A veritable over-indulgence in spiritual goods, bordering on gluttony. That’s what time at IPF in Omaha amounts to for me. My one hope for salvation is to obey the counsel of St Augustine to all would-be teachers: “What you learn you learn not so you might arrogantly boast or greedily hoard what you come to know, but that you might give it all away.”
That is the joy of acquisition: giving it all away.
Anyway, in a talk I heard today a priest-theologian referred to a Russian saying that, he said, circles among the clergy: priests are ordained to help people suffer well.
That saying led my mind to an extraordinary man I came to know in 2009 who is presently dying in a hospice. Not long before he began to face the final crisis in his long battle with his illness he wrote me a one-line email: “Tom, pray that I might suffer well.”
Not, “pray that I might be healed,” but “pray that I might suffer well.”
Now, he fought mightily to be restored to health; he did all he reasonably could to stave off death. But he also understood that life is de facto filled with sufferings great and small, and that the most-essential vocation of every human being is not to ‘be well’ but to ‘love well.’ And it is in suffering, one might say, that we find the greatest test of our love for God and for neighbor; that we encounter the greatest opportunity to love with depth, with force, with sacrifice.
An old Siberian woman at my Dad’s church once said to me, “You Americans do not know how to suffer, which is why you have so little depth.” After taking some offense at that, I realized that it was spot on – certainly in my case it did apply.
To the same effect, a mystic-woman I met in D.C. (who lived through Dachau) in 1991 said to me, “God wishes you to offer Him your crosses, not throw them in His face.”
So I have encouraged these men, these seminarians at IPF that I am privileged to be teaching, to be fully aware of this calling. The sacred and fragrant Chrism that will one day seal their hands for divine service flows freely from the bloodied body of the Christ, the Eternal God who suffered with infinite love for and with us and for our salvation. The Sacraments they will celebrate and communicate come forth from the violently opened side of Christ, costly Gifts that beckon from us a like response.
And if it is true that the priest is to help us suffer well, it is also true that we faithful must desire to suffer well. My friend, as he nears death, is a white martyr, a witness to this truth lived out in extremis.
May I have the courage to one day pray, and not just admire, his prayer.