Mom was an artist. Her first oil picture, painted in her high school art class, was an image of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane. It was a prophetic painting as she endured much suffering between the time it was painted and the time of her death about forty years later.
The Garden of Gethsemane painting hung in my grandmother's house, and when I was a grammar school child and we would visit her I often looked at it with curious apprehension. I was healthy and hadn't suffered much. A large part of my youth was spent in an enormous neighborhood park, which had all the freedom a kid could ask for with seemingly none of the dangers. We swung on the swings there, played tennis, climbed trees, ran around the track and played make-believe games in bushes that had shaped themselves into pretend caves. In the winter we sledded down the park's steep hills, and in the fall we jumped in the leaves that had fallen. My best friend and I occupied what spare time was left cartwheeling from one end of the park to the other. It may be that I spent too much time upside down doing cartwheels for the painting that hung in my grandmother's house to make much sense to me. The mere thought of suffering was a stranger from which I would flee.
Grammar school was followed by high school and college. Then my grandmother died. The Garden of Getshemane painting that had hung on the wall in her home was taken down. It was given back to my mother. She proceeded to hang it on a wall in her home. I was now an adult. My life had slowed down. I was not cartwheeling through it anymore. Suffering had become an acquaintance I did not like very much. The meaning of the painting I had curiously studied for so long was slowly coming into focus.
My marriage and my children had both arrived before my mom was struck down by cancer at the age of 67. She was too young to die. She seemed to have so many more paintings, and so much more grandmotherly doting, left in her. "Father, not my will but thine be done," we had prayed. After my mother's death, we took the Garden of Gethsemane painting down off her wall and moved it to our home. The frame by now was dull and dented and in much need of replacement. A shiny gold frame was selected.
Taking off the dull and weary frame, I stabbed my finger on the tarnished thorn-like prongs that had held the painting to the frame for so long. After bandaging my finger, I placed the picture in the golden frame and re-hung it. Backing away in awe, it was hard not to see the difference. Suffering never looked so good. It was shining. Placed in the golden frame, the suffering of Christ looked glorious. The act of re-framing was itself transforming.
Sometimes we need to re-frame the suffering in our lives in order to see its meaning. Mother Theresa said that our sufferings are kisses from Jesus — and we can start to see them so. To see them so is to see with Christ's eyes. The world tells us that the main purpose of life is to move through it without suffering. Yet Christ calls us to embrace the suffering that comes, and allow it to draw us closer to Him. The world says that if anything should happen that might bring us any kind of pain we ought to quickly find a lawyer to file a suit. Yet Christ calls us to find value not in suing over suffering, but rather in the very act of suffering itself.
We want our lives to go straight from birth to glory just like the folks we see on television shows. We want to forget that television is a staged facade, and that the life of the Savior we are called to follow was not lived like that. We want to lead pleasant lives without pain. We want joy without suffering. We want to be resurrected with Christ; but we don't want to be crucified with Him.
As Catholic Christians we are called to more depth than what make-believe television shows portray. We are called to greet suffering not as a stranger from which we flee, not as an acquaintance we don't like very much, but as an old friend we embrace. We are called to see our sufferings not as an end without meaning, but as a purposeful means to an end that will be glory-filled.
Whatever suffering we endure, we can trust it is designed to draw us closer to God and ultimately to heaven, where all suffering will cease. We don't know what heaven will be like. But we can trust with joyful anticipation that what God has prepared for us is glorious beyond anything on earth that we have ever seen, heard or can imagine: "as it is written: ‘What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him." (1 Cor 2:9)
With eyes fixed on our final goal of heaven, may we receive the grace to pick up our crosses, frame them in gold, and follow after Him.