If you are Catholic and of a certain age, I am certain you have had this experience. While growing up when I was faced with any type of difficulty, the most common response from my mother was “offer it up.” The Catholic understanding is that when we “offer up” and unite our sufferings with those of Christ they become of value because his have infinite value. Everything Christ does for us, he also does with us. While the suffering of Christ does not save us from our own suffering in this life, it does change the nature of our suffering. The catechism says this about the Sacrament of the Sick – “Union with the passion of Christ. By the grace of this sacrament the sick person receives the strength and the gift of uniting himself more closely to Christ’s Passion: in a certain way he is consecrated to bear fruit by configuration to the Savior’s redemptive Passion. Suffering, a consequence of original sin, acquires a new meaning; it becomes a participation in the saving work of Jesus.” (CCC1521)
From a Catholic perspective, suffering is the result of sin. Always there is a connection between suffering and sin. This can certainly be the direct consequences of our own personal sin that is now causing havoc in our own life. But so often that is not the case, and the suffering that meets us comes on the wings from the sin of another. Sometimes this can also easily be seen as the specific sin of someone else – the person who is drunk and causes an accident, the person who steals from me, the person who slanders and causes me personal injury, the person who is short-tempered and brings pain to my spirit — there are countless examples whereby the sin of another can cause me to suffer. Sometimes though the direct connection to sin is not as obvious. The ripple effects of sin over time and space are beyond our finite comprehension, and the starting point of that ripple effect is indeed the original sin of our first parents.
One of the more interesting things to me I’ve discovered in recent years is the idea of the “butterfly effect.” It’s also known as “chaos theory.” You can google and find more information about this if you’re interested – Wikipedia has a fairly decent article and there are others. This theory speaks to how seemingly small and insignificant actions can significantly impact large outcomes. The butterfly example speaks to a condition where a tornado may occur, in Kansas for example. There were hundreds of factors that had to specifically occur for the tornado to happen at that specific time and place. One of these factors may have been a butterfly flapping its wings in China weeks before. Without that small and seemingly insignificant detail, the tornado would never have happened. This is one of the reasons I find the name “chaos theory” to be quite lacking. I don’t really think this is about chaos. I think it’s about order to such a degree that we can’t begin to fathom it. At any rate, I find the whole idea fascinating, and to me it has a correlation to sin and how its ripple effects continue through time and space and how even a small sin can signicantly impact large outcomes. For example, when we speak a cross word to the overworked and tired cashier, do we really think it stops there? Or does it change just a little bit who they are? Do they take that home? Does it impact their children? How far does that word go? It can be startling to consider how one small thing can ripple to other people and across space and even into future generations. But the same can be true about our kind word as well. No wonder there are countless Scriptures that speak to us about guarding our words! Here are just a few examples — Proverbs 13:3, 21:23, James 1:26, 3:5-8, Matthew 12:36, 15:11.
Catholics may be asked if there is any Scriptural support to this idea that our suffering can be offered and united to those of Christ. And there is indeed a most intriguing passage from St. Paul. In Colossians 1:24 he writes “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” This passage does indeed show that our sufferings become united to Christ’s and participate in his redeeming work. The Ignatius Study Bible defines “what is lacking” to mean “the suffering that remains for believers in the trials of this life.” In other words, Christ left “room” in his passion for our participation. Everything Christ does for us, he also does with us.
The entire commentary the Ignatius Study Bible offers on the passage is this — “The many afflictions that Paul endured throughout his missionary career. Joy in the midst of suffering is a common NT theme. By “what is lacking” – the suffering that remains for believers in the trials of life. Suffering is a mission for all the faithful as a means for conforming ourselves to Christ (Romans 8:17, Philippians 3:10)…. These words could be misunderstood to mean that the suffering of Christ was not sufficient for redemption and that the suffering of the saints must be added to complete it. This, however, would be heretical. Christ and the Church are one mystical person, and while the merits of Christ, the head, are infinite, the saints acquire merit in a limited degree. What is “lacking” then, pertains to the afflictions of the entire Church, to which Paul adds his own amount.”
There are many Scriptural passages about suffering. The two referenced by the Ignatius Study Bible in that commentary are Romans 8:17 – “and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” and Philippians 3:10 – “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.” We are truly called to share in the sufferings of Christ. In a previous post I reflected on the possible reasons why Christ suffered so in the garden of Gethsemane. One of the thoughts provided by Pope Leo XII and others was that Christ knew that his suffering on the cross would not remove suffering from the lives of those he loved. Rather, we would be called to share in his sufferings. It was for our sake he asked to have the cup of his passion removed from him. But Christ yielded his request and will to the will of the Father. And the Father chose not to remove suffering from our lives but rather to pass the strength to endure suffering from Christ to us.
Perhaps this is why we see in the Catechism when speaking of the Sacrament of the Sick the focus is less about physical healing and more on receiving from the Sacrament the strength to endure. CCC1520 says that “The first grace of this sacrament is one of strengthening, peace and courage to overcome the difficulties that go with the condition of serious illness or the frailty of old age. This grace is a gift of the Holy Spirit, who renews trust and faith in God and strengthens against the temptations of the evil one, the temptation to discouragement and anguish in the face of death. This assistance from the Lord by the power of his Spirit is meant to lead the sick person to healing of the soul, but also of the body if such is God’s will. Furthermore, ‘if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.’”
As to why a physical healing may not be God’s will, in CCC1512 we are taught that “the liturgy has never failed to beg the Lord that the sick person may recover his health if it would be conducive to his salvation.” And CCC1501 states that “Illness can lead to anguish, self-absorption, sometimes even despair and revolt against God. It can also make a person more mature, helping him discern in his life what is not essential so that he can turn toward that which is. Very often illness provokes a search for God and a return to him.” While many often question why God would allow suffering, perhaps a better question would be this — what is it about our human nature that often requires suffering in order to redirect our focus on the things that are most important in life? We can become so easily self-absorbed and focused on things far less important than eternity. Suffering has a way of returning our focus to that which is truly important and central to our lives, if we allow it. Perhaps this is why St. Paul writes in Romans 5:2-5 “Through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”
In my next post I’ll offer some of the thoughts that have personally helped me to better understand and accept the role of suffering in our journey to become conformed to Christ.