Richard lived a very normal, happy life in his quiet, rural New Hampshire home. His parents were very devout Catholics and were wonderful parents.
When Richard was nine years old, his ordinary life changed forever. Richard was diagnosed with polio. The disease left him completely paralyzed. His paralysis was so severe he had to breathe by physically gulping for air, something like what a frog does. At night, he slept in an iron lung.
Without a doubt, Richard’s cross was very heavy. Nevertheless, everyone who came into contact with him was astonished by his patience and joy within the very difficult circumstances of his daily existence.
However, initially, Richard did not carry his cross well. Understandably he gave into self-pity, until one day his parish priest, through good, sound advice, snapped him out of his slump. From that moment on, Richard decided to help others by speaking to any group that would listen to his story. With the help of his parents, Richard Chaput of Nashua, New Hampshire traveled all over his home state, and his testimony touched thousands of lives.
Most of us when we suffer wonder, why me? Why do I have to suffer? The meaning of life will be become clearer to us when we realize that we will find purpose in life when our search leads us from why to whom. Suffering does have a human face to it. We have only to look at our Lord Jesus crucified on the Cross and there we will find the meaning of our existence and the answer to our searching and longing.
In our suffering we demand answers. We are not satisfied with pietistic platitudes such as “just offer it up” or “you will be just fine”. Suffering, especially chronic physical sickness, deep emotional pain, and death itself, causes a personal crisis that forces us to go deep into ourselves and ask those questions that are most fundamental to our human existence. It is precisely in the crucible of intense suffering that we either come close to God or rebel against His loving presence.
“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Matthew 16: 24). In these words taken from this Sunday’s gospel narrative we discover the drastic invitation of Jesus. Embracing the cross, our personal cross or crosses that cannot be transferred to another, is an essential aspect to our walk with the Lord Jesus.
Jesus and the two thieves were not the only people ever crucified by the Roman Empire. Crucifixion was the preferred form of capital punishment used for those living under Roman jurisdiction but who were not actually Roman citizens. Beheading was the punishment of choice for Roman citizens, crucifixion for non-Roman citizens. Just think how horrible crucifixion must have been if the Romans spared their own citizens such a terrible death. So painful was death by crucifixion that the Romans eventually did away with it as a form of capital punishment.
The Jews were accustomed to seeing people crucified. Political insurrections on the part of the Jewish populace were punished by mass crucifixions When Jesus turned to His disciples and said “Take up your cross and come follow me”, it was if He was saying, “Take up your gas chamber, take up your electric chair, take up your noose, and come follow me”. Those listening to Him knew precisely what crucifixion entailed. While the comparison may sound absurd, nevertheless, it is precisely in the daily carrying of our cross that we will find the loving presence of the crucified and risen Lord.
Too many of our contemporaries seek an easy life without suffering, without sacrifice, without renunciation, without mortification. Many people would like to stand under the cross of Jesus and cry out as did the jeering crowd on the first Good Friday, “Come down from the cross.” Contemporary society does not want to suffer and this is why we need to heed the words of St. Paul: “Do not conform yourselves to this age…” (Romans 12: 2). We must be convinced that there is only one Jesus, and H is the crucified Jesus who rose from the dead. Christianity without the cross is not Christianity; only through the cross of Jesus have we gained salvation.
So, when we suffer, we should not consider our suffering a burden; rather we must look upon the cross we bear as an immense gift from God. Mother Theresa once said: “Suffering is a sign that we have come so close to Jesus on the cross that He can kiss us and that He can show that He is in love with us by giving us an opportunity to share in His passion”.
Undoubtedly there are many forms of suffering that are quite mysterious. However, the need to carry our cross as an essential dimension of Christianity that does not take away the need and the duty to seek cures for illnesses and to make this life a better life for everyone. Although human progress continues to make this earth a better place for everyone, suffering, in one form or another, will always be a part of our existence. The meaning of suffering only makes sense when we contemplate Jesus Christ crucified and then raised from the dead.
When we ask the question why, we need only look upon the crucifix. It is there that we will find the meaning of suffering and the exact reason why we too must carry our own cross.
Each of us has a cross to carry. We must all identify our crosses and carry them with patience, joy, and love. Why should we complain about something that will be the means by which we will gain eternal life?
As Thomas à Kempis reminds us, “The cross, therefore, is always ready; it awaits you everywhere. No matter where you may go, you cannot escape it, for wherever you go you take yourself with you and shall always find yourself. Turn where you will — above, below, without, or within — you will find a cross in everything, and everywhere you must have patience if you would have peace within and merit an eternal crown.”