And (Jesus) said to them (on the road to Emmaus), “Oh, how foolish you are! How slow of heart to believe all that the prophets spoke! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” (Luke 24:25-26)
For if we have grown into union with him through a death like his, we shall also be united with him in the resurrection. (Romans 6:5)
For all of us, there are times when we echo Jesus in our own Gethsemane that this cup of suffering might pass us by. Sometimes, the Lord answers our prayer and removes our trial. But there are times, as with Jesus, when the Father asks us to enter into his will, to trust him on this, that there are bigger things at play than we know about. It is at these times that we are asked to embrace suffering as a gift.
In these Scripture passages taken from the Easter liturgies, two truths are revealed. The first is that it was necessary that Christ should suffer. Taken together with the second passage, we can infer that if we desire to be united with Christ, that suffering and death is also necessary for us in order that we might be united with him in his resurrection.
St. Catherine of Genoa, in her “Treatise on Purgatory” has given us much food for thought on the issue of suffering. While what she is referring to in her Treatise is the suffering we endure after death in order to be purified of “the rust and stain of sins”, I believe it may be applied as well to the sufferings we are asked to endure here on earth. In the first paragraph of Chapter I we read:
“This holy soul (Catherine), while still in the flesh, was placed in the purgatory of the burning love of God, in whose flames she was purified from every stain, so that when she passed from this life she might be ready to enter the presence of God. […] She comprehended in her own soul the condition of the souls of the faithful in purgatory, where they are purified from the rust and stain of sins, from which they have not been cleansed in this world.”
Chapter XVI has this to add about the souls in Purgatory:
“For if his goodness did not temper justice with mercy (satisfying it with the precious blood of Jesus Christ), one sin alone would deserve a thousand hells. They suffer their pains so willingly that they would not lighten them in the least, knowing how justly they have been deserved. They resist the will of God no more than if they had already entered upon eternal life. […] They see all things, not in themselves nor by themselves, but as they are in God, on whom they are more intent than on their sufferings. For the least vision they can have of God overbalances all woes and all joys that can be conceived.”
So often I have resisted suffering, prayed ceaselessly to have this cup pass me by, without in the least desiring that God’s will be done. I did not fully realize that what God was offering me was a gift, the mitigation of a portion of my suffering after death. Instead of being intent on my sufferings, I need to see all things as they are in God, who only desires my ultimate good, which culminates in total union with him. He wants none of the delays my own sinfulness throws up as roadblocks to our union. In accepting the suffering that he wills for me, I am saying, “Lord, neither do I want to delay our eternal union. Do with me as you will.”
A lifetime of penance seems a small thing to offer in light of St. Catherine’s statement that one sin alone would deserve a thousand hells. It is God’s mercy alone that makes our small efforts bear fruit so far out of proportion to the effort involved.
There is a story in my family about a very holy woman, one of my great-aunts. Married to an alcoholic, and with a large family, she suffered extreme poverty and much mental anguish. She prayed constantly and asked God, not that he might remove her cross, but something more heroic—that through her cross she might endure her children’s purgatory on earth. The Lord, of course, would not and did not leave this mother’s prayer unanswered.
Yes she suffered. Yet, I am told that miracles were a regular occurrence for her and her family. The needs of her family were, against all odds, always met. Food and other necessities were donated or otherwise appeared when they most needed it, and what she received she gladly shared with anyone else in need. She turned no one away, was kind and loving, and in turn was loved by all who knew her.
Her cross was heavy indeed, but rather than let it weigh her down, she used it as a frame to hold her up. From the height of her cross she reached down to her children and lifted them into heaven on the strength of her heroic prayers. She saw her cross as a true gift, the greatest gift she could offer her children, an everlasting blessing from God.
After her death, family and friends gathered with the priest to pray the Rosary for her soul. Suddenly the priest stopped in mid-prayer. “Why are we praying for her?” he asked. “She doesn’t need our prayers. Let us pray for the living, who do.”
The key to a life of penance is to see things, as St. Catherine says, as they are in God. My great-aunt may or may not have read St. Catherine, but she had an innate understanding of this. She saw all things on earth as temporary and lived for the resurrection. In living for the resurrection while on earth, she brought the resurrection literally into the lives of those she touched.
May the Lord grant us the grace, through our life of penance, to do the same.