Founder of the National Office for Post Abortion Reconciliation and Healing and Project Rachel
Recently I was asked to speak about the meaning of human suffering. As life happens, I had to leave the conference right after my talk to attend the funeral of my friends’ 25-year-old son, Tim, who had been found comatose on Easter Sunday and died the next day, after becoming an organ donor and saving five lives. Millions of unanswered questions plague us at times like this, and the church was filled to overflowing – more than 700 people gathered together to grieve.
Isn’t it interesting that suffering is the one experience we would all rather pass on? It struck me that, at the same time, suffering is also a uniquely human experience. An animal will feel pain, but it will not experience the mental anguish that attends human suffering in its many forms, whether physical, psychological or spiritual. Even Jesus prayed, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will but as thou wilt.”
We read in the writings of the saints that suffering is ever present. Blessed John Paul II was shaped by suffering, when as a boy he lost his mother, his brother, and then his father. As a young man he experienced the sufferings of the Polish people. As Holy Father, he survived the assassin’s bullet and lived with physical challenges for many years; in old age, he showed us all how to suffer as Parkinson’s disease assaulted his being.
At the time of his conversion, Ignatius of Loyola was recovering from a wounded leg and, in his boredom, had only the Bible and the lives of the saints to read. Mother Theresa suffered the Dark Night of the Soul, as did John of the Cross. St. Margaret Mary and Padre Pio, as well as multitudes of other saintly people, experienced physical suffering of frail bodies and disease, and unseen mental and spiritual anguish from difficult marriages, loneliness and death.
In his encyclical on suffering, Salvifici Doloris, Blessed John Paul II wrote that “suffering must serve for conversion, that is, for the rebuilding of goodness in the subject, who can recognize the divine mercy in this call to repentance … Its purpose is also to strengthen goodness both in man himself and in his relationships with others and especially with God” (Sec. 13).
How true it is that it is in suffering that God breaks through to us – or maybe we break through to God. When we no longer feel in control, we may turn to the Lord, and I think there is a possibility of real conversation in those moments.
In Scripture, the Lord says we should be like little children before him. As a mother of six, I’ve thought a lot about this command, and here’s what I’ve concluded: We often seem to think that means we are to be angelic and pious, with our hands folded and our eyes downcast. But I will tell you that does not describe my children when they were little! Rather, they were noisy and sometimes angry, stomping their feet and whining or complaining. Other times they were full of love and hugs.
I think that is the invitation from the Lord – to be authentic human beings with all our feelings, the good, the bad and the ugly. God invites us into relationship with him, and it is when things are not so good that we are more willing to speak what is in our hearts. We often complain about not feeling his presence, but in reality we keep the door of our heart closed. We need to give God permission to heal us or help us – but our heart must be opened from the inside.
It is also the case that the suffering of others is an invitation for us to reach out.
“[T]he Good Samaritan of Christ’s parable does not stop at sympathy and compassion alone,” Blessed John Paul II explained in Salvifici Doloris:
They become for him an incentive to actions aimed at bringing help to the injured man. In a word, then, a Good Samaritan is one who brings help in suffering, whatever its nature may be. Help, which is, as far as possible, effective. He puts his whole heart into it, nor does he spare materials means. Here we touch upon one of the key-points of all Christian anthropology. Man cannot “fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.” A Good Samaritan is the person capable of exactly such a gift of self … (Section 28)
The mystery of suffering is that it can become our treasure – that it calls us to become people of hope. It changes our life, dispels our self-satisfaction, puts us in touch with our frail humanity and can reconfigure us more closely to the suffering Lord. It calls us to understanding of our suffering brothers and sisters as it challenges us to become the Good Samaritan. It is in our response that the glory of God’s love and mercy is made manifest to the world!
Rest in peace, Tim! Our loss of you brought us together to journey in our suffering.
This blog originally appeared on Headline Bistro's Web site on 5/16/2011.