By Tom Neal, PhD
It’s often the case that people, even people of faith, assume that suffering is all bad; to be avoided at all costs; a source of righteous complaint against the Creator.
I mean, who wants to suffer? In particular, who wants to suffer illness?
To ‘suffer’ means to undergo, to endure something that is not under our power; and that ‘something’ often bears the mark of discomfort, loss or pain. When we suffer illness we lose a most precious gift of life, health, and find ourselves in a very vulnerable place filled with fear, uncertainty.
Often in illness, we no longer seem to be ourselves.
Faith gives us a new vision of life. So what is distinctive about how a man or woman of faith faces illness?
The Catechism (1501) says,
Illness can lead to anguish, self-absorption, sometimes even despair and revolt against God. It can also make a person more mature, helping him discern in his life what is not essential so that he can turn toward that which is. Very often illness provokes a search for God and a return to him.
In other words, the essential meaning we discover in the experience of illness can make of our illness a curse or a quest, a cause of growth or collapse, an offering or a grasping; can make us bitter or better. The Christian vision, centered on the cross and resurrection of Christ, offers to people of faith a deep well of graced meaning.
Let me offer one vantage drawn from this deep well.
A priest I once worked with served for many years as a hospital chaplain. He himself had suffered over his long life multiple heart attacks, an emotional breakdown and other personal and professional tragedies. He was truly a ‘man of sorrows, well acquainted with suffering,’ who had, in a way I have never personally encountered in anyone else, brought his faith in Christ to bear on his own suffering.
In particular, he had discovered what he called the ‘deepest secret of the Gospel’ — 2 Corinthians 12:9: ‘…my grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ And he had a strikingly unique way of thinking about this Pauline text, one I had never thought of, born of his own bitter taste of graced pain and tragedy.
‘Whatever I’ve suffered,’ he once said, ‘has brought me closer to life’s primal experience of grace, grace first received in my mother’s womb’ (which he referred to as the sacrament of grace). ‘There I was utterly powerless and could only trust that the dark, un-seeable world that held me was out for my good; was made of love; and would deliver me into arms of love. Jesus tasted this same grace in the Garden of Gethsemane, in his deep fear, which is why it’s the only recorded instance in the Gospels where he invokes a small child’s tender and intimate cry to his Father: Abba.‘
Though he never shared those words with those he ministered to, it was the vision of hope and trust he carried into every patient’s room; and he did it to great effect, as I can personally testify. He made it eminently to me clear that we can’t make graced greatness of illness all alone; we need Great Others by our side who know, by personal experience, Christ speaking to them in their weakness those same words from 2 Corinthians.
We Need Saints
In his 1984 apostolic letter on the Christian meaning of human suffering, Salvifici Doloris, Pope John Paul II argued that the lives of the saints show suffering to be ‘a special grace,’ because it ‘draws a person interiorly close to Christ. . . . When this body is gravely ill, totally incapacitated, and the person is almost incapable of living and acting, all the more do interior maturity and spiritual greatness become evident.’
In other words, the Christian saint grasps that, in Christ, her taste of powerlessness serves as a fertile soil for receiving life’s ‘deepest secret’ — that all is grace.
Powerlessness is a privileged embrace of Christ.
The early Church theologian Tertullian once famously said, ‘the Christian alone is no Christian.’ We need seasoned saints to walk us along that road; to hold our hand.
Everyone should daily pray that, in time of need, God will send such a needed-saint. But even more, as you speak to God, ask Him if He desires you to be that saint — to walk with another along the narrow way that leads to life, the via crucis.