I know a family going through an absurdly hard time right now. We probably all know people in crisis. There's no shortage of suffering. But in dark times, as St. Paul reminds us, "grace overflows all the more" (Romans 5:20).
But how, exactly, St. Paul? Some days it's hard to see overflowing grace, in the midst of cascading medical bills, catastrophic illness, health emergencies, family demands, prolonged hospital stays, and NO SLEEP.
Perhaps it can be difficult to recognize God's flood of blessings because sometimes they look a lot like disappointments. The single most influential act in human history occurred on Good Friday; Jesus' gruesome torture and shameful death had all the earmarks of a seriously bad day. We insist on calling it Good Friday, however, because we know that our tender-hearted Father took the world's worst possible situation and transformed it. He resurrected his sinless Son three days after his unjust and brutal death.
Right now, my friends seem to be living a Good Friday life. Their "three days" till Resurrection are being counted, patiently, on God's giant fingers.
But they are on the right side of the equation. There are easier paths in life, to be sure, less fraught with suffering. Certainly there are more glamorous lifestyles, too, infinitely more independent and lucrative. But right now, as they watch their baby's illness develop, my friends suffer--so much so, they wish they could take the suffering of their child onto themselves. THAT is a miracle. That is the miracle of God's mercy. At the moment they realized they would prefer to suffer in their child's place, they knew the Heart of Jesus Christ in a deep and intimate way.
And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:14-17)
Jesus had absolutely no reason in the universe to taste suffering. As far as justice is concerned, he never should have felt the sting of hatred, disbelief, and scorn. Our perfect Lord, in all fairness, was beyond all of that. And yet, in mercy, he saw our suffering and pitied us. He longed to take our suffering unto himself. And he did it.
Our desire NOT to suffer is perfectly understandable. Every normal human instinct is to avoid suffering, to pull our hand away from a hot burner, to reach out and break a fall. But my friends are not humans acting merely on natural instinct. Thanks be to God, they have been infused with divine love. They have entered into the mystery of redemptive suffering. Suffering is terrible and sad; it's also where Jesus lives. Jesus accompanies these parents in their suffering, bearing them gently, tirelessly, to Easter.
Today is the fourth and final post incorporating the treasures I found in a tiny book, Prayerful Thoughts from St. Ignatius of Loyola, compiled by Joseph N. Tylenda, SJ. Today I opened the little book searching for Ignatian insights into suffering. Some of these quotations will accompany me throughout Lent, I suspect.
I believe firmly that my own prayers about suffering--as well as any sacrifices I can offer for my friends--will be transformed by Jesus. Just as Jesus blessed the apostles' puny offering of loaves and fishes, the Lord will accept whatever I manage to sacrifice, inadequate though it may be. Jesus will bless my offering, break it, and transform it into sustenance for my friends, and for the whole world.
Though the apostles witnessed overflowing baskets of superabundant food, my friends and I may not immediately be able to recognize God's graces overflowing. But, as Jesus explains after the miracle of the multiplication of loaves, “This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent" (John 6:29). Our work is not to live in perpetual abundance, but to believe in the Lord, the source of all goodness.
And now to pray with St. Ignatius. . . .
-Give yourself a moment to stop.
-Listen to your breathing.
-Now read one or more quotations, asking the Lord to help you hear just exactly what he desires to tell you today.
- If God sends you much suffering, it is a sure sign that He wishes to make you a great saint. If you desire to be a saint, then also desire to suffer much. (13)
- As long as God visits you with illness, accept it from His hand as a most precious gift coming from the wisest and most loving of fathers and physicians. (15)
- Letters inform me that God our Lord has visited you with trials both of body and soul, thus manifesting His special love for you by sending these opportunities for merit. The less He rewards you in this fleeting life and world, the more fully will He reward your good deeds and desires in the eternal happiness of heaven. (17)
- As a rule, the method the enemy follows with those who love God our Lord and are beginning to serve Him, is to place barriers and hindrances in their way. He suggests: "How can you spend your entire life in such great penance and without the joy of parents, friends or possessions? How can you endure so solitary a life a life without any break, when you can save your soul in other ways and without such great dangers? . . ." The enemy refrains, however, from telling us of the great comfort and consolation that our Lord usually grants the souls of those who overcome these barriers by choosing to suffer for their Creator and Lord. (26)*
How did that go?
*The Enemy's treacherous questions might sound a little different if posed to modern parents:
- Why would you bring children into this world (or keep them here) if there might be suffering, disability, or disease?
- Is it fair to your other children to spend so much time and energy caring for the weakest child?
- Aren't your intellectual and professional talents being wasted on full-time care of children, especially children with special needs?
Stay strong! Store up the comfort and consolation the Lord offers to you, who are overcoming these Enemy wiles!