Humility can only take root in the heart through humiliations. Without them, there is no humility or holiness. If you are unable to suffer and offer up a few humiliations, you are not humble and you are not on the path to holiness. The holiness that God bestows on his Church comes through the humiliation of his Son. He is the way. Humiliation makes you resemble Jesus; it is an unavoidable aspect of the imitation of Christ. – Pope Francis, Gaudete et Exsultate
Suffering is a sign that we are not yet at our destination. We know God did not create us to suffer; he gave us everything we could ever want. In Genesis, we are born into a lush garden full of good things to eat and are given dominion over the whole world. The world is at peace.
However, with sin comes pain. It is the mental and spiritual pain of guilt and shame. The physical pain of hard labor, working in the fields, and the pain of childbirth. The pain of death. The story of Genesis illustrates that for many the sufferings of this world were too hard to bear and humanity quickly fell into all sorts of wickedness, including murder, deceit, and debauchery.
In a perfect act of love, the Word of God became man to save us. God could have saved us in any number of ways, but in his infinite love he chose the path that would result in the most excruciating pain and suffering–mental, spiritual, and physical. Jesus would be tried and tempted. His friends would abandon him. He would be flayed and pierced. And he died arguably on one of the most gruesome instruments of torture that humanity has ever devised. Pope Benedict cites St. Bernard of Clairvaux, saying that God cannot suffer, but he did “suffer with” us, in our most human weaknesses, even death.
Jesus, knowing that he was going to die in this way, tells his disciples (and us) that they too must take up their cross. In this same narrative, Peter rejects what Jesus has to say: “This will never happen to you!” And here Jesus reveals the crux of what it means to suffer: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” Suffering, the kind Jesus will experience, the kind that is part of what it means to be holy, is the result of setting our minds on God in the midst of sin. It means bearing what we must for the sake of the Kingdom of God. We do not seek it out. We do not desire it. But it is unavoidable.
God does not directly will our suffering. It is a product of the fall and a sign of how distant we remain from God. Pope Benedict XVI, in his encyclical Spe Salvi, reminds us that we “must do whatever we can to reduce suffering: to avoid as far as possible the suffering of the innocent; to soothe pain; to give assistance in overcoming mental suffering.” Suffering is not a good.
At the same time, we can say that the devil doesn’t want us to suffer either. The devil is not a creature who wants us to feel constant pain. Really, he wants us to be comfortable. In the desert, he wanted to give a hungry Jesus bread and the power to be a most benevolent king. He wants our bellies to be full. He wants our bank accounts overflowing. He wants us to be satiated with anything and everything–except for God.
Of course, the Devil knows that trying to satisfy our need for the infinite God with the finite material comforts and attractions of this world will inevitably result in excess. Our things will consume us. They will crush us and defeat us, and the Devil will have won.
And so, as we climb our own hill bearing our own cross, we will experience suffering. Our false attachments will afflict us, our friends and family will abandon us, we may even suffer great physical pain and suffering doing what is good, as Mother Teresa has and as the martyrs have. But it is a suffering that reveals our hope in the Kingdom. It is a hope that gives us strength to keep going, “hope that gives us the courage to place ourselves on the side of good even in seemingly hopeless situations.” We suffer, not because we want to suffer, but because it is unavoidable, as we travel through this world of sin and make our way to heaven.
Pope Benedict XVI writes: “We can try to limit suffering, to fight against it, but we cannot eliminate it. It is when we attempt to avoid suffering by withdrawing from anything that might involve hurt, when we try to spare ourselves the effort and pain of pursuing truth, love, and goodness, that we drift into a life of emptiness, in which there may be almost no pain, but the dark sensation of meaninglessness and abandonment is all the greater.”
In more specific terms, the Church’s teaching on various matters might be the cause of suffering. Strictly speaking, the teachings do not cause suffering inasmuch as they reveal where we might still be attached to sin or the ways of this world. Even more tragically, the suffering we experience trying to live by the Church’s teachings may, in fact, have nothing to do with us and our own personal sin, but is merely a product of our “finitude,” as Pope Benedict puts it. We live in a world that, in many ways, reflects the “mass of sin which has accumulated over the course of history.” Still, when the Church teaches, it is not because it will be easy to follow but because it is good for us.
As Pope Benedict says, “It is not by sidestepping or fleeing from suffering that we are healed, but rather by our capacity for accepting it, maturing through it and finding meaning through union with Christ, who suffered with infinite love.”
To the extent that anyone of us suffers, we have a Christian responsibility to help. No one can be holy and not suffer. Even if one has been freed from all earthly attachments, even if one has everything provided for them, even if the effect of sin in the world do not touch them personally, they must still suffer. For in holiness, we “share in the same gaze of Jesus”, says Pope Francis in Lumen Fidei. We share in the gaze of Jesus who bears our pain and suffering on the cross. Our path of holiness, therefore, must include the suffering of others. Just as Christ suffered with us, so we must suffer with others.
Pope Benedict writes, “To suffer with the other and for others; to suffer for the sake of truth and justice; to suffer out of love and in order to become a person who truly loves—these are fundamental elements of humanity, and to abandon them would destroy man himself.”
The Church is in great need of holy people who are able to suffer with others on their journeys. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that much of the scandal we are dealing with in the Church today is a direct result of individuals who were unwilling to suffer, who were unwilling to lay down their lives for the sake of truth and justice. In many others ways, our local Churches need “ordinary” holy people too. Our parishes need them. In “com-passion” with others, each of us can help others find a way through their individual pain and suffering, in the hope that Jesus will heal all pain and suffering in his Kingdom.