Guest ColumnistThe Pain beneath the Cross


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.

Not all suffering is the same and neither are its causes. Yet all suffering is an essential part of life and the pre-condition of our freedom. Much suffering results from natural catastrophes, famines, diseases, and accidents. The mercilessness and harshness of the natural world as just as essential to the functioning of nature as are its beauty, grandeur, and abundance. Much, maybe most, suffering is caused by human actions. Conversely, it is human actions that allow for God's love to become manifest. 

Throughout our lives, we are likely to encounter various types of suffering. First, there is the suffering caused by sin, the willful separation from God, from his graces and the true source of love. Secondly, there is suffering we voluntarily choose in the form of sacrifice in order to direct our attention from the self towards spiritual matters, towards God and the needs of others. Thirdly, as Christians we may experience ridicule, abuse, exclusion, torture, even martyrdom. Fourth, we experience the unavoidable suffering through the various challenges that are essential to life in a natural world of imperfection and potential – disappointments, failures, anxiety, sadness, loneliness, uncertainty, and physical pain. Such a world is the pre-condition of true freedom and only freedom allows us to love God freely.

Finally, there are the great tragedies of life for which we know no words. The loss of a child, chronic and excruciating pain, disfigurement, sudden and senseless death. Such tragedies lead to despair and cynicism, to a breaking point. We might always believe, but life's struggles may become so overwhelming that even the promise of heaven does not prevent us from "opting out" from God's plan in anger like Dostoyevsky's Ivan Karamazov. Mere mortals that we are, we suffer with no end in sight, only believing and hoping for life eternal. And believing is not knowing. Faith is, above all, trust and not certainty.

In Lumen Fidei, Pope Francis acknowledges that "Christians know that suffering cannot be eliminated." He further points to its possible meaning as "an act of love and entrustment into the hands of God who does not abandon us" and as serving "as a moment of growth and faith" (Encyclical Letter, Lumen Fidei, # 56). But how are we to accomplish this "act of love and entrustment" in the midst of trial and life's greatest challenges?

We must take heart in the familiarity we have gained with God through Christ. Rather than make himself be seen in spectacular and marvelous ways, God incarnate is now in our midst. Urgent requests for visible signs have become obsolete. According to St. John of the Cross in The Ascent to Mount Carmel, "now that faith in Christ is given and the evangelical law is manifested in this era of grace, there is no need to inquire in this way, nor that He speak or respond as before. For by giving us, as He has done, His Son, His unique Word – there is no other – He has spoken and revealed all things at one time in one Word. There is no need to speak further" (Subida del monte Carmelo, II, 22, Obras completas, ed. L. Ruano de la Iglesia (Madrid, 1989), #3, pp. 200-201).

What are we to make of this paradox of simultaneous closeness and distance? Prayer must no longer be request for miracles, but, rather, an assent to and rejoicing in the consolation already present. In other words, Christ is the answer to all prayers.

Faith often starts with the sense of security that a small child might feel when holding the father's hand. Inevitably comes a time, when the hand lets go and we feel alone in darkness. It is at such times that reflections on sinfulness and redemption offer little solace. Instead, the Christocentric theological vision of Blessed John Duns Scotus can lead us back to the cross as a symbol of love and a guiding light. Scotus held that God's uniting with himself the whole of creation was not contingent on man's fall and that, in fact, the Incarnation was the fulfillment of creation, God's "original idea," and the ultimate sign of God's immense love. Pope Benedict XVI, in his biography of the 13th century Franciscan friar, applauds Scotus' vision in which "Christ is the center of history and of the cosmos; it is he who gives meaning, dignity, and value to our lives!" (Holy Men and Women, p. 89). Christ's passion, which is integral to the Incarnation and the Resurrection, must in this sense also be understood culmination and completion of God's work.

A Christocentric vision affirms that God does not want us to suffer. Indeed, Christ suffered so that we may suffer less. Christ's pain is, indeed, God's sharing in the pain of the world, like a mother's longing to absorb the pain of her child in her arms. Christ's pain on the cross is a symbol of pure love and a concrete manifestation of God's empathy. (See also: Once we accept his closeness, we are comforted and can become models of his love. According to Pope Francis, God's response to suffering is "that of an accompanying goodness which touches every story of suffering and opens up a ray of light" (Lumen Fidei, # 57).

It is in this encounter that we not only feel loved but feel emboldened to face and overcome life's obstacles. No longer feeling chained to the cross, we may come to recognize that our pain is not a "kiss from Jesus." On the contrary, we may recognize his love in acts of human kindness and goodness in the most unlikely places. With Christ as our companion, we are, ultimately, set free, loved and thus able to love. This is the true victory over despair that comes through the cross.

In the French director Anne Fontaine's most recent masterpiece, The Innocents, Benedictine nuns in a Polish convent find themselves at a loss with how to deal with the consequences of their brutal rape by Soviet soldiers at the end of World War Two. Only the courage to act creatively and according to the dictates of love rather than those of the convent allow for God's graces to shine through. As one of the Sisters states, "we cannot know what God wants. The only truth is His love." As to the mother and her children who perished in the fire, we must believe that God sent angels to lift them up to his embrace.

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