Recently I met a woman with a remarkable story and a remarkable faith. She was in a wheelchair when we met, but it wasn’t always this way. Once she was a healthy young Jewish woman preparing to become a Catholic on Easter. She had been asking Jesus to teach her to know him and love him, when her health began to suffer. One evening she drove by a church and saw an illuminated crucifix through a window. “True love and the pain of suffering,” she thought. “I don’t understand, but I know that they go hand-in-hand.” She did know, however, that this would be a lesson Jesus would teach her over time.
Ten years passed. She married and had four children. But at age 32, her body began to fall apart. She was filled with pain, and begged God to heal her. She reminded God of all the good things she could do for him if she were healthy. But the answer she received was that God wanted instead to work through her weakness.
Her pain became unbearable, and she was unable to care for her family. Doctors diagnosed her with a rare condition that ripped muscle away from her bones. She began to despair. But in the midst of her despair, she encountered God. “God allowed me to see despair through the eyes of a person with faith,” she would write. She learned then the difference faith makes in a person’s life. God flooded her with grace- grace to believe in him love, grace to trust him. And she was filled with peace.
She accepted her deteriorating health, and came to understand that God could use her pain for his purposes. She had heard that old Catholic expression “offer it up,” and she learned to do just that. As she explains it, she learned to pray with her body- offering up her pain, her fear, her entire self, asking God to turn her pain into graces for others.
She’d always told God that she would rather suffer herself than have her children suffer. While praying one night, she learned that this is exactly what God did for his children. In Jesus, God suffered for our sins so we could be free from suffering the pains of eternal separation from him- pain we call “hell.” That night Jesus taught her the meaning of the cross. At the same time, he taught her the meaning of true love.
We may not have experienced extreme physical suffering like this faithful woman has. But all of us suffer- it’s an unavoidable part of life. We should always attempt to alleviate suffering, whether it is we or others who are suffering, and regardless of whether the suffering is physical, emotional, or psychological. But we can’t avoid suffering in a world in which brokenness and sin exist. It’s part of the human condition. That why when God became human in Jesus, he suffered too. God in Jesus has suffered with us, and that very fact can give meaning to our suffering.
Through suffering, God can teach us things we could not learn in any other way. A Washington priest, Msgr. Charles Pope, identifies what he calls the “Five Hard Truths that Will Set Your Free.” They are: 1) Life is hard; 2) Your life is not about you; 3) You are not in control; 4) You are not that important; and 5) You are going to die. Acceptance of these truths liberates us from a lot of false expectations, unrealistic goals, and unnecessary pride. If we’re filled with self-importance, and assume that life should be easy or that we’re entitled to certain things, we’re setting ourselves up for a lot of worry and heartbreak. This is a lesson that God wishes to teach us, if we’ve yet to learn it. But oftentimes the only way we can learn it, is through suffering. Through suffering, we can learn to trust in God, not in ourselves. Through suffering, we can learn to surrender to God’s plans instead of being attached to our own. Through suffering, our pride can “take a hit,” and we can learn humility. And suffering reminds us that this life isn’t meant to go on forever, but that God has something much better planned for us.
Of course, the ultimate lesson God wishes to teach us is how to love. We might say that suffering is the “core curriculum” in the school of love. Pope Benedict said as much in his encyclical letter on hope. “(We) suffer,” he explained, “in order to become a person who truly loves.” In fact, to love is to suffer, the Holy Father explained, because love involves sacrifice, patience, forgiveness, and the risk of opening up and sharing ourselves with others, who may reject us or hurt us.
As God did with the woman I met, God can use our suffering to help others. Suffering can so easily breed fear and despair. But when others see us suffering with faith, in union with Jesus, they can be inspired. They can find courage and hope. They can discover meaning and purpose and their suffering. And if they’ve yet to meet him before, they might truly be introduced to Jesus for the first time.
And then there’s the question of “offering up” our sufferings. We don’t hear about this as much as we used to. But perhaps we should. In our common humanity, and through the Spirit, we can suffer on behalf of, and for the benefit of others. “Our sufferings,” according to Pope Benedict, “somehow become part of the treasury of compassion so greatly needed by the human race.”
Of course, what the human race needed most of all is what Jesus did on the cross. He suffered for us, that we might live forever in a place where suffering is no more. This is what we remember and celebrate tonight. “We adore you O Christ, and we bless you, because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.