I remember the day as if it was only yesterday. It was summertime, she arrived with a homemade dinner and her signature warm smile. She had driven over an hour from Cape Cod which was a miracle given her chemo and radiation treatments at the time. Somehow, she just willed herself to come the distance. I was recovering from a second major back surgery in only nine months and struggling with great pain and anguish. She knew this. Her presence that day was not meant to “fix” my pain, merely to enter into the suffering with me. She realized that the most significant thing she could do in the midst of my misery was to be present to me. As a Christian, she followed the path set before her by Him – something she had always done throughout her life.
I’ve been listening to several fascinating talks and podcasts lately. One in particular struck a chord deep within my soul – a lecture on caring for the soul through human formation. The participants spoke about the impact of suffering on the growth and development of the human person. To loosely summarize the hour-long discussion, the speakers said “we cannot get clarity of vision in life without having had an opportunity to suffer in some way. The sufferings in our lives help to burn away all the worldly clutter which prevents us from seeing clearly and living a life of authentic Christian love.” I thought these conclusions were spot on and also encouraging given my current struggle with chronic pain.
Suffering can take on the appearance of many real emotions – young moms feeling overwhelmed, teens feeling depressed, young adults feeling anxious, working moms/dads feeling exhausted, grieving folks feel sorrowful, sick people feeling burdened and the elderly feeling lonely. But sadly, I have discovered that most people today shy away from discussions on any type of suffering. We have evolved to a place where everything in this earthly life is supposed to appear perfect and beautiful. On social media, people post only the best photos showing a happy life – not the ones presenting the normal struggles of regular life. This shallow focus on the individual and her perfect world has led us down a tragic path where we are not able or willing to see the value of suffering – which actually helps to develop and refine a soul in search of truth.
In his course titled; From Books to Ballads: How Great Writers Form Wise Catholics, Dr. Tod Worner reminded me of the value of reading great books of the past. He said, “Reading great literature helps us to learn how to bear one another’s burdens. Great literature cultivates the moral imagination. We are reminded of who we are and who we are called to be – humble evangelists of God’s truth; earnest defenders of the permanent things.”
I’ve discovered something important in the writings of historical authors like Dostoyevsky and Dante. Through their literature, they have demonstrated that beauty and goodness are born from an experience of suffering. Each of these author’s clarity of vision in their stories has come from a personal experience of suffering. Through reading masterpieces like The Brothers Karamazov and The Divine Comedy, we can too can gain clarity of vision and better understand what truly matters in our own lives.
Many great Catholic Saints like Mother Teresa and Dorothy Day have gained clarity of vision from their own personal trials. They’ve united their own sufferings to God who has shown them the path to lasting joy. When we perform simple acts of love every day, we take the focus off of ourselves and thus draw our souls closer to God. This effort has a way of refocussing our vision on what matters most in life.(Like my mom’s visit to my home when she was sick.) When our Lord encountered suffering, he showed compassion and presence to his friends – like at the death of Lazarus. Jesus truly saw people who suffered – like the Samaritan woman at the well – and He promised her that he would be with her always. Sometimes that is all we can do, accompany our suffering friends with our love and our presence. When we do this, we offer them something valuable – the gift of ourselves. By giving to others, we forget about our own pain for awhile. Over time, this process of giving cleanses our souls and elevates us to a higher union with God thus opening up our hearts to lasting joy.
As I think back to that warm summer day when my beautiful mom arrived for a visit after my back surgery, I smile with an abundance of gratitude. Mom always had a way of making me feel better. Since her passing almost 5 years ago, I have tried to carry on her legacy of love, especially when I don’t feel like it due to pain. Learning from her heroic example, drawing on the lives of beautiful saints and reading timeless literature where I see myself in extraordinary stories spanning generations – I am able to press on in faith, one day at a time. I think we are all called to do that. If you have suffering in your life, don’t despair. Use it as a gift to draw closer to Christ, to help someone who is in more need than yourself. You may find that your life is transformed in beautiful, unexpected ways.
Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.”Matthew 20:22