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In one of his beloved TV shows, Abp. Fulton J. Sheen explains how suffering can be redemptive for us as disciples of Christ. Regarding human suffering, Sheen emphasizes people should not "waste any of it," but instead, "offer it up."
Suffering, the result of enduring pain, is viewed by most people as anything but good, let alone something to be welcomed when it comes knocking at your door. It's seen as something to be avoided, like the plague. One big reason why recreational drugs, sex and alcohol are so popular in our present society is they make it easier for people to avoid pain and suffering in their daily lives.
I have known way too many people in my life who slog through their day-to-day activities just to go home and self-anesthetize by one means or another. Since the legalization of pot, I am still surprised at the long lines of people who queue up regularly for this drug at the numerous dispensaries, just to get their favorite high. One pot dispensary in my neighborhood straightforwardly advertises it's the source for "the metro area's cheapest and best high." Not classy, but definitely upfront about what they're selling — a quick high for people to escape from the pains and sorrows of their everyday lives.
Going about your day-to-day life lit on painkillers and looking for yet another drink is nothing new. Our Lord Himself encountered such individuals in the course of his active ministry. Instead of validating these sorts for running away from their trials and sufferings, He said; "Whoever wishes to come after Me must deny himself, take up his cross and follow Me" (Matthew 16:24).
Our Lord, instead of slapping people on the back and giving them false affirmation they were OK despite their waywardness, challenged all whom He encountered to embrace the pain and suffering that comes with living in this fallen world. He did so purposely for their own and others' redemption!
Venerable Maria of Agreda was a 17th-century nun and mystic who reportedly bilocated to America numerous times during her life. She was given extraordinary knowledge of Our Lord and the Blessed Mother, including deep impressions of Our Lord's passion.
Maria saw by this divinely infused knowledge that, when Jesus was presented with the very Cross that He would use to redeem humanity, Our Lord embraced it with tender care, and He spoke to it as a groom addresses his fiancée, whom he dearly loves.
In book 6, chapter XXI, paragraph 650 of The Mystical City of God, Ven. Maria recorded Our Lord's words:
O Cross, beloved of my soul, now prepared and ready to still my longings, come to Me, that I may be received in thy arms, and that, attached to them as on an altar, I may be accepted by the eternal Father as the sacrifice of his everlasting reconciliation with the human race."
I would love to see this moving scene depicted in an icon — Our Lord in an affectionate way embracing his Cross, knowing full well it would serve a vital role in his redemption of humanity.
The many sufferings that come from physical or emotional pain in life can be a great game changer for us as Christ's disciples if we, as Abp. Sheen suggested, offer them up in expiation for our own sins or for reparation for the sins of others. These days you seldom hear Catholics using this advice. What you do hear, on the other hand, are Catholics, even priests at times, saying things that run contrary to what Catholics call redemptive suffering.
Perhaps the most egregious example of priests preaching a gospel that runs contrary to Christ's embrace of redemptive suffering is Fr. James Martin and his gospel of "Building Bridges." Martin does not encourage homosexuals to refrain from engaging in sodomy, which is condemned as gravely sinful in Sacred Scripture and in our Church tradition. Instead, he affirms all those caught up in this lifestyle. By his books, tweets and talks, Martin speaks as if God has changed his mind on sodomy and that homosexual actions are now somehow no longer sinful and blessed by the Church.
A man suffering from deep-seated sinful inclinations is nothing new. Many of our greatest saints became the saints that we know and love because they struggled against sinful inclinations and with God's grace overcame them. In condoning sodomy, Martin reveals he wants all those struggling with same-sex attraction to continue being enslaved by them, endangering their eternal salvation.
Every fallen man, if he is honest with himself, has disordered penchants for what is sinful. If you glean through saints' biographies, you see men and women who came to terms with their sinful inclinations and put them aside in order to foster their relationship with their maker.
Saint Francis of Assisi had to set aside his love for the finer things of life — divest himself from a love for fine food, clothing and drink — in order to embrace evangelical poverty. By embracing poverty, the saint enabled himself to make great strides in his spiritual life and thus move closer to God.
Similarly, St. Ignatius of Loyola, who as a young man had a penchant for gambling and playing the field with the ladies, had to offer this up so he could move forward in his relationship with Christ.
A common stumbling block for many trying to live a spiritual life is chastity. If you look over the history of our Church, many saints initially struggled with remaining chaste and keeping the temptations of lust at bay. One of these men who struggled for a time with chastity was St. Anthony of Padua.
The young Fr. Anthony, despite having many natural gifts with his preaching and so forth, struggled with temptations in keeping his vow of chastity. As the legend goes, he struggled with these temptations until one night he had a vision of the Christ child, whom the Blessed Mother had entrusted to his care.
Forty years ago, when I was a young novice in the novitiate, I had a good conversation with my spiritual director, Fr. Joseph Reyes, about my troubles with temptations of the flesh. And although this conversation was decades ago and Fr. Joe has long since passed away, I still remember this saintly priest and his sage advice on dealing forthrightly with these temptations.
As an old Franciscan priest, Fr. Joseph was fond of pulling stories out of the old Red Brick, the Franciscan Omnibus of Sources. This massive book held all of St. Francis' own writings as well as many of the original biographies of St. Francis and the early Franciscans.
Father Joe, in response to my query about how to deal with temptations of the flesh, started to read about how St. Francis dealt with them: "Well there is the account of St. Francis one winter's night when he suffered from such a trial and dealt with it by going outside and rolling in the snow."
Being young and a smart aleck, I responded: "It would be great to have a little snow to roll around in today, it's so ungodly hot this summer." But Fr. Joe, taking my comment in stride, replied, "Paul don't be daft; you can always take a cold shower to cool off. It should solve both of your issues."
The saintly priest, also an expert on St. Anthony, went on to talk about his favorite saint. He shared how the young St. Anthony, not long after he was ordained a priest, went through a period in which he was beset with regret for not getting married and having a family of his own. He told me it was during this trial that Mary appeared to him and entrusted the toddler Jesus to his care. As Anthony held the divine 2-year-old Christ child in his arms, he quickly realized he already had his hands full.
Mary herself entrusted the care of her babe to him, said Fr. Joe. Who could care for any additional children after being entrusted with the care of the infant Jesus? Who would want or need a wife of his own or his own children when he has been gifted with the perfect child? And after Mary gifted the young priest with the care of her own child, he never ever again regretted being ordained a priest or giving up a wife and family. "Never once," emphasized Fr. Joe.
"Paul, if you are serious about wanting to be a friar and to become a priest," Fr. Joe declared, "you have to put these temptations behind you. And you can with God's grace, just like Ss. Francis and Anthony did. Ask for the grace; God will give it to you."
How I miss this old man. My main desire is to be as good of a spiritual director to those who come to me for help as this man was to me.
Anthony, after this momentous encounter with Our Lord, had all the grace needed to put temptations of the flesh behind him for the rest of his life. Anthony is often depicted in iconography with images of the Christ child or holding a white lilly to show his full embrace of Christ and his purity.
Crosses, trials and tribulations that come our way can either break us or serve to help make us holy. The sign of a mature Christian is that they can talk with some affection about the various crosses they've carried in life.
Mature Christians talk about their crosses with love because these have served as instruments to transform them into holier, better disciples.
Saint Paul talks about this phenomenon in his letter to the Colossians: "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh, I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the Church" (Colossians 1:24).
Saint Paul acknowledges that crosses that come our way as disciples of Christ, if we carry them with God's grace, can be a source of expiation for our own sins as well as reparation for the sins of others.
One of St. Francis of Assisi's favorite topics to discuss was poverty — a cross he imposed upon himself and a cross he lovingly embraced because it brought him closer to Christ.
An excerpt from the Sacrum Commercium, often attributed to St. Francis, reads:
While they were hastening to the heights with easy steps, behold Lady Poverty, standing on the top of the mountain. Seeing them climb with such strength, almost flying, she was quite astonished: "It is a long time since I saw and watched people so free of all burdens." And so Lady Poverty greeted them with rich blessings: "Tell me brothers, what is the reason for your coming here, and why do you come so quickly from the valley of sorrows to the mountain of light?"
Saint Francis, like Our Lord, embraced the cross of poverty in his life, and far from doing this morosely or feebly, did so wholeheartedly, knowing that through the pain and suffering of this freely chosen cross he would be redeemed — and others with him.
The mature disciple knows that crosses, pain, suffering and hardships are all part and parcel of being a disciple of Christ. Instead of shirking these burdens when they are dropped on him, he bears them with delight. May we, like Christ, carry our crosses with His grace and thus become the holy disciples He intends us to be.