Our current year has presented a lot of sufferings to reflect on. Some are unexpected. Masks. Who would have ever thought a year ago that face masks would be something that we actively talk about? Not only are people talking about them, but they are wearing them, sewing them, and buying them. People also have very strong feelings about masks. Those who are anti-mask tend to be very anti-mask, and those who are pro-mask are often very pro-mask.
I do not want to consider here the benefits and drawbacks of mask-wearing, though. Instead, I want to look at the connection between the sufferings of the pandemic, including masks, and the cross — specifically, how embracing an invitation to suffering can ultimately lead us to sainthood.
The Year of Suffering
Even my almost ten-year-old has picked up on the lingo of the year, and will occasionally quip, “That is so 2020.” This year has been unlike any other in my lifetime (and probably yours, too).
One unexpected thing after another has happened (and continues to happen). Many of the unexpected things have brought suffering. Whether you are suffering from or have suffered from COVID-19, have a loved one who has, have lost a loved one to it, have lost your livelihood or sanity — everyone has suffered this year. You might say that face masks have been the straw to break the camel’s back.
I do not know anyone who loves having to wear a face mask. For some, it represents an imposition on their preferences and personal judgement. Even for those who are pro-mask, it still serves as a stark reminder of just how difficult this year has been for all of us. Masks are uncomfortable, inconvenient, and we long to see each other’s faces. Both those who are anti-mask and those who are pro-mask agree on those points.
Masks are a visible reminder of an invisible virus. Wearing masks forces us to confront the reality of the upheaval and pain that our society is facing during this global pandemic.
The Weight of the Cross
Long before the pandemic, many of us were already suffering under the weight of various crosses. We had a close family member face a significant health crisis earlier this year (which was resolved just on the cusp on the stay-at-home orders). From hospital visits, I can assure you that our family was not the only one that was already carrying the cross of illness before the pandemic.
I know of countless other sufferings that friends and family and acquaintances were already facing long before the word “coronavirus” was on the tips of our tongues. Infertility. Mental illness. Loneliness. Physical suffering. Toxic or abusive family situations. Healing from a childhood raised in said families. Difficult pregnancies or a sick child. Miscarriage or stillbirth. The recent death of a loved one. Unemployment. Separation or divorce. Single parenthood.
All that suffering was already present in people’s lives before COVID-19, social distancing, or face masks.
It is a part of our fallen human nature to suffer (an effect of sin), and it is also a part of our human nature to fight desperately against that suffering. We, understandably, do not want to suffer. And so, when faced with suffering, we do everything that we can to alleviate it or fight it. There is nothing natural about embracing suffering.
Yet, that is exactly what Christ calls us to do.
Suffering as the Way to Sainthood
Especially for those struggling under the weight of heavy crosses prior to the pandemic, this year has seemed like more than we can endure. By the time face mask mandates were put into place, many people were breaking under the weight of so much suffering.
I cannot speak to everyone’s reasoning behind their mask stances, but I have noticed one significant trend. Often, those who speak out very loudly and forcefully for or against masks are people that I know to have been suffering already in the “Before Times.” Some of them are people whose sufferings are relatively hidden, others those who have very publically suffered. Yet, for those who have already suffered so much, they simply do not have the strength to suffer under the weight of one more thing. And so they post articles, frantically trying to convince others to agree with them. For some, it is a suffering to have to wear a mask. For others, it is a suffering that many people do not.
Will there ever be an end to the suffering of this year?
That is the question that we need to be asking, though. The question that we need to be asking is, “What is our reason for hope?”
I have seen some fellow Catholics loudly proclaim that God is generous and that he will fulfill his promises to us by giving us many good things. This is true, but often not in the way that these dear ones are proclaiming it. God will give us many good things, but many of those gifts will not be given to us on this side of heaven.
I can not think of a single saint who did not suffer. In fact, sometimes it feels like there is a direct correlation between the degree of the person’s suffering and the degree of their holiness! Yet, the saints are not a morose bunch. They are imbued with a sense of deep joy, even amid their sufferings (and sometimes because God is permitting them to suffer). Why is that? It is because they know what their cause for hope is.
The Invitation of the Cross
The saints knew that, because of the cross of Christ, suffering is not an imposition. Rather, it is an invitation. Suffering in any form can be transformed by Christ, when offered up to and united with his suffering on the cross. Rather than be victims of suffering, we are invited to suffer as he suffered — for the sake of love. Christ has already conquered sin and death. Because of this, our suffering no longer must be a sign of defeat. It can be offered in love and borne with the help of Christ.
Masks, COVID-19—and any and every other suffering we may be called to bear this year—are invitations to draw near to the suffering of Christ. You cannot embrace the crucified Christ without being touched by his wounds. You cannot draw that close to Him without suffering, too. The saints knew that, and it is why they rejoiced, especially in suffering.
Ironically, the abundance that God promises us in this life may be an abundance of sufferings in this world, because those sufferings are an invitation—an invitation to share in the love of Christ, who suffered for the sake of love. Offering up our own sufferings to him allows us to share in his cross. It will also allow us to draw into deeper union with him, and one day share in his resurrection.
Ultimately, the cross and suffering, if carried with love and united to Christ’s, will help us become saints.
image: Anna Nass / Shutterstock.com