The Ministry of Suffering

Christianity is called the “Good News” because it brings hope — the hope of both forgiveness and everlasting life. That matters because we are fallen creatures, prone to sin and death. The New Testament warns of that false comfort zone where we say, “Peace and security,” for that is when Christ will come, like a thief “at an hour you do not expect” (cf. 1 Thess 5:13; Mt 24:43-44).

I don’t have to worry much about false comfort. When I was two years old, I was diagnosed with Marfan Syndrome, a genetic disorder of the connective tissues. In the simplest terms, my body isn’t sewn together properly. It makes things long and stretchy, particularly my bones, tendons, blood vessels, and eyes. Marfan Syndrome was little understood when I was a child, and without drugs, surgery, or lifestyle restrictions, the life expectancy for males never exceeded the early 20s (death usually comes by aneurysm).

Growing up was difficult. I was on 200 mg of Tenormin at 13 — “enough to stop a horse,” as some doctors said — and I lived a very restricted lifestyle. By the time I was 19, I had to have surgery on my aorta. Now, 14 years later, I have an artificial aortic valve and root, and about eight conditions that could cause sudden death.

All of that gives me a certain perspective on life.

I have learned that, despite popular piety, suffering does not necessarily make one a better person; it just makes a person honest. The one who suffers becomes either more bitter or more loving. Furthermore, facing death leads to one of four reactions: The person either surrenders to fear and depression, tries to “get as much out of life” as possible, attempts to achieve some major personal goal, or grows closer to God. At various times in my life, I have experienced all four.

As a child, I was a bit more religious than the other kids, but wasn’t fully engaged until I read C. S. Lewis’s The Last Battle in fifth grade. Suddenly, heaven was no longer an abstract concept — it was a goal, a place I genuinely wanted to go to. I began reading more books about saints, spirituality, and apologetics, as well as all the Lewis I could get my hands on. I learned about the redemptive value of suffering, and that I could unite my suffering with Christ’s.

I noticed that the one thing that connects the saints — be they martyrs or confessors, virgins or missionaries, mystics or theologians — is that they share a clear sense of the priority of the next life over this one. They all understand how fleeting this world is, and how nothing we experience in this life can be compared to what awaits us.

 

One Saturday morning a few months ago, I woke up feeling good. There was no pain anywhere in my body — no fatigue, no sense of numbness, weakness, or pressure. I hadn’t taken any painkillers the night before, either: I just felt good. Of course, I knew as soon as I got up that would change, so I laid there awake and enjoyed for a few minutes what it must be like to live without pain.

My sister once asked me if I was angry at God for my condition. I said, “Of course not. Why would I be angry at God for the greatest gift He’s ever given me?” I’ll never have the luxury of comfort in this life, yet no matter how bad things are, they can never be as awful as hell, nor as magnificent as the joys of heaven. I can’t say I never complain (far from it) or that my situation doesn’t get me down (it often does). Nor am I a great saint; despite my best efforts, I know I am still at the bottom of the metaphorical mountain, weighed down by sin and spiritual sloth.

However, I take daily comfort in Christ’s love, and I try to give back what little I can. I maintain a daily prayer life, however meager and shallow, and try my best to be loving and virtuous. Because doing anything is hard, I make everything I do an offering to God. And that, as St. Thérèse taught, is the most that any of us can do.

By

John C. Hathaway, OCDS, blogs at The Lewis Crusade and is the producer and narrator of Hide Me In Your Wounds: Daily Prayer with the Saints. He is a secular Carmelite, college English instructor, and father of four. His academic research interests include C. S. Lewis, Flannery O

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