In my various writings I try to draw upon some personal experiences and practical wisdom to help others to better understand our rich Catholic faith. This often is challenging, but never more so than when I address the topic of the Christian understanding of suffering.
I have heard all my life from my elders–what Tom Brokaw has called America’s greatest generation–that I really don’t know what suffering is. Perhaps they’re right.
I do know that when the Lord commands us to take up our cross and follow Him, He has in mind a different cross for each person. When I see the crosses and sufferings others have to bear, I can only wonder why my own cross seems so relatively light. Yet inevitably we all must confront the reality of human suffering, as no one is exempt from carrying his or her own cross.
There are a number of fine books on the subject of suffering, including C.S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain and Peter Kreeft’s Making Sense Out of Suffering. We can read all we want, but pain is still a problem and suffering often does not make a whole lot of sense without the supernatural vision of faith. Suffering is a mystery that we’ll never fully understand in this life.
St. Paul writes: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col. 1:24). What a startling verse this is. We know that Christ’s suffering and death was sufficient to atone for the sins of the world. Yet joined to Christ, as members of His body, we truly participate in the mission of the Church. When we are alive in Christ, every aspect of our life–including suffering–is invested with meaning and salvific potential.
Not only does our life in Christ enable us to suffer for the sake of the Church, but it also enables us to enter into others’ suffering. This is known as the virtue of compassion, which empowers us to suffer with and for others. While compassion is a natural virtue, it’s also the fruit of supernatural charity, a charity that sees beyond the passing trials and sufferings of this life to our hope of eternal glory (cf. Rom. 8:19). St. Thomas Aquinas adds that our compassion not only lightens others’ loads, but also is a concrete way in which we manifest to others the love of Christ.
No Need for Pity
As virtues go, compassion is the people’s choice. While many people today are put off by virtues such as prudence, chastity, or meekness, among others, everyone wants to be considered compassionate. Yet, we must recognize the many counterfeit versions of compassion that are mistaken for the genuine article today.
For example, what some might call compassion is really only pity. True compassion involves entering into another’s pain. It involves self-sacrificing love and supernatural hope. Pity despises the suffering, but doesn’t offer real consolation to the one who suffers. He or she rightly insists “I don’t need your pity.” Pity is a cut above “pitilessness” or a failure to even recognize another’s suffering, but it’s not compassion.
Christians frequently manifest compassion through the spiritual and corporal works of mercy, such as feeding the hungry and visiting the sick or lonely. In showing our love in action to those who suffer, we simultaneously affirm their value and dignity.
In contrast, secular society sees no value in suffering and strives to eliminate it. Remember Our Lord’s rebuke of Peter when he suggested that Christ forgo His Passion. Not only is such an approach futile, but it also manifests a refusal to share another’s pain. And of course if suffering has no value, then the door is open to euthanasia, eugenic abortion, and a host of other evils.
When it comes down to it, our society tends toward self, and doesn’t want to be bothered with others’ suffering. Our Lord says, “Blessed are these who mourn,” who enter into real-life drama of human suffering, for they will be comforted. For many, however, life is about avoiding the question of suffering. And so we multiply diversions, take pills, watch TV, and ignore the suffering around us–perhaps easing our troubled consciences by sending an occasional donation to Mother Teresa’s nuns or the American Cancer Society.
I will post part 2 of this article tomorrow.