Life-giving pain

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, Saint Francis of Assisi Embracing the Crucified  Christ | St. Francis & the Americas

[This sprawling collage of notes from my journal is for you, js. Thanks for asking me. Also, I will pause posting again for a number of days. And dear Readers, I love all your comments. Thank you!]

Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified. — 1 Cor. 9:24-27

My Irish great grandmother Abbey used to often say, “If it hurts, offer it up!” It’s a venerable Catholic saying that contains a world of theological meaning.

One of the many gifts Jesus brought us was to fill our pain with redemptive meaning and eternal hope. It is unquestionably true that Jesus alleviated human suffering throughout his public ministry by healing people of various ailments. But as St. John Chrysostom argued, Jesus heals not to free us from all crosses, but to strengthen our shoulders with renewed hope that resurrection awaits us on the far side of every crucifixion. Only in such a hope can we be truly free to embrace the cross, to suffer for love’s sake.

Jesus, heal me into love!

Jesus imbued suffering itself with saving power by uniting it with his own obedience to the Father’s will “unto death.” And what did that obedience demand of him? That he face the evil that brought him pain with a will intent on doing justice, goodness, tender mercy, love and truth to the very end, all marked by radical trust that his all-good provident Abba makes all things work together for good. The seven last words of Jesus from the cross, spoken out of his own real-time pain, reveal to us the hidden form of beauty in his redeeming will:

Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.
Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.
Woman, behold your son…Behold your mother.
My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?
I thirst.
Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.
It is completed.

In those words we can see that the Father’s will to bring good forth from evil is never only a passive experience, something that just “happens” to us. Rather, it is an active summons for us to do whatever is in our power to make good happen. This summons is the heart of the fourteen “corporal works of mercy,” each of which provides us with a blueprint for drawing light out of darkness, peace out of violence, life out of death.

Suffering and pain serve the purposes of God’s mysterious “paschal” providence in innumerable ways, e.g. as a divine plea for justice, an invocation of mercy, a summons to solidarity, a vocation to virtue, an invitation to accept love, a command to love, a call to embrace the limits of our weaknesses from within which we can actually surrender to the Father’s provident care.

It is only in the times that I was forced to face my limits, without recourse, that I began to grasp the meaning of surrender into God’s hands. In that alone, I believe, is real humility found. Is true power found. Surrender in suffering renders you insanely vulnerable to God, thins out the membrane between heaven and earth — God finds our surrender to be an irresistible epiclesis. And only surrender allows me to see that God’s greatest response to my surrendered plight is to bless others.

Suffering and pain are the voice of Jesus beckoning us, “Come, take up your cross and follow me!” To take up one’s cross willingly is to raise the stakes of discipleship, amplify the brightness of the light we shine into darkness. Freely loving in the face of suffering intensifies the grace present in each act of the will, since love is the pith of grace and the perfection of freedom.

St. John Chrysostom noted once that Lazarus was raised from the dead by Jesus so that he could be freed from fear of death, defined by gratitude, freer to love, and in these ways be made readier to one day wear the martyr’s crown. When we are freed to face suffering and death by Jesus, the Resurrection and Life, shouting “live!” into our tombs, our every struggle becomes entwined with his divine power actively repairing our entombed world HERE AND NOW. Let him set you free so you can willingly suffer what cannot be avoided along the way of discipleship.

And while most of the pains and sufferings of life come to us unsought, we are also called, through the disciplines of an ascetical life, to freely take on ourselves some forms of hardship to strengthen the presence of goodness, to weaken the grip of evil, and to deepen our solidarity with all who suffer similar hardships. Love calls us to fast from food to taste hunger with the starving; to give alms to the needy to share in their destitution; to sacrifice sleep for nights of vigilant prayer to accompany the sleep-deprived. We give up certain bodily comforts to grow the virtue of temperance, engage in hard manual labor to overcome sloth, practice abstinence from noise to cultivate inner silence for recollection. We carry out secret sacrifices each day that only God can know about, offering them up for others as sacraments of love for God and neighbor.

Our voluntary acts of bodily and spiritual penance, chosen only with careful prudence and under the guidance of wise mentors, are done to train us in the art of cross-bearing. We do well when we wisely choose penances to discipline our unruly passions, cultivate self-mastery, grow virtues needed to live well our unique vocational paths — all of which are to make us into men and women for others.

However, I would add that, in my experience, the greatest penances we can do are already embedded in our daily duties. As Archbishop Fulton Sheen famously said, “Penance does not require hair shirts today; our neighbors are hair shirts.” Simply choosing again and again to be diligent in our various responsibilities, uncomplaining in the face of inconveniences and annoyances, patient with our own screw-ups, kind with assholes, courageous in standing up to slander or refusing to join in filthy talk. These are all of high value in God’s eyes because they consecrate the present moment into a sacrament of his Presence, making Christ accessible to others by your suffering with him, i.e. with his own inner dispositions.

Most of the good God does through us he does without others knowing that good entered their world through our cooperation. Without us knowing! Which is why his power is made perfect in our weakness.

O God’s magnificent economy! Divine economics is an organic exchange of visible and invisible goods, a wild Kingdom of interdependent interrelatedness, a circulation of grace in Christ’s Mystical Body that makes each dependent on all others for access to any good thing. It’s a theandric ecosystem! And in God’s home economics, he fills what is being emptied out, gives grace within acts of giving, showing his own CRAZED love to be radically dispossessive, his own STRANGE justice to be recklessly distributive. Acts 4:32 is NUTS: “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.”

In this economy, nothing given to God is wasted. Especially no cross — no failure, no weakness, no sickness, no disappointment, no loss, no pain, no sin. Nothing. All things are caught up in Christ’s cosmic recycling of trash into treasures, where love-infused cross-bearing rips open wide the infinite storehouses of heaven, pouring its contents into the hands of the worthy. And of the unworthy, like me…

When I first came back to the practice of the faith in 1987, I went to visit a lifelong family friend, a remarkable and holy woman named Muriel. I could write a book on her beautiful soul! She was like a second mother to me growing up, and I loved her intensely. On this visit, I spent a whole day with her and her husband and shared with them my conversion experience. She was absolutely overjoyed! She had heard from my mom that I had drifted away from God. She said she began at once to pray for my return. She said, “I told God I would accept a cross from him for you, if it would help you to come back to him. Shortly after that, I had my first heart attack.”

I was floored, speechless. I had never heard anything like that before.

A year or so before my conversion, I had visited her in her home shortly after the second heart attack. I was devastated, as she was so frail and thin. I hardly recognized her. Her heart disease was rapidly progressing, and her husband told me her doctor said she had about six months left to live. I couldn’t process it, I loved her so much. And I had no resources of faith to fall back on.

Several months later, while I was in college, my mother told me Muriel had miraculously recovered. I was elated. But it wasn’t until I visited her the next summer, a few months after my conversion, that she shared with me what had happened. Among other things, she said:

Shortly after you visited me last time, [my husband] found out about a priest in Massachusetts who had the gift of healing. So he took me there to see him. After he prayed over me, I was healed completely [a long and amazing story I will leave out here to keep the length down]. I believe I was healed so I could continue to do God’s work as a wife and mother, and testify to God’s power. But I want you to know something. I believe my suffering for those two years was in part for you. I want you to receive that as a gift of love, from the Lord and me, and as a reminder of the power of suffering that’s offered up. Offered in reparation.

Reparation? I’d never heard that word before. I would come to discover over time it was a gorgeous doctrine. “Reparation” comes from the Latin reparationem, “an act of repairing, restoration.” While I don’t understand how her heart disease fit into God’s grand scheme of providence in my regard, and don’t pretend to explain the spiritual mechanics of how such a thing could work, I do know this — Muriel’s Godward intention of love for me that accompanied her suffering, which she entwined with Jesus’, had in truth repaired me. I believe this as a fact more real than gravity that’s holding me in my chair as I write, and I believe it to the very core of my being. Since that day, as I was humbled to the dust, I have seen my life as a feeble, mostly unworthy attempt to hand on to others what I myself received.

May it be so for us all, to accept a share in the repairing of a suffering world through our own God-entwined suffering love. Heroically, feebly. He takes it all, because he knows it all well.

2 comments on “Life-giving pain

  1. Paige LaCour says:

    OMG Tom…I had to turn to a Chase mid-reading of this and say, “I think Tom has struck upon a well-spring during his sabbatical or something…maybe it’s quite house?”…I’m floored by these reflections and can barely even process them. Had to and will continue to mine this post. To feast upon this thick and grounded, superfluous and steady, tantalizing and beautiful spread of whole-wheat wisdom loaf. I can’t even.

    • Paige LaCour says:

      One favorite:
      “ Divine economics is an organic exchange of visible and invisible goods, a wild Kingdom of interdependent interrelatedness, a circulation of grace in Christ’s Mystical Body that makes each dependent on all others for access to any good thing. It’s a theandric ecosystem!”

      Love that!!!

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