I have heard all my life from my elders those whom Tom Brokaw has called America’s greatest generation that I really don’t know what suffering is. They’re probably right.
There are several fine books on the subject of suffering, including C.S. Lewis's The Problem of Pain and Peter Kreeft's Making Sense Out of Suffering. We can read all we want, but pain is still a problem and suffering often does not make a whole lot of sense without the supernatural vision of faith. Suffering is a mystery that we'll never fully understand in this life.
St. Paul writes: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col 1:24). What a startling verse this is. We know that Christ's suffering and death was sufficient to atone for the sins of the world. Yet joined to Christ, as members of His body, we truly participate in the mission of the Church. When we are alive in Christ, every aspect of our lives including suffering is invested with meaning and salvific potential.
Not only does our life in Christ enable us to suffer for the sake of the Church, but it also enables us to enter into others' suffering. This is known as the virtue of compassion, which empowers us to suffer with and for others. While compassion is a natural virtue, it's also the fruit of supernatural charity, a charity that sees beyond the passing trials and sufferings of this life to our hope of eternal glory (cf. Rom 8:19). St. Thomas Aquinas says that our compassion not only lightens others' loads, but also is a concrete way in which we manifest to others the love of Christ.
As virtues go, compassion is the people's choice. While many people today are put off by virtues such as prudence, chastity, or meekness, among others, everyone wants to be considered compassionate. Yet, we must recognize the many counterfeit versions of compassion today.
For example, what some might call compassion is really only pity. True compassion involves entering into another's pain. It involves self-sacrificing love and supernatural hope. Pity despises the suffering, but doesn't offer real consolation to the one who suffers. He or she rightly insists, “I don't need your pity.” Pity is a cut above “pitilessness” or a failure to even recognize another's suffering, but it's not compassion.
Christians frequently manifest compassion through the spiritual and corporal works of mercy, such as feeding the hungry and visiting the sick or lonely. In showing our love in action to those who suffer, we also affirm their value and dignity.
In contrast, secular society sees no value in suffering and strives to eliminate it. Yet our Lord rebuked Peter when he suggested that Christ forgo His Passion (cf. Mt 16:21-23). Not only is such an approach futile, but it also manifests a refusal to share another's pain. And if suffering has no value, then the door is open to euthanasia, eugenic abortion, and a host of other evils.
When it comes down to it, our society tends toward self, and doesn't want to be bothered with others' suffering. Our Lord says, “Blessed are these who mourn,” who enter into the real-life drama of human suffering, “for they will be comforted.” For many, however, life is about avoiding the question of suffering. And so we multiply diversions, take pills, watch TV, and ignore the suffering around us perhaps easing our troubled consciences by sending an occasional donation to Mother Teresa's nuns or the American Cancer Society.
Many of us who uphold the Church's teachings, especially in questions of morals, have been told we're not compassionate. How dare we tell couples they shouldn't live together before marriage, or that they shouldn't contracept, let alone abort their children? How dare we tell those with same-sex attractions to avoid acting upon these urges? How dare we bring up uncomfortable truths on a whole range of issues, from capital punishment and just wars to honesty, the rights of workers, and the Sunday obligation? For many, truth is a hindrance to their conception of compassion and love. Yet compassion divorced from truth is mere expediency. It's certainly not loving.
I've been to confession many, many times in my life (good thing, too!). I have had confessors mechanically mete out an absolution and penance, perhaps in the process reminding me just how evil the sins I committed were. I've had other confessors tell me that nothing I mentioned was a sin, and that for my penance I should “lighten up” and “do something just for me.”
The first type of confessor tried to communicate the truth about sin, while the second type tried to communicate “compassion.” While the grace of the sacrament is always present, my most fruitful experiences of confession have brought together both elements. The priest affirmed the truth about sin, but also in a tangible way communicated the peace, healing, and mercy of Christ.
In our own lives, we must always strive to “speak the truth in love” (Eph 4:15). The truth is liberating, not constraining or condemning. We must take great care to manifest our zeal for the truth in a way that is truly compassionate, just as our zeal for souls requires an unyielding commitment to the truth.
Christ fully accepted human nature in order to redeem it. If we want to be Christ's disciples, then we must embrace our human nature, at once sinful and redeemed. If we can't accept suffering, then how can we suffer and die with Christ so as to enter into His glory?
For ourselves, let us pray for growth in meekness, which empowers us to act virtuously and nobly in the midst of suffering. Suffering is not a curse, but God's way of getting our attention, of drawing us to a greater good. Nothing in our lives is accidental or a waste. Every circumstance of our lives, especially moments of pain and sorrow, provides an opportunity for thanks, as the Lord is preparing us for His eternal kingdom (cf. Heb 12:11; 1 Thes 5:16-18).
As we carry our own crosses and help others bear their crosses and burdens, let us remain focused on the love that is stronger than death, the love dramatically revealed on Calvary 2,000 years ago, the love that has been poured into our hearts at baptism. This point is beautifully made in the spiritual classic I Believe in Love by Fr. d'Elbée, recently reprinted by Sophia Press: “Without love, everything is painful, everything is tiring, everything is burdensome. The Cross, taken up hesitantly, is crushing; taken smilingly by free will, and with love, it will carry you much more than you carry it. Love makes time eternal by giving a divine value to everything.”
Leon J. Suprenant, Jr. is the president of Catholics United for the Faith (CUF) and Emmaus Road Publishing and the editor-in-chief of Lay Witness magazine, all based in Steubenville, Ohio. He is a contributor to Catholic for a Reason III: Scripture and the Mystery of the Mass and an adviser to CE’s Catholic Scripture Study. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org .
Join Catholics United for the Faith and enjoy the many benefits of membership.