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Mary of the Cross: Lent Week 2

Week 2 video text

Last week I introduced our theme, “Mary of the Cross, accompanying those who suffer.” Our goal is to become enlightened bearers of the cross in our own lives and compassionate sharers in the sufferings of others.

In light of the Little Sisters’ apostolate with the elderly, I would like to concentrate on the suffering associated with illness and disability.

Throughout this series I am relying on the words of Saint John Paul II in his work entitled On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering. The text is available online at the Vatican website. I’d also like to recommend this anniversary edition published by Pauline Books and Media. It has very helpful reflections and discussion questions written by Father Myles Sheehan, a Jesuit and a physician.

The first question often posed with regard to suffering is WHY? Why do evil and suffering exist? How can a loving God permit innocent people to suffer?

In the ancient world, suffering was considered punishment for wrongdoing, given out by an absolutely just God.

In short, if you were suffering you must have done something to deserve it. Conversely, blessings were seen as a reward for good deeds.

But several books of the Old Testament speak of God’s mercy and the formative or curative value of suffering. One may be afflicted as a result of wrongdoing, but this is meant as a means of conversion rather than punishment. In this case, one who suffers is invited to see his situation as a manifestation of divine mercy and an invitation to allow himself to be led back to God.

“Consider that these punishments were meant not for the ruin, but for the correction of our nation,” says the second Book of Maccabees.It is, in fact, a sign of great kindness to punish the impious promptly instead of letting them go for long… He never withdraws his mercy from us.”

“Job Rebuked by His Friends” an 1805 illustration of the Book of Job by William Blake. Image courtesy of Creative Commons

A very different idea is introduced in the Book of Job. Job is an innocent man whose suffering must be accepted as a mystery. He shows us that not all suffering is a consequence of wrongdoing. Saint John Paul II wrote that God permitted Job’s suffering as a test in response to Satan’s provocation. God consents to test Job in order to prove his righteousness.

The suffering of the innocent is also explained in the Gospel of St. John. Encountering a blind man, Jesus’ disciples ask him, “‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answers, ‘Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him.’”

Let’s return to the Brittany Maynard’s suggestion that suffering is purposeless.

Maybe you feel this way too, or you find yourself asking God what you or your loved ones did to deserve the suffering you are experiencing.

I think we really have to pray over these teachings, make them our own and ask for the light of the Holy Spirit to know how to express them in a convincing way in real-life encounters with those who may be suffering.

Do we believe that God really loves us and would never harm us? How can we convince others that God truly loves them and would never choose to punish them by making them suffer?

Perhaps your situation, or the adversity of someone you love, is related to unhealthy life choices; none of us is perfect. Can you find God in your pain?

Can you accept that God has permitted your suffering to draw you closer to him by making you more aware of his presence in your life and your need for him?

These are hard questions. For now, let’s take the crucifix in hand as Jeanne Jugan often did. Gaze on it and consider the fact that in Jesus Christ, God himself suffered in the flesh.

Could suffering really be shameful or purposeless, if God himself chose to become one of us and to suffer as we do?

Even in his resurrection appearances, Jesus bore the wounds of his Passion. Perhaps this is to remind us that no human suffering is without meaning and purpose.

Let’s ask Our Blessed Mother, and Saint Jeanne Jugan to help us enter into this mystery and to find a way of sharing these truths in a compelling and convincing way with those we know who may be struggling to accept the presence of suffering in their lives.