“Dear Celine, sweet echo of my soul! If you knew my misery! Oh! If you knew… Holiness does not consist in saying beautiful things, it does not even consist in thinking them, in feeling them! … It consists in suffering and in suffering everything. Holiness! It has to be conquered at the point of the sword, one has to suffer, one has to agonize!” — St. Therese of Lisieux
This ended up being longer than I wanted. As with the golden calf Aaron made (Ex 32:24), I just sat down at my laptop and before I knew it, out came this long post.
I shared in a post the other day some of the insights had I gained from Dr. Veronica Rolf’s book, Julian’s Gospel, that I read over Christmastime. It’s a scholarly book about the 15th century English mystic, Julian of Norwich. Reading this book made me re-appreciate the incredibly rich and unique theological vision of this solitary hermit. Most people who have heard of Julian would associate her with her highly popularized phrase, “all will be well in all manner of being well.” For Julian this phrase of “ultimate wellness,” which in her work always refers to the present life only as seen through the lens of the “eschaton,” the end of history when Christ will return to shepherd his people into the New Creation and bring an end to the progress of evil in the Final Judgement, gives to every moment of life a sense of fullness and completion.
What really struck me as I read Rolf’s book was Julian’s profound emphasis on the positive and deeply spiritual meaning of bodily suffering. In this Julian is not anomalous in her thinking, as this perspective was the theological consensus of medieval Christian Europe. In brief, Julian and her contemporaries understood bodily suffering to be a privileged means of entering into intimate communion with the Risen Christ. Let’s take a moment to think about this together.
In the Christian spiritual tradition, the path to communion/union with the Trinity in Jesus Christ was an irreducibly complex reality, and various spiritual schools and authors each offered a unique emphasis. Some emphasized the primacy of intellectual communion with Christ (e.g. knowledge of God in faith), others volitional (e.g. love of God through the virtues), others affectivity (e.g. spiritual feelings of longing for God or compunction over sins), and still others in the primacy of Sacraments (e.g. Baptism, Eucharist). But within the Catholic spiritual tradition, it is bodily suffering that plays a privileged and almost sacramental role in opening us to an ineffably intimate communion with God in his paschal mysteries. Whether it be in the midst of the martyr’s agony, the agonies of the sick or those who suffer from chronic pain, the hardships of the penitent, or the countless daily discomforts that attend life in this “valley of tears,” physical pain offered to a man or woman of faith the singularly graced “embodied” opportunity to share in the suffering of God in Jesus Christ Crucified.
Theologically speaking, Christians affirm that every aspect of Christ’s human life opens up for humanity a fresh portal into the mystery of God’s limitless love. God clothed himself in human frailty in order to achieve “nuptial” union with each human person. From the moment of his conception in the womb of Mary, God’s Son made his own every detail of human life, rendering all of those details capax Dei, capable of participation in God’s own eternal life. Conception and gestation, birth and childhood, marriage and family life, eating and drinking, adolescence and adulthood, manual labor and study, music and play, night-long vigils of prayer and sleep, reclining and journeying, learning and teaching, boating and fishing, growing angry and grieving, feeling joy and laughing, being tempted and afraid — all of these human realities were taken up by God and came to define his immutable and eternal divine existence. In Jesus, God will forever see through human eyes, think in concert with a human mind and love in harmony with a human heart. Absolutely everything of human life and culture and existence, in Jesus, becomes a divinely, redemptively charged locus of the wedding of the finite and the infinite, of the created and the uncreated, of the earthly and the heavenly, of God and man. But above all else, it is in the violent execution of Christ, in its every detail, that the veil between infinite and finite, God and humanity is sundered; that we are granted unfettered and unthinkably full access to the deepest mysteries of God.
Because Passion of Jesus stood at the epicenter of God’s saving plan, Christians have thought of bodily communion with Christ’s own pains as being rife with spiritual power, and as wonderfully subverting the twisted logic of sin and death by transforming — through sacrificial love — what is worst into what is best. In this Christ-world where victimized Lambs defeat victimizing Dragons, the inglorious specter of suffering begets a vision of divine glory, and non-violent resistance to violence brings into being a new heavens and a new earth where all is made well in all manner of being well. Again, just as Christ’s myriad bodily wounds — meditated on in great detail by medieval saints — were made glorious and life-giving in the Resurrection, so will the suffering bodies of those joined to Christ in Baptism be made vessels of glory. For medieval Christians like Julian, this theological vision transformed physical suffering into a sacred offering, into a veritable “liturgy of the body” through which St. Paul’s admonition in Romans 12:12 could become a way to holiness for all sufferers:
I urge you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship.
For saints like the stigmatized Francis of Assisi, Christ’s violent Passion was an event of unthinkably intimate divine-human communion that could be best understood in nuptial terms. The Cross was the supreme moment of Christ’s self-emptying love for his Bride, the Church, which rendered the Cross, in the words of Thérèse of Lisieux, ”our marriage bed.” There was a very intense awareness in the middle ages that the Holy Eucharist, the sacrament of communion with God, contained in a most remarkable and substantial manner the Passion of Christ. Though many Catholics these days likely do not make the clear link between the Holy Mass and Christ’s brutal death, our ancestors in faith unquestionably did. To receive Sacraments was to receive the wound-bearing Risen Christ.
Fr. Aidan Nichols offers, in his book Epiphany, a vivid description of this link between the Eucharistic liturgy and the details of Christ’s Passion:
Christ’s death was not a piece of ritual yet it was a cultic act (i.e., a deliberate act of adoration of the Father), albeit carried out for a unique end: the forgiveness of the infinite malice contained in the “aversio” of sin, a forgiveness that restored human beings to participation in the divine life, since at no time has God not willed for them grace and glory. Thus the circumstances in which the death was embraced — the betrayal by friends, the rejection by the religious leaders, the hostility, or cynical indifference, of the men of power — all of these purely secular conditions were taken up into an act of cult, a supreme act of worship, whose hidden fruitfulness made it the central event in the history of the world. Because Christ’s sacrifice was a supreme act of worship, it was capable of becoming the foundation of the Christian liturgy.
Stat crux dum volvitur orbis
While medieval Christians viewed suffering as a “school of discipline” for training oneself in virtue and self-surrendering trust, or as a vehicle for purification, detaching us from our sins and imperfections, it was really this “mystical” or “hidden” meaning of suffering that I have alluded to above that imbued bodily suffering with its deepest meaning. Suffering, united to Christ, became a co-redemptive mode of self-offering that deepened one’s union with Jesus and one’s participation in the divine life. To embrace bodily pain in the economy of divine love is to embrace God in Christ — or, rather, to be embraced by God in Christ.
But nota bene…
It seems important to complexify this picture a bit and note briefly here that Christians also understood that palliative acts of mercy for the suffering, and the medical quest for bodily healing, are also absolutely essential to the what Catholics refer to as “integral salvation.” In its more orthodox forms, the traditions of redemptive suffering never considered pain as a good in itself (i.e.e masochism), and does not require that Christians actively seek out or, worse yet, inflict suffering on others. Neither does our tradition bind us to heroism in embracing suffering. Heroism in any form, while always an option that can be chosen in response to one’s personal vocation, is never strictly required of anyone.
What the tradition we speak of here does do, though, is reveal to us the wildly hopeful and shocking Good News that those inevitable and unavoidable bodily sufferings that accompany a fully-lived Christian life, or that simply come with life in this “valley of tears,” are in truth experiences of a transforming communion in love with our crucified and risen God, Jesus Christ.
See Bl. John Paul II’s Salvifici doloris for a fuller treatment. Interesting to note that JP2 wrote this Apostolic Letter after he was shot in 1981 by Mehmet Ali Ağca.
Fides Qua, I believe
St. “Padre Pio” showing the stigmata in his hands
Imagine now not only marveling at such a vision of bodily suffering from afar, but owning it in order to see and experience the world that way. That was precisely how Julian saw reality, and it was precisely in the midst of an agonizing illness that she entered into deep and abiding union with God and received her shewings, her “revelations” of the mysteries of God given to us in Jesus Crucified.
This vision of faith has become a radically foreign way of seeing the world, strange to the eyes of late modernity that sees in bodily suffering only a meaningless enemy. But this insight bears within it faith’s deepest and most radiant mystery: the Cross. It infuses ultimate meaning and hope into a universal human experience, revealing to us that, in the end, our crucified and risen God makes all things work together for the good of those who love Him. Let us dare ask Jesus for the grace to desire to ask Him to see, and live, the world in this way. To Him be glory and power forever and ever. Amen.
I will leave you with three quotes and then an embedded musical piece. The first quote was written by a deacon, now deceased, whom I had the privilege of coming to know in Iowa. As he was suffering the last stages of a painful terminal illness, he wrote these words to his children (which he later forwarded to me). The second quote is from Salvifici doloris and the third is from St. Paul. All three betray an insider’s view of this magnum mysterium, this “great mystery.” Below these is Mozart’s musical setting for the liturgical text, Ave Verum Corpus, which unveils in a few lines the exquisite beauty of the suffering that abides in God’s human love.
United with the cross of Christ, we are gifted with the blessing of sharing in His cross and participating in our own sanctification…
If one becomes a sharer in the sufferings of Christ, this happens because Christ has opened His suffering to man, because He Himself in His redemptive suffering has become, in a certain sense, a sharer in all of human sufferings.
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church… Colossians 1:24