The World’s Thy Ship
“The world’s thy ship, and not thy home.” I remember reading that phrase for the first time in St. Therese’s Story of a Soul. In her early twenties, at the time of writing this, she would be considered wise beyond her years. Her wisdom came at no small cost, though – it was bought through the school of suffering.
Suffering can, of course, lead to bitterness or anger or a myriad of unhealthy coping mechanisms. What model did Therese have that allowed her to see in suffering the invitation to something more??
Her parents, Louis and Zelie Martin, pointed the way.
The Suffering of the Martin Family
The parents of St. Therese were no strangers to suffering, and neither were their daughters. By some accounts, it appears that St. Zelie may have had an emotionally abusive mother, and likely knew suffering from a young age. Both Louis and Zelie were turned away from the religious life they felt so drawn to. They lost almost as many children as survived, and then St. Zelie died of breast cancer at a young age. Servant of God Leonie and St. Therese both suffered from significant mental illness at various points. Although they had financial stability and all would appear well from the outside – the Martins suffered terribly over the years.
Yet, their home was not one of sorrow or complaining. It was a place infused with joy and love. It was a place filled to the brim with hope, even in the midst of such crushing grief. Their secret? They clung to the hope of knowing that the world was only their ship, sailing towards heaven, their final home. With each new suffering, each new loss borne, this family turned their eyes towards heaven. They put their hope in Christ, and knew that the presence of the cross was an indicator that they were drawing nearer to Jesus, who they all loved and longed for.
To Be a Saint is to Suffer
There is not a single saint who did not suffer.
Think about it. Can you think of a single saint whose life was free of suffering? There is no such saint. In a world that is broken and tainted with the effects of the Fall, the presence of suffering is not extraordinary. What is remarkable is that the saints saw in each new suffering an invitation.
I have been married for over a decade. In the course of those years, I have seen my husband suffer, and he has seen me suffer. Although even prior to our wedding day, we both hated to see the other one in pain, our union through this sacrament has made the pain of the other like our own. This is the beauty of spousal union – you cannot fully, freely embrace another without their suffering touching you. It is the way of love.
What the saints have done and what we are called to do is to journey towards the gift of union with the Divine Spouse. This Spouse is one who died for love, and whose greatest act of love was one of unimaginable suffering. You cannot embrace Christ without embracing suffering. You cannot be drawn into union with him, without also wrapping your arms around the cross. There is no other way.
Hold on to that image, the image of embracing Christ on the cross. What you will notice is that you are, first and foremost, embracing him, not just the cross. The saints did not seek out suffering for the sake of suffering. They did not embrace suffering without purpose. Rather, they freely embraced him, knowing that suffering would follow (and embracing that suffering with love). I’m sure the saints didn’t enjoy suffering. I’m sure they were worn out by the weight of it. But they also knew – union with Christ is worth suffering for. He is worthy of our love, this intensely lovable Bridegroom of ours.
Suffering in 2021
Just as many of us were getting used to a loosening of pandemic restrictions, many places across the country are now re-instating some of them. In other countries, where medical care may not be as readily available, overall health poorer, and vaccines nearly non-existent, the suffering being brought on by the Delta variant is even worse. More than an inconvenience, for some it has meant death or prolonged physical suffering on an even greater scale.
But even those who are not affected in as immediate a way are still worn down by the inconveniences, the disagreements with loved ones, the bouts of isolation.
Many of us experience suffering in unexpected bursts – life is going smoothly, and suddenly it arrives. Some of us have experienced suffering throughout our lives, and something like the pandemic is an additional suffering to an already heavy load.
But no matter which category we fall in, our invitation is the same as that of the saints – to embrace Christ on the cross. In our suffering is an invitation to draw near to him, so near that we embrace. To do this requires a radical love and a radical hope. If our hope is placed in this world, then suffering will seize us with despair and consternation. It is only by glimpsing in the cross an invitation that we find our feet firmly rooted on the deck of a ship. It is only when we see the storms of life from the perspective of the ship that is the Church that we can fix our eyes on the distant horizon, straining to see the first glimpses of our homeland.
The world is, after all, not our home.