Common Wisdom: The Gift of Suffering

In a back corner of our little parish church there stands a small table bearing a plain white tablet. Atop the page someone has written “Prayer Intentions.”

Then follows a list of anonymous notations in a variety of hands: “that my son may be reconciled with his wife and children”; “that our daughter may get well”; “that my son may come back into the Church”; “that our family will be happy again”; “that my husband will have successful surgery”; “that God will find a good wife for our son”; “that God will give us vocations to the priesthood.” The list grows a little each week, a testimony of the faithful to their trust both that other people will pray for them and that the prayers of others will help. Yet the petitions never change much, evidence that human nature suffers year in and year out in the same way. Nor do the petitioners change; they appear to be mostly mothers, praying, as mothers do, for their families, often particularly for sons. One wonders, perusing this list, whether women do most of the praying in this world. Although it is natural for both men and women to pray, women, it seems, sometimes do it first and with less self-consciousness.

Every week there are parishioners who read this list of intentions and take these petitions to the Blessed Sacrament. These faithful do not vary either. They are generally a remnant of the little coterie that gathers each morning for Mass, elderly widows, some middle-aged women, a handful of retired men, a few men on their way to work, an early morning jogger or two, a young father on his day off.

Lists of prayer intentions, people spending an hour in a still and empty church praying before the Blessed Sacrament—why, in a world where we are used to instant solutions by way of legislation, damage suits, or quick-fix diets, should such activity be taken seriously? How do we know it gets results? The fact is, most of the time we do not know. And yet, when we pray for our family and friends or for anyone in need, there is something we do know. The knowledge we have is that something happens to us. When we pray for those we love, we find ourselves drawn into the awesome mystery of how the gracious and merciful God can allow suffering, which, as Russell Shaw defines it, is not evil itself but the experience of evil. How an all-powerful God can permit suffering and still be God is, of course, the very point that atheists and agnostics claim prevents their belief. This question of evil and suffering is clearly the riveting issue of human life, for no one escapes. To be human is to suffer, if not today, then tomorrow. Sin, sickness, death, loneliness, disappointment, dullness, boredom, helplessness, frustration, dashed hopes—what life is without them? Suffering is our inevitable lot.

But to understand this inevitability is only the beginning. The believer knows that the good God is both all-powerful and all-merciful; therefore, although God permits evil, he is not the source of evil. For the believer, then, it must be that suffering leads us to a good that we do not expect. Moreover, if God is the God we believe him to be, then we should expect even that the good to which he leads us through suffering far surpasses any good we could have had without suffering. Though this is a bold statement of paradox, it is axiomatic with Christian spiritual writers. Furthermore, the person who takes his own or his neighbor’s suffering to the Blessed Sacrament begins to glimpse this greater good that suffering brings. Not that suffering is good in itself; suffering in itself is misery. Its good lies through it, in spite of it, beyond it.

What is this good that suffering can bring us? None other than Christ himself. There in the very heart of suffering we find all of reality, Our Lord himself, taking our suffering as his own, suffering with us and for us, and thus raising our suffering from something pointless to something glorious.

The person sitting quietly before the Sacrament, offering to Christ on the cross his own or his friend’s suffering, senses something present to him—not something being done for hint so much as someone being present with him. Thef6 in the company of the Real Presence he meets the meaning of suffering. What is God doing specifically to alleviate that suffering? Who knows exactly? For the one enveloped in the Presence the question becomes irrelevant. His suffering is subsumed into the Presence of someone with him. In the small, insignificant wafer he takes literally into himself at Mass there lives the astonishing whole of reality. All of reality, God himself—and we receive it as our gift.

Christianity offers us an extraordinary faith, making a claim more fantastic if untrue, more glorious if true, than any religion in history. Evil and suffering are the great stumbling blocks of life. Every religion addresses them. No other religion, however, has looked at them as has Christianity. Some religions have asked the believer to identify with a God who removes himself from evil and suffering. Others, such as the Stoics, have taught the believer to grit his teeth and endure with noble courage whatever suffering is visited upon him. We have the testimonials of brave men that this highest form of human courage has enabled them to survive the most dreadful mental and physical torture of prison camps.

Christianity, on the other hand, draws the noblest human courage into a different sphere; it presents us with an idea so startling that in its very impossibility of rising from unaided human reason it is the best argument for the Christian revelation. What Christianity gives us is a God who, sinless himself, plunges himself into human suffering. In our suffering he joins us and bears us up. Instead of telling us that if we are brave enough we can overcome suffering, he tells us that the suffering that comes to us because of our imperfect selves is the very way by which he draws us close to him. He asks of us not so much bravery as humility. The needle’s eye is a tiny gateway to heaven, through which we cannot pass without shedding our pride. In passing through the needle’s eye we shrink and encounter suffering. Yet we discover, too, that it is through that very eye that we are following Christ, that however much we suffer, he is the one who is truly bearing our suffering. Further, we find to our joy that when we have threaded the eye of the needle, we have become united with Our Lord in a closeness that never would have been possible without suffering. We know then that we have joined Christ in his redemption of the world.

Nowhere does our knowledge of Christ’s presence in our suffering seem more real than in our silence and awe before the Blessed Sacrament. Catholics may not realize fully what a tremendous gift they have in the Real Presence, or, when they accept a modernist version of the eucharist as merely symbolic, how much they give up. More than anything else in the world everyone craves an explanation of human suffering. If suffering means nothing, then life is unbearable. It is in the Incarnation of Christ thrust inseparably into our suffering world, divine life come to hold tenderly in its arms the sick, broken little human person, that we see how Christ loves us so much that he gives us his own life with the Father. How better can we know how closely Christ draws us into his divine life than to meditate on the modest wafer that becomes one with us through the simple and completely human act of eating.

I lately had the opportunity, for the second time, to see Mother Teresa. Introducing her, Father John Hardon, S.J., her long-time spiritual adviser, stressed that one of the fundamental tenets of Mother Teresa’s theology is her devotion to the Real Presence. Then, as Mother Teresa herself talked, Father Hardon’s point was borne out. Woven throughout her talk, delivered in her arrestingly soft-spoken, accented but unmistakable English, she affirmed that the Real Presence permeates everything in her life; her apostolate to “the poorest of the poor” is founded on it.

“Mothers and fathers,” she said, “pray with your families; especially pray before the Blessed Sacrament. Ask your parish priest to let you have eucharistic adoration.” Before 1963, she said, her order of the Missionaries of Charity had adoration once a week. Then her sisters came to her. “Mother,” they said, “we want adoration every day.” Mother Teresa said she protested. So much trouble, she said, so hard to arrange. She prayed. And the sisters came back to her. “Mother, we want adoration every day.” She agreed, and since then vocations have flowed into the order.

This tiny little woman, only four feet eleven inches high, who has to stand on a box to reach the microphone, understands the relation of adoration of the eucharist to her apostolate to the poorest of the poor—the poor, of course, being all of us.

“Suffering is not a punishment,” she says. “It is a gift to us. Never let one drop of suffering go to waste. Give it to Jesus. Give it all for the love of Jesus. Let him use it in the redemption of the world.”

When we sit before the Blessed Sacrament, alone with the silent presence, we give to Jesus all the imperfections, faults, sins, and suffering of ourselves and our loved ones. We ourselves can do nothing with these burdens. But Christ turns them all to his own mysterious and good purpose. Where we are barren and dead he sows life and goodness.

Our family recently had as house guests a couple much advanced, I think, in the spiritual life.

“What happens when we pray for other people?” I asked the husband.

“We know that we don’t change God’s mind,” he replied. “That is not why we pray. But we also know that God’s will is always that we be united with him, and so we know that he wants the best for us. We know, too, that God works through human channels. And so, when we pray for other people, we are simply opening up another avenue of grace.”

From all we can tell from our human standpoint God seldom works by way of thunderclaps or lightning bolts. Instead he moves us by the free agency of other people who are under no coercion to love us but, strangely, through God’s grace, love us anyway. How better to love each other than to offer our sufferings, small or mighty, to the Lord who will use them to ease another’s burden. Let no drop of our gift of suffering go to waste.


Mrs. Anne Husted Burleigh is a free-lance writer, mother, and grandmother who lives on a farm overlooking the Ohio River in Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, near Cincinnati. She has written two books: John Adams, a Biography, and Journey up the River: a Midwesterner’s Spiritual Pilgrimage. She has contributed to many publications, including Crisis and Catholic Dossier, and now writes for Magnificat.

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