Consecrated to the Heart of the Redeemer under the patronage of the Theotokos and Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.

19 November 2015

Suffering Well

Patient Reader: Below you will find the article that appeared in a recent issue of the AD Times, the newspaper of the Diocese of Allentown (Allentown Diocese--Anno Domini--see what we did there?). Text in bold did not appear in the original article.

When I visit the hospitalized and elderly, I sometimes offer a prayer that I adapted from the Church’s Pastoral Care of the Sick and Roman Missal: “Father, Your Son and Our Savior Jesus Christ accepted our sufferings as a model of patience and strength in human illness. Hear the prayers we offer for [N.] and for all who suffer distress of body or soul. Help them to realize that You have called them to holiness by joining their sufferings to the sufferings of Christ for the salvation of the world.”

If you think such formalized prayers take a lot to say and a lot to live, I agree on both counts. For that reason, I like to say them slowly and live them slowly. I’m lying: I don’t like to live them slowly! A watched coffeepot never brews; an impatient patient never heals.

The word “patient” comes from the Latin pati, which means “to suffer, endure, put up with,” or the most basic sense, “to wait.” Pati also yields “passion,” the intensity that accompanies lovers toward love’s fulfillment. Suffering persons are also in love: they long for health and vitality, and cannot wait until they get there.

We draw only so many breaths in this life, and perhaps we pay little attention to the balance until more breaths are behind us than ahead. Meanwhile we have no guarantees that we shall retain the full use of our physical or mental faculties. 

Therefore it seems helpful to savor each breath as we draw it, each feeling as we feel it, each option as we ponder it, and each decision as we make it.

In whatever condition we currently find ourselves, while we have our faculties, we can decide to suffer well. What a curious choice! For the sake of clarity, let’s unpack it:

First, to suffer well is to recognize Jesus as the Son and Savior of Man, who alone accomplishes “universal and definitive redemption from sins” (CCC 432). He does this by taking on our human nature, entering completely into the joys and sorrows of human experience.

Did you ever consider that, by virtue of the Incarnation, Jesus accepted not just every single sin, but also every single human suffering: every pain, disappointment, and inconvenience? Upon the holy and life-giving Cross, Our Lord endured that twinge of diabetic neuropathy, the sting of that insult, that hour-long traffic jam, and that fear of perpetual infertility. From His vantage point—the best seat in the house—it’s all under control.

The problem is, we can still slog through life without necessarily considering the real-time presence of Christ in our sufferings. As a result, we begin to complain. We begin to compare our perception of how our lives are going with how we think it should be going, or how someone else’s life seems to be going—or how they want us to think it’s going. 

Practically speaking, God becomes less real and relevant in those dreary moments, and our suffering loses its value.

We can regain the value of our suffering by keeping Jesus’ Passion foremost in our minds, in weather foul or fair. Practicing in the fair may make it easier in the foul.

With the onset of each unwelcome experience, we can pray in groans to this effect: “I unite myself right now to You, Lord Jesus. As You suffered for me and with me, so I suffer for You and with You. Please accept this offering, Lord, as small it may seem, and please share it throughout the world and throughout the ages [accounting for the Holy Souls in need of post-mortem purgation] so that it may benefit whomever You will.”

I say, “pray in groans,” because you probably might not be inclined to formulate such a pious formula in the midst of pain and distress.

A couple of months ago, I was in an accident that landed me in an emergency room for most of that day with a wide laceration on my left heel and lots of deep bruises in the foot. In those first hours the thought “Thank God, it could have been far worse,” mingled with fears that I would hardly be able to walk straight, let alone run, by next year’s Boston Marathon. 

On that ER bed I did my awful best to unite my pains and anxieties with those of Our Lord upon the Cross, with the hopes that my offering could help facilitate someone’s repentance and conversion.

I am happy to report that I am recovering appropriately, although it’s not as fast as I’d prefer. At every turn in this process I have noticed how impatient a patient I am. 

But Our Lord is so patient with us! He lets us go, gives us the freedom to gripe until we return once again to our senses. In the meantime, the experience has been an opportunity to grow in compassion for the people I visit in the hospitals and nursing facilities I serve.

Even as the human race exists in a sort of “communion of sin,” joined by our profoundly wounded human nature and its self-seeking tendencies, the Church incorporates men and women into the Communion of Saints, forgiven and redeemed by the Precious Blood of Christ. 

If anything could be said about any of the saints, they suffered well, uniting themselves with their Lord for the salvation of souls. How I long to be in that number!

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