When my husband defended his dissertation several years ago, our oldest (then five years old) told everyone, “My daddy is a doctor…but he isn’t a real doctor. Not the kind that helps people.” (The irony is that my husband ended up getting a job as a theology professor at a seminary and daily assists with the formation of future priests. He most assuredly “helps people” every day!) My husband has a lot of amazing qualities. He is an academic. He is a good father. He is handy around the house and can figure out anything from how to change the oil on a car to how to build a fence.
Despite his many strengths, my older daughter was on to something. As someone who hates needles and all things medical, being a medical doctor is certainly not his calling.
I have had hyperemesis gravidarum for the duration of my pregnancies with all four of my children. Although all of my pregnancies have been challenging, the most difficult one was my fourth. I needed more medication than I had with my previous pregnancies, I tolerated less food and drink, and I required home health for a subcutaneous medicine pump. That pump required the use of needles. It meant giving myself shots multiple times a day.
Later in the pregnancy, I was strong enough to do this unassisted, but I needed a lot of help in the beginning. Although I could give myself the actual shot, I was often too weak and sick to get out of bed and assemble the necessary medical supplies. I was too nauseous to throw away any wrappers from supplies. Just sitting up long enough to administer the shot was a challenge.
Despite his hatred of shots and needles, my dear husband was right by my side for all of those early site changes. He helped assemble the new needle and other supplies. And he sat with me while I administered the shot, encouraging me. He didn’t want to be there. He chose to be there to love and support me in a very scary, overwhelming time. His gaze, his laugh, his strength, and especially his love – they made the suffering a little easier to bear.
I have told my spiritual director many times that my husband is a St. John. In the garden of Gethsemane, Peter offered to wield a sword. But John knew what Christ actually needed. He needed his friends to stand faithfully by his side, loving him until the end. Most of us are inclined to be a Peter — to try to solve a problem and do away with suffering. Unfortunately, many times the suffering is unavoidable. Christ willingly took up his cross. His suffering, freely chosen, was unavoidable.
To have walked the way of the cross beside Mary, to have stood at the foot of the cross with an arm around her – this was a different kind of suffering. It certainly was not anywhere near the magnitude of suffering that Jesus endured. But it was a suffering that John willingly took up for love of Christ. He didn’t choose to endure that suffering because, “If I don’t stick with him, Jesus will be mad at me. I don’t want him to get mad at me.” Rather, John chose to walk the way of suffering with Christ because, “I don’t want him to suffer alone. I want him to know that I still love him and am with him.”
When suffering is chosen out of love — like John choosing to walk the way of the cross with Christ, or a spouse choosing to face his own fears so that his wife won’t suffer alone — it is always lighter to bear. The reason for that is that the focus of the suffering is shifted off of ourselves to the soothing of the suffering of another. Parents often experience this when up with a sick child late at night. Even though the parent may be exhausted, she cannot imagine leaving her child to suffer alone. That loving concern for her child makes it easier to suffer. She is more worried about her child’s health than her own lack of sleep.
This is the heart of what penance ought to be. Yes, the Church does require penance of us during Lent. There are prescribed days for fasting, as well as days of abstinence from meat. It is encouraged to take on an act of personal penance, as well. The experience of penance conforms our will to God’s will. It helps us to properly order the goods in our life, so that God may be the greatest good.
However, penance is more than that. Taking on acts of penance is an opportunity to be a John. It is an opportunity to stand at the foot of the cross of Christ, to gaze up at him with love, to meet his eyes with your gaze, and to let him know that you love him enough to suffer with him. Penance (especially Lenten penance) is an opportunity to be a John or a Mary. It is a chance to acknowledge that although we aren’t being called to suffer as greatly as Christ did on the cross (a feat that is too great for anyone other than one who is God and man) we are invited to console him with our love. When someone suffers, especially when it is a suffering we cannot remove, the best way we can soothe that person is by simply being a loving presence. The best way we can love a suffering person is by sitting with them, looking into their eyes, and saying, “I love you. I am here. You are not alone.”
Because Jesus is divine as well as human, he doesn’t really need our consolation. Nevertheless, he allows us to console him. He allows us to love him. And when we take on penance, he receives our loving gaze as we tell him, “I love you. I am here. You are not alone. I will take up my cross and follow you.”