Is Our Suffering Meaningless?
Are we in a dark chapter we simply want to get past? Are we a world shedding tears and wringing our hands and waiting for a new day? Is the suffering we are experiencing a meaningless extension of our creaturehood? Saint John Paul II wrote a 1984 encyclical worthy of remembrance precisely now, The Christian Meaning of Human Suffering. If we allow ourselves to be reminded that it is suffering that saves us and that our own suffering can be joined to, united with, the suffering that saves – suddenly our situation gains meaning. The generation before me apparently got a steady dose of the “offer it up” spirituality, so much so that it seems to have been shelved for a time out of overuse. But do Millennials and the X, Y, and Z generations even know what their elders are talking about when we quip “offer it up?” Underuse may have slipped into no use.
My Suffering Does Not Have to Be in Vain.
Now is the time to take the doctrine of redemptive suffering off the shelf. Suffering is an opportunity to participate in the very pinnacle of Christ’s life and mission. Here are my options: I can suffer, shed tears, wonder why this is happening and be left with questions and with grief; or, I take my own sorrow, confusion, isolation, grief and mystically unite it to the suffering of Jesus. I can contribute my little portion of sorrows and sufferings to His offering to the Father. If I do this, suddenly my suffering is not in vain, not unseen, not unknown, not meaningless misery. No, suddenly my suffering has meaning because it is offered with The Suffering that saves the world.
Saint Paul said it like this: “In my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of His body the Church” (Col. 1:24). We might wonder what Paul could possibly mean by “lacking” in reference to Christ’s afflictions. We can understand ourselves to be what’s lacking. My suffering and yours. If we are members of the Body of Christ, we all have a contribution to make. We all have a price to pay. We can contribute by offering our sufferings with Christ’s passion for the salvation of the world. Maybe the phrase “offer it up” should be replaced with “offer with.”
If I want my suffering to be useful and not in vain, I must chose to unite it with the suffering of Jesus—it is the only way He can use it. When I do this it has the power to transform my whole experience of suffering. The grim weight lifts a bit, and sometimes more than a bit. Saint Paul had more to say on the topic when further on in his letter to the Colossians he wrote, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake.” In the encyclical on suffering, Saint John Paul II wrote that “the discovery of the salvific meaning of suffering in union with Christ transforms the depressing feeling” of suffering.
What Good Will my Sufferings Do?
Only God knows fully what your sufferings will do in the economy of grace, but it could help till the soil of a hardened heart in need of conversion. Saint John Paul II said this: “It is suffering more than anything else, which clears the way for grace which transforms human souls.”
And in the ongoing battle between good and evil which rages on whether we are aware or oblivious, our sufferings can contribute to the overall victory: “Human sufferings, united to the redemptive suffering of Christ, constitute a special support for the powers of good, and open a way to the victory of these salvific powers” (John Paul II).
And within my own heart and soul suffering borne well create a capacity for a greater love. And that is what we are made for isn’t it, a greater love.
There is a measure of suffering for us all in this battle with the coronavirus—would that it not be wasted. There are graces to be wrought by my suffering and by yours when offered with Jesus to the Father.
Mother Clare, CFR