Sentimentality, as was mentioned in a recent post, is a great enemy to the spiritual life. The solution proposed was to read Scripture with an absolute literalism. In particular, when St. Paul tells the Romans that we are God’s children now and have a right to an inheritance as sons, we should understand the magnitude of such a high calling and live accordingly. We would, however, fail in our quest for living in the truth if we did not also realize that, while this gift is free, it is not cheap. If we are to live like sons, then we will act like the Son. All too often we interpret this to mean “being nice to other people,” “love your neighbor”, “defend the teachings of the Church” or any other one of a variety of (usually)comfortable outward manifestations of the Christian life. But we should read the fine print of St. Paul’s great promise: “if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him” (Romans 8:17, emphasis added).
When reading fine print, it is always the preposition that matters. We might be tempted to read the contingency as suffering for Christ, but St. Paul says we must suffer with Him. That one word, with instead of for makes all the difference. It makes all the difference because it forces us to move from the abstract to the real. This move may feel like a gut punch from reality, but in reality, it is a liberation from fear. Fear, as we talked about in a recent podcast, is always future- directed and thus fertile ground for anxiety or avoidance. Suffering for Christ has an abstract quality about it in that causes our minds to wander, sometimes to the great sufferings of the martyrs or losing our jobs because of our faith or any other number of ways we might have to painfully witness to our faith. We begin to wonder whether we will have what it takes when the moment comes or whether it is really all worth that. This causes on to hold back from God, but based only a hypothetical way, because, in truth, He isn’t asking for that thing.
Suffering with Christ has a now quality about it. To suffer with someone implies that they are suffering currently and that what is required of me is to engage. There may be fear of engagement, but I have come to a decision point. There is nothing abstract about it, because it is real in the here and now.
An illustration might help make this clear. When I consider the sufferings of someone close to me, I would do almost anything, endure almost anything, in order to participate in that suffering. Tell me, as a parent, that I will have to suffer with my children, my mind goes everywhere. Well not exactly, it usually goes to the “worst” thing I can possibly imagine. In short, fear carves out its space and there is really no way to deal with it because there is always a chance that thing might happen. It begins to affect how I act—I might be overly protective or draw back—but in order to manage the fear of the abstract, I must change my behavior.
Now tell me that my son has autism and no longer am I handcuffed by fear. There is sorrow for sure, but once the decision is made to suffer with him the fear of suffering for him is gone. In other words, once I am suffering with him, I am now willing to suffer for him as well. His suffering becomes mine and I am on the constant quest to alleviate it.
Just as the both the duty and love of a father drives him to be willing to suffer with his son, St. Paul is really telling us that we must be willing to suffer with Christ in the same way. Just as I feared suffering in the abstract for a loved one (and acted upon it), so too will I fear suffering for Christ in the abstract. But give me a specific scenario and I will enter in.
Suffering With Christ
We should rightly question how is it that we can suffer with Christ, right here and now. The days of His Passion are over. He is both God and glorified man, incapable of suffering. Sure, He can suffer in His Mystical Body, but that is to change the mode of St. Paul’s address. He is speaking from our perspective not from Christ’s. He is speaking about the sufferings of His Passion that we must enter into. The key is to rightly see His Passion, not as some abstract event in the past, but as concrete and specific in the here and now. To do this we will need to turn to the “abstract” St. Thomas Aquinas in order to lay the groundwork for this key spiritual practice.
When St. Thomas examines the sufferings of Our Lord during His Passion, he asks what at first seems to be a stupid question, that turns out to have great practical import. He asks whether Christ endured all suffering during the Passion. It is a relevant question because in order for Our Lord to give suffering redemptive value, He must first experience it. And he must experience not in the abstract, but in the particular. So how, for example, if Our Lord did not suffer burning, could burning have redemptive value?
St. Thomas points out that it would be impossible to experience all possible sufferings, especially since some are contraries. One cannot both suffer having his ears removed and the cries of his loved ones for example. Instead Our Lord suffered all classes of suffering. First, He suffered at the hands of all kinds of people; men and women, rulers and commoners, His fellow Jews and seculars, His friends and His enemies. Second, He suffered “from friends abandoning Him; in His reputation, from the blasphemies hurled at Him; in His honor and glory, from the mockeries and the insults heaped upon Him; in things, for He was despoiled of His garments; in His soul, from sadness, weariness, and fear; in His body, from wounds and scourgings.” Finally, “ in His head He suffered from the crown of piercing thorns; in His hands and feet, from the fastening of the nails; on His face from the blows and spittle; and from the lashes over His entire body. Moreover, He suffered in all His bodily senses: in touch, by being scourged and nailed; in taste, by being given vinegar and gall to drink; in smell, by being fastened to the gibbet in a place reeking with the stench of corpses, ‘which is called Calvary’; in hearing, by being tormented with the cries of blasphemers and scorners; in sight, by beholding the tears of His Mother and of the disciple whom He loved” (ST III, q. 46, art. 5).
Why the Details Matter
This level of detail is important for two reasons. First, because it should move us to love, realizing that Our Lord planned out His sufferings in a very specific manner. There was no mere chance in even the slightest of His sufferings. He knew each one of our very specific sufferings and sought to redeem them. Secondly, and more relevant to the discussion at hand, is that by enumerating the categories we see how exactly we enter into Our Lord’s Passion right here and now.
Look at St. Thomas’ list again and think about your own personal sufferings in the past or presently. Are there any that don’t fall into one of those categories? This means that each of these is a personal gateway into His Passion here and now. When we willingly embrace them as such, we are suffering with Christ. He anticipated what you are going through and sanctified it and all that remains is to enter fully into it to receive the fruit of the Passion—sonship. Big sufferings, little annoyances, all belong as long as we lovingly accept them as Christ did His Passion. Where there is a will, there is the Way.
Do this enough and you know what happens? The fear of suffering for Christ goes away. We become like the Beloved Disciple at the foot of the Cross. We have endured so much with Him, realized so much of the fruit of suffering that we trust His plan, grown to love Him so deeply, that we will suffer whatever comes. He does not ask us to be masochists, but we will habitually choose those things which have more of the Cross in them because we know it brings us closer to Him. Think of Simon of Cyrene and how close he was to Christ when he helped Him carry the cross. That is us.
Now the wisdom of all the saints and their habit of meditating deeply on the Passion comes to light. Each time we enter into the Passion in our prayer, we are in a very real sense anticipating our own role in it. This Lent then let us resolve to meditate upon the Passion as one of our spiritual practices. If the witness of the saints is any indication, then it will be a most fruitful Lent.