured Bishop, but he pleaded that they allow his execution to occur and to “permit me to be an imitator of the passion of my God.”
There were many, many more martyred Christians in the Roman empire. I guess one doesn’t truly understand suffering until they are staring in the face of a lion or covered in tar and lit on fire for use as a night time street lamp. Time marches on and so has Christian martyrdom. In our own time we have the multiple examples provided in Cardinal Wuerl’s book in detail. The Armenian Genocide, The Mexican Persecution, Soviet Communism, The Spanish Civil War, Nazi Germany, Communist China and now ISIS.
I close this article on suffering with a challenge to you, dear reader. Let up take our daily sufferings for what they are. Less significant than what they could be. Let us take those individual circumstances in this new year and offer them up for our Christian brethren in the Middle East and in other countries affected by the terrorism enacted at the hands of those persecuting them. Those martyred as witnesses to their Christian faith are the ones truly suffering. We should do our part in offering them our prayerful support.