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The Value of Suffering in the Life of Christian Perfection

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Why should we consider this subject? Although we will deal with the subject academically, it is by no means an academic subject, particularly in its relationship to the sanctity to which we all aspire.

Suffering by itself is not sanctifying. Many people who are suffering are not necessarily profiting from their suffering. Evidently, then, we should do something with and about the suffering to profit from the experience. Hence the importance of knowing what suffering is and how we can alchemize it from mere pain to sanctity.

Moreover, the role of suffering in the spiritual life is ultimately based on mysteries of our faith; and, as with so many mysteries, we are likely to live with them without attempting to fathom them. That is a mistake. We can never fully comprehend their meaning; but suffering is surely a mystery which needs to be better understood so that, as with other mysteries, we may more effectively experience it. This is one mystery that we don’t merely read about.

There is such a thing as making the mistake of identifying progress in virtue with the amount of suffering. This is very hard to disassociate, once people have made that wrong identification. Certainly suffering has much to do with sanctity, but it is not an arithmetic equation, “Suffering equals sanctity”. A person must not think, “The more suffering, the more holy I must be getting!” Maybe, but maybe not. In other words, those who suffer the most are not necessarily more holy than those who suffer less. It is what we do with the suffering, not the amount that we experience, that makes the difference.

There are three areas in our immediate scope of coverage. First, to examine what suffering is. Second, why there is suffering in the world. And third, how we can use the suffering that God sends us—or offers us—to grow in holiness.

What is Suffering?

What, then, is suffering? As with all ultimates, this is an experience that cannot be finally defined. To “define” means that we can neatly summarize something in a well-rounded sentence by saying, “Suffering is…” and by the end of the sentence, we know what it is. But suffering is much too deep, much too mysterious, to be contained in a mere definition.

However, suffering does have certain features. Speaking in general, we will draw very minimally on the faith, though our faith always sheds light on everything, including things that people who do not have the faith might have. Let’s remind ourselves: it is not only believers who suffer.

First, suffering on earth. We are, therefore, distinguishing here from that suffering which is beyond this world. It is good to remind ourselves that there is suffering beyond this world, and in fact, that is not a bad motive for putting up with suffering in this world. Suffering on earth is a uniquely human experience. Only human beings suffer. Animals have pain; but in the sense in which we are using the term, and in the way in which revelation and the Church talk about it, animals do not suffer. In other words, they have pain; but it is because we don’t have enough vocabulary that we say, “The poor dog is suffering”. Not quite, as will be clear before we finish the analysis.

Second, suffering always involves the whole person—body, spirit, and emotions—even though the pain may be centered or may begin in only one part of our being. The pain may be in our hand or foot or head, but “we” suffer. Saint Paul uses this frequently: “When one part of the body is in pain, the whole body suffers.”

Third, suffering is therefore “psychosomatic”. It necessarily includes spiritual faculties, which is of course the reason why an animal does not really suffer, because the animal has no mind.

Fourth, suffering may be classified, and by now psychologists of suffering have made all sorts of categories. One classification is mainly based on where the suffering begins. According to this grouping, it may be physical suffering—when the origin is in the body; or emotional—when the origin is in the feelings; or psychological—when it begins in the mind. Unfortunately, most people are quite unaware of psychological suffering, properly so called. Psychological suffering, which begins in the mind, is intense.

Fifth, social suffering, which has surfaced a great deal with the study of the modern social sciences. It arises from the multitudinous interpersonal relationships of mankind; in a word, people are the source of our suffering. But of course, if they are to us, we can be sure that we are to them.

And finally, based especially on faith, there is spiritual suffering of which the great mystics were the best and most eloquent witnesses. Here, suffering is in the innermost part of one’s being.

How People Suffer

Suffering is conscious pain; it is awareness of pain; reflection on it, or the knowing that “I am in pain”. The source of the suffering may have lasted for only a moment, such as a cruel word. But the suffering can last for years because the awareness, perhaps, cannot be wiped out.

Suffering is differentiated as much as people differ. First of all, there is a threshold of suffering. No two people are equally sensitive. And it is no comfort to be told that you are “hypersensitive”. The simple fact is that we should recognize that some people have a lower, and some have a higher threshold of suffering. The least thing can trigger one person, while another person is thick skinned about almost everything.

Second, there is a variety of suffering. Somehow the personality enters into and changes the very nature of each person’s suffering so that no two people are really the same. There is a unique nature to each person’s suffering; as no two persons are identical, no one ever duplicates another person here.

Third, suffering differs among people in the span of suffering and the number of things which can make them suffer. Some persons are practically immune to certain kinds of suffering; it is not that they are obtuse, because in other areas they can be very sensitive. A person who is very sensitive in one area can be positively insensitive in other areas. All you need is two such people in the same community, and the suffering on both sides can be indescribable, even though both are sincere human beings. One is simply unaffected by what other people say; the other winces—not only when they say something, but when there is the least twitch of the muscles of someone else’s face. They can be hurt by the way someone looks at them.

Then there is the endurance of suffering, how much a person can take. Isolating any given type of suffering, some can take so much and no more. No fault of theirs; so much, and some people break. Again, no two people are the same and how valuable this is to know when living with others. Sadly, they often don’t show it; in fact, some people are positively geniuses in hiding their suffering.

There are many sources of suffering. The source is not just words that people speak or experiences that we have, or some disease or sickness in the body. The source is often the circumstances in which the suffering occurs. So that in other circumstances the same thing could be borne with complete equanimity. It may be as simple a thing as the time of day, or the things that are on the mind when a further thing happens—and it’s enough to trigger a chain reaction of suffering.

Suffering is a good index of personality; in other words, what makes them suffer, how they suffer, why they suffer—if you know that, you know the person. Men can be very thick headed when it comes to feelings, and not realize how much their wife has been suffering and maybe because of him. They tell me, “Why didn’t she say something?” Well, that’s the whole problem; he never gave her a chance to.

Why is There Suffering in the World?

Why is there suffering in the world? When we ask why, we must immediately distinguish between two kinds of “whys”: “why” in terms of origin, and “why” in terms of purpose. The first “why” asks, “Why has suffering come into the world? How did it get here?” And the second asks, “Now that it is here, what good is it?” Those are not the same questions and answering the one does not really answer the other. Consequently, we should look at this question on both levels.

First, “why” as to origin. The simple and unequivocal answer of our faith is that there is suffering because there has been sin. Philosophers over the centuries in the non-Christian world have speculated and written libraries on this question. And Buddhism has been built on the question, “Why is there suffering?” Buddha finally concluded that there is suffering because there is existence, and he therefore said, “To exist is to suffer. There cannot be existence without suffering.” That is not Christianity.

Suffering need not have been. That’s our faith. Suffering is God’s retribution for sin. Retribution is not meant in simply a punitive or vindictive sense, but it is the consequence of sin on every level, and of original sin first of all. Therefore, we can correctly say that fallen nature is suffering human nature, and a large part of our suffering is the struggle and the conflict between, as Saint Paul tells us, what we want to do and don’t do, or what we do and shouldn’t do.

Second, it is the consequence of social sin. Therefore, sinful society is a suffering society. Our country deserves it, and you don’t have to be a Jeremiah to say that; and it is coming sooner than most people think. Where society is sinful, God allows the laws of sin to take their effect. The over a million abortions annually are only one sad example. A sinful society must expect to be a suffering society. And that means that the whole society, including the nonsinful members, suffer along with the sinful members. It is part of the price of our human solidarity.

And third, personal sin. Sinful persons are suffering persons. And we shouldn’t be surprised if we suffer; all we have to do is remind ourselves that we have sinned; therefore, in plain English, we have it coming. That’s our Faith.

But there is one important proviso which our Lord made sure was clear. On one occasion the disciples asked the Lord whether a certain person’s diseased condition was due to his sin or his parents’ sin. And Christ said, “No”. Notice this, not all suffering of every person is the result of his own sin. And of course, the most sublime example is the Son of God in human form, the sinless One; He suffered. Nevertheless, the principle remains: suffering and sin are correlatives.

What is the Purpose of Suffering?

Now, in terms of the purpose of suffering, God in His Providence could not have permitted suffering, unless He wanted, permissively, to somehow derive good out of the suffering. And it behooves us, therefore, to find out as far as we can what God’s purpose is, so that we may profit for ourselves and help others to benefit too.

There is a bifocal purpose. There is suffering because sin is to be expiated and secondly because sanctity is to be achieved. It has to do with finality.

Expiation.  First, then, regarding expiation. There are two ways of expiating because there are really two things to expiate. Expiation is already the pursuit of holiness. Nevertheless, it is one thing to remove sin and grow in holiness thereby; it is another thing to grow in virtue and grow in holiness thereby. Expiation has to do with sin. When anyone sins the person does two things wrong. First of all, God is offended; there is a breach of the friendly relationship between the Creator and the creature, which sin either partly, or if it is grave, completely breaks. But sin also causes disorder. It is not only that God is offended, but there is havoc, damage, harm done to the person who sins and generally to many other people besides.

Consequently, when we talk about expiation, on the first level it is expiation through reparation to God. Since He has been offended, the offense must somehow be repaired. A few doublets will bring out the implication. Disobedience must be made up by obedience; dishonor by honor; indifference by respect; the turning away from God in sin must be replaced by the turning toward God by reparation. The theological term that we use referring to the turning away from God is always an “aversion” from God. “Version” means turn, so “aversion” means to turn from. And we know that this is not a movement of muscles or geographic direction; it is of the heart. Consequently, to expiate sin, one must make up with more turning towards God; where there has been a lack of love there must be more love. Expiation is, therefore, deeply personal. Where sin consists, essentially, in the love of self, it is repaired by the love of God; and if there has been more self-love in the sin committed, there must be more God-love in the reparation offered.

Second, there must also be expiation through mortification. That word has a very technical meaning. In context, it means that besides offense against God there has been disorder in the world, harm caused and injury done. There must be mortification by sacrifice of creatures where there has been indulgence of creatures. Whenever we sin, we attach ourselves to a creature to which we have no right and prefer it, either more or less or completely, to God. The essence of expiation as mortification is that we voluntarily give up a creature to which we do have a right, in order to make up for the indulgence of a creature to which we did not have a right. To miss that is to have missed a great deal.

So we have various comparatives: self-indulgence is expiated through self-denial where the denial is of things to which we have a right—otherwise it is not mortification. If we don’t have a right to the creature it cannot be called mortification because we are not to choose that creature anyway. Again, pleasure and pain: in sin we embrace a pleasure; in mortification we embrace a pain with our wills.

Sanctification.  Now, why is there suffering for sanctification? We could hardly know this except for God’s becoming man. Job struggled with it, and we know he didn’t do too good a job. The mystery was raised, but the final answer came only with Christ. We now know because of Christ that suffering can be not only expiatory, but also sanctifying. God became man to show us that it can be done and how it can be done, and of course, the fact that He did it tells us that it should be done.

The essential element in the use of suffering as a means of sanctification is that a person voluntarily accepts the suffering out of love for God. If that is not present, the whole thing is meaningless. This was Christ’s motive. So it is not merely the tolerance of suffering. We are told in revelation that “having the joy set before Him” He chose the cross by preference. Suffering must become sacrifice to be sanctifying.

This implies, at least relatively speaking, innocence in the person who suffers. In other words, the suffering he has is not that which has been brought on by his own sin. We know that we deserve a lot of suffering, but all kinds of suffering can come our way which we did not bring on ourselves and for which we are not responsible, culpable agents. That element of innocence is important. It can relieve people of much worry, so that they no longer hopelessly ask, “Why me?” That’s the first letter of the alphabet; that is precisely what Christ is teaching us. He was the absolutely sinless, innocent Lamb of God and He suffered for other people’s sins. The notion of altruism and of vicarious suffering is very close to the heart of suffering as the means of sanctification. Suffering is the much more sacrificial when we least deserve the pain we experience. That’s hard to take! When we have it coming, we say to ourselves if we’re honest, “What did you expect? The last time you met her you told her off; so now she told you off. Tit for tat.” But if someone told you off, and you have been extraordinarily kind to her, that’s where suffering for sanctification starts.

There also must be a readiness to suffer. Now none of us is a Titan of heroism—we are all the same here. However, our suffering becomes more sanctifying as we are more ready to accept it. Even if we are not so ready, it is still sanctifying; but the more ready we are, the less we are just tolerating it.

Love is paramount. Love asks no questions; indeed it almost wants to suffer in order to prove its love.

How to Use Suffering to Grow in Holiness

A few practical recommendations. How can we use the sufferings that God sends or offers us to grow in holiness? First, we must learn to distinguish between suffering that is intended by God in our lives and the suffering that is not intended in our lives. Not all suffering is necessarily intended by God. A person who attempts suicide causes himself much suffering, but who would say that that suffering is intended by God? We must ask our Lord to enlighten us because human nature can be very shrewd. That is why direction is important. It is possible to look at all the suffering of the great mystics, and with a little ingenuity we can create all kinds of suffering in our lives. All we have to do is to start telling people what you think of them, and you are going to suffer!

Second, self-knowledge as a sinner is absolutely necessary if we are going to approach this mystery of suffering profitably. It will protect us from any illusions. Our first reaction whenever we have pain or misunderstanding should be, “I have it coming; I deserve it. It’s good for me.” Unless we keep reminding ourselves that we are sinners, we are likely to think that we have reached at least the third or fourth level of the Interior Castle, as described by Saint Teresa! There is such a thing as becoming positively proud about it, and psychologists have written many books about people who enjoy pain.

We are sinners. God has somehow called us to be instruments for sanctifying others, but we have a big job just taking care of ourselves; there is a lot of cleansing to be done. Let’s not put too much stress on those levels of progress in sanctity: purgation, illumination, unification. We can’t say that because we have been in a community for so many years that we are naturally pretty well up in the third degree. As sinners, we never really graduate from the first level of purgation; we must until our dying moment be expiating our sins. This is healthy, down-to-earth thinking; it keeps our feet on the ground.

Third, we should see all suffering as somehow coming from God. That is difficult, because so much of our suffering is inflicted by others. To develop that clarity of vision, to see the hand of God in whatever we suffer, is not easy. And it is, therefore, indispensable to cultivate a devotion to the Passion of Christ.

Conference transcription from a retreat that Father Hardon gave to the Handmaids of the Precious Blood

Mother of Sorrows Recordings, Inc.
Handmaids of the Precious Blood
Cor Jesu Monastery
P.O. Box 90
Jemez Springs, NM 87025

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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