“After withdrawing about a stone’s throw from them and kneeling, he prayed,
saying, ‘Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me; still, not my will but yours be done.’ And to strengthen him an angel from heaven appeared to him.”
Sometimes we find ourselves in places where we beg God to take away our suffering, yet He doesn’t. Countless times I have encountered this in my own life, each one confounding me, testing my existing faith, and ultimately resolving me to remain faithful to God despite all indications pointing to do otherwise.
The ultimate Christian paradox involves suffering. We cannot escape it or allow it to dissolve into nothingness, as Eastern religions claim. It’s tempting to try. I have. At the same time, the mystery of suffering is ensconced throughout both the Old and New Testaments. I think it’s valuable to consider not only why we run from our suffering, but how we can learn to suffer well.
It’s easy to live our Catholic faith when life runs smoothly, when we read the verses that demonstrate miraculous healings and the light overcoming the darkness. These are meant to renew or restore our hope, not to eliminate or ignore the reality of the human condition, which is to suffer.
What astounds me is how often we forget this truth. Every time a new cross appears in my life, I pray that the cup would pass, only in different terms: “God, I’m tired of this” or “Not another problem” or “No, not again!” The essence is the same, however. I do not want to suffer, again or perhaps a new type of suffering, a deeper level of suffering.
Recall that Jesus, being fully human, experienced this with us in His Agony. We learn from the synoptic Gospels that He was “seized with fear and distress,” or some say, trembling. His reaction was to leave His Cross behind, because He was aware of how painful it would be to carry it to completion. Jesus Himself was begging His Father in Heaven to take away the imminent chalice of suffering.
Two important points I’d like to make here are what happens after we learn about Jesus’s words, “Please let this cup pass from me.” One, He immediately follows this request with, “But not as I will, as You will.” Next, we know that God the Father does not take away Jesus’s Cross, but instead sends Him an angel to console, or strengthen, Him in the struggle that lay before Him.
Turning to God with our wails and tears and heartache and fear, begging Him to release us from them is very human, a type of solidarity in prayer with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. In this type of prayer, we become honest both with ourselves and with God. We do not deny that we are weak, that we are terrified of pain, and that we do not want it in our lives.
But if we do as Jesus modeled and open our clenched fists to reveal empty hands, then say through the uncertainty and darkness, “But not my will, Yours be done.” In this second part of our prayer, we demonstrate radical trust in God’s providence, despite not knowing where our suffering will take us or what God will ask of us in it and through it.
Then there are long stretches of suffering in our life that can crush us under its weight, much like how Jesus fell three times under the weight of His Cross. We wonder if we will ever get a reprieve, if we will experience some slight joy or healing or breakthrough. And sometimes we do. But sometimes we do not.
Yet in these long stretches what often happens is that God sends us our own ministering helpers to comfort, encourage, and strengthen us. These could be total strangers who compliment us. Or a neighbor who stops by unexpectedly with treats for your children to enjoy. Or a friend who spontaneously offers to take the kids to the park for an hour.
Then there are the “ministering angels” who speak to us directly as mouthpieces of God. They remind us who we are, Whose we are, and they support us with their words of love and compassion. They do not attempt to take away our suffering, but they have the courage to walk with us in it, wherever it may lead. Essentially, they offer us their hearts and accompany us on our own personal Calvary.
Sometimes we are also called to minister to those who are suffering. The beauty of living out the fullness of our humanity is that each of us, while walking our own path of sanctification, intersects with the journeys of others. Each of us, when we are open to it, can become the very means by which another person is touched, consoled, even healed.
If we live by way of both crucifixion and redemption, we will be both ministers and ministered to, never missing the opportunities to bring faith, hope, and love into our lives and the lives of others.