No Wasted Suffering, by Anthony P Stine
By the time you’re reading this, we’re a full month into the year 2020. By now your New Year’s resolutions are probably as far behind you as the hope for American politics ever being rational again, and the new year has lost much of its shine. I know it has for me, but that doesn’t mean its too late to regroup and make a meaningful go at having good goals for the year. Moving forward, let’s avoid the term ‘resolution’ because as the joke goes, resolutions are made to be broken, and my suggestion for all of us is to not waste anymore time in 2020 when it comes to making major spiritual growth. So let’s set the goal for ourselves that from this moment on we will make the most out of a year that will certainly bring suffering and promise ourselves and God to not waste our suffering in 2020.
That may sound ominous, but I assure you it isn’t. Suffering is a part of life. I don’t necessarily mean the suffering that comes from large, cataclysmic events in life, such as the loss of a loved one, the loss of a job, or the witnessing of some terrible event. We all know the everyday suffering that comes from a stubbed toe, over exertion at the gym, or at the hands of a diet self imposed to pay for the dietary sins of the past. I use that last example to make a specific point, which is this: as Catholics we are expected to pay for sins, either for ourselves or for others, through suffering. There’s a lot of theology behind this, but put most simply, it is as St Paul said in his first epistle to the Colossians “And you, whereas you were some time alienated and enemies in mind in evil works:  Yet now he hath reconciled in the body of his flesh through death, to present you holy and unspotted, and blameless before him:  If so ye continue in the faith, grounded and settled, and immoveable from the hope of the gospel which you have heard, which is preached in all the creation that is under heaven, whereof I Paul am made a minister.  Who now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ, in my flesh, for his body, which is the church:  Whereof I am made a minister according to the dispensation of God, which is given me towards you, that I may fulfill the word of God.” Certainly there is nothing lacking in Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, yet as Catholics we have long since been expected to offer our sufferings for the Church, be those offerings as penance for our own sins or for sins of others.
The mission of the Catholic can be summed up in an over simplistic way as the seeking of sanctity. At the core of this is the overcoming of our own ego, to look to others before ourselves, and to God first of all. This requires surrender and suffering. As Fulton Sheen once said, “The egocentric is always frustrated, simply because the condition of self-perfection is self-surrender. There must be a willingness to die to the lower part of self, before there can be a birth to the nobler.” We reject suffering because it is an attack on our ego. But worse, when we wallow in our suffering, or when we neglect to “offer it up” as Catholics, this can be a form of a egocentrism when we know that we should offer it for the salvation of others or for penance for our own sins. It is a bizarre thing, really, to consider how much we like our suffering, as it can help us to focus on ourselves instead of others. Developing the habit to offer our sins for the sake of others is a remarkable spiritual habit to overcoming the ego and the self worship that inevitably comes with an ego that is overburdened with too high opinion of itself.
If involuntary suffering can be harnessed for this end, then voluntary suffering is an even greater means for achieving sanctity. That is kind of the point of Lent, isn’t it? That we take on voluntary sufferings as penance for our sins in light of the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is often lost on many people: that Lent and the sufferings therein are voluntary. The Church does not use coercion to get you to give up your chocolate or coffee or whatever for Lent anymore than it uses coercion to motivate you into going to confession regularly. These are voluntary acts of suffering, and they can be offered for the salvation of others. Once upon a time the Church would remind us that there are souls in purgatory with no one to pray for them, and that we can offer our sufferings for those otherwise forgotten souls to speed along their time in that state. We don’t hear much about that anymore, but we can if we choose to make our suffering this year count for the betterment of others.
Anyone who has had the misfortune of following my work knows that I’m a fan of GK Chesterton. He had a great sense for the nature of suffering, and how we can choose to embrace our suffering or we can avoid it to our detriment. “But a somewhat more liberal and sympathetic examination of mankind will convince us that the cross is even older than the gibbet, that voluntary suffering was before and independent of compulsory; and in short that in most important matters a man has always been free to ruin himself if he chose.” Think about what he’s saying here, in light of the coming Lenten season, mere weeks away. We can harness our sufferings for the sake of others, and in so doing merit many graces from God. Or we can wallow in our sufferings, in those caffeine headaches or in that unsatiated sweet tooth or in the chills from cold showers or whatever, and in so doing ruin ourselves, if not by sin but by the failure to merit graces that may help us work out our salvation. The choice really is ours, and God has never shied away from giving us the sufferings that we can use to better others and ourselves. So join me in this goal for 2020: no wasted suffering. Lent is practically here. Let’s take advantage of it.
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