Apr 3, 2017
As Catholics, we are not thin-skinned when we encounter and personally experience pain. We are taught about the redemptive qualities of pain and suffering and are taught to embrace it as did Christ. Many saints endured physical suffering to the extreme and identified with Christ in his passion. Various saints chose ascetic practices as part of their vocations. Saint Teresa of Kolkata, not content with ministering to the poor and dying, practiced physical “discipline,” which included self-flagellation and the cilice, to experience the cross more fully and demanded her sisters do the same. To her, pain was no less than a “kiss of Jesus” on the cross.
Yet traditional explanations of the fall of man and our sinfulness may strike us as rather cold, the assurance of redemption through the cross, the sharing of Christ’s cross, as wholly unsatisfactory consolation in the face of life’s struggles and worst horrors. Recently a fire claimed the lives of a mother and four of her five children in the small town of Warwick, Massachusetts. During an unusually cold night in early March, a wood stove in the kitchen caused the infernal blaze. Only the father and one child escaping before the roof collapsed. How, indeed, are we to make sense of such senseless suffering? Most of the time, suffering seems to occur without a valid reason and we fail to see a connection between pain and deserved penance. We might celebrate as a miracle the healing of an eighty-year old following a hundred rosaries but are bewildered when God does nothing to save a four-year old from torture and rape.
When faced with suffering of such magnitude, redemptive justifications leave us perplexed. It seems reductionist and anti-climactic should God’s mercy, love, and power require any contribution on our part when life’s horrors unfold before our eyes. More satisfying answers must, therefore, be sought outside of the theology of sin and redemption. The key to the mystery of suffering, its causes, its respite, and its role in our salvation, must lie in the fact that God is not only good and omnipotent, but also omnipresent through Christ. Rather than absent from, complaisant in, or even responsible for suffering, God is with us through it. And Christ’s passion on the cross is less a call to share his pain, but, rather, a statement about his closeness to the pain we already endure.
Many of us can become impatient with the apparent glorification of pain, the exaltation of sharing Christ’s passion and focus on heaven, rather than the here and now. Our earthly tasks are far from over and we seek consolation and solutions to real time challenges. We have jobs, homes, and families and children who require our presence of mind in concrete existential matters and their education. As mere mortals, outside of the orderly world of the consecrated, we encounter a world that is arbitrary and unpredictable, cruel, and often frightening. Not only do we endure suffering, but each day brings new and unforeseen challenges that we cannot just face passively in prayer but must overcome in action. When faced with the greatest challenges, the idea of redemption and the promise of heaven provide neither guidance nor respite. When we look at the cross, we seek not theological justification for pain and its exaltation, but consolation. Simply put, we long for a love that helps us endure the pain, not one that demands it.