Sacred tradition tells us very little about a key actor in the Passion of Our Lord, Simon of Cyrene. We know that he was very likely a part of a large Jewish colony in the North African city of Cyrenaica (see Acts 2:10, 6:9) and that he was likely a black man. In fact he is probably the same Symeon called Niger (meaning “black”) referenced in Acts 13:1. We also know that he became a Christian because the evangelists mention him by name, which means the Christian communities would have known who he was. He is also mentioned as the father of two prominent Christians, namely Alexander and Rufus (see Mark 15:21). While he may have been a “passer-by” and “pressed into service” to carry the Cross, by the time he reached Golgotha with Jesus, he was obviously a willing participant. What is also abundantly clear is that at some point in his history, he too had suffered greatly. With very few exceptions it seems that only those who have mounted their own crosses are truly capable of helping others carry their crosses all the way to Golgotha.
This principle has a biblical foundation. In his Second Letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul blesses God as the “Father of compassion and God of all encouragement, who encourages us in our every affliction, so that we may be able to encourage those who are in any affliction with the encouragement with which we ourselves are encouraged by God” (2Cor 1:3). What St. Paul is suggesting is that God strengthens us in our sufferings so that we then will be able to strengthen others in theirs. Once our hearts have been exposed on the Cross in the way that Our Lord’s was exposed, we are capable of a deeper love. It is our own passion which fills us with compassion. As Pope Benedict XVI reminded us during a Wednesday Audience in Lourdes, “[T]he cross reminds us that there is no true love without suffering, there is no gift of life without pain”
What this reveals is yet another reason why suffering is necessary to live a truly Christian life. Not only does it conform us to Christ, the Sufferer but also to Christ the co-Sufferer. St. John Paul II, describes this necessity of suffering “in order to unleash love in the human person, that unselfish gift of one’s “I” on behalf of other people, especially those who suffer. The world of human suffering unceasingly calls for, so to speak, another world: the world of human love; and in a certain sense man owes to suffering that unselfish love which stirs in his heart and actions.”
While suffering opens up our hearts to a new love, it also opens our minds to new way of thinking. It is as if the raised view from the Cross changes your entire paradigm. Those who refuse to come down off the cross that God has given them, eat of the fruit of the new tree of life. It is the fruit that keeps them there and it is the fruit that they want others to share in. They are willing to go all the way to Golgotha with others in their suffering because they too want them to share in their fruit. They will not try to assign their own meaning to the other’s Cross but instead will stay with them while they find it on their own. They will not offer advice, but instead encouragement and solidarity.
Because Pope St. John Paul II had suffered greatly, he wrote beautifully about this solidarity in Salvifici Doloris—“The world of suffering possesses as it were its own solidarity. People who suffer become similar to one another through the analogy of their situation, the trial of their destiny, or through their need for understanding and care, and perhaps above all through the persistent question of the meaning of suffering.”
But can’t we still be compassionate even if we have not suffered? To a certain extent yes, but there is a certain gravity that is difficult not to succumb to unless you have experience suffering yourself. Without suffering on our own we will almost always be like Job’s friends. We will tend towards judgmentalism. As our endurance for “helping” them is tested, we will start to ask how much of this suffering they have brought upon themselves. We will rate their response to how we would respond in their situation and evaluate how well they are handling it compared to well we would do. We will be tempted to think it is time for them to come down off their cross and get on with life.
But for the one who has suffered he knows that it is the Divine Surgeon at work. Because he has been under His surgical knife and experienced His healing touch it would be unthinkable to stop Him mid-surgery. He wounds only to heal. We are like those who work in Post-Op helping the patient recover.
One of the dangers that Simon the “passer-by” must have wrestled with was, whether in their cruelty, the Romans would crucify him with Jesus. This fear must have grown with each step as they approached Golgotha and yet he remained steadfastly with Christ to the end. Only someone who has had great suffering has the courage to go all the way to Golgotha because ultimately they do not let the fear of getting caught in someone else’s mess stop them. They no longer have a fear of suffering themselves because they know God sends it for good. They stay near to the person because they are convicted that “God is close to the brokenhearted” (Ps 34:18).
They probably recall in their own lives the feeling of having been abandoned by someone who they thought would be their own Simon of Cyrene and would never abandon their own post for that reason. For most people who are suffering, it is the loneliness of the Cross that is the most difficult. They already have a sense of abandonment by God and so they need their Marys and St. Johns at the foot of the Cross.
With Thanksgiving this week and Christmas around the corner, ministries to help the poor and needy all receive an influx of volunteers. What if instead of this (or even better in addition to) we all reconnected with the people we know personally are suffering? What if we didn’t necessarily try to fix their situation, but instead found ways to carry some of the emotional burden they are carrying? Because this compassionate paradigm shift can also come as a singular grace and at a moment we least expect it. In closing I quote author Steven Covey’s own grace filled moment he describes in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People:
“I remember a mini-paradigm shift I experienced one morning on a subway in New York. People were sitting quietly – some reading newspapers, some lost in thought, some resting with their eyes closed. It was a calm, peaceful scene.
Then suddenly, a man and his children entered the subway. The children were so loud and rambunctious that instantly the whole climate changed.
The man sat down next to me and closed his eyes, apparently oblivious to the situation. The children were yelling back and forth, throwing things, even grabbing people’s papers. It was very disturbing. And yet, the man sitting next to me did nothing.
It was difficult not to feel irritated. I could not believe that he could be so insensitive as to let his children run wild like that and do nothing about it, taking no responsibility at all. It was easy to see that everyone else on the subway felt irritated, too. So finally, with what I felt was unusual patience and restraint, I turned to him and said, “Sir, your children are really disturbing a lot of people. I wonder if you couldn’t control them a little more?”
The man lifted his gaze as if to come to a consciousness of the situation for the first time and said softly, “Oh, you’re right. I guess I should do something about it. We just came from the hospital where their mother died about an hour ago. I don’t know what to think, and I guess they don’t know how to handle it either.”
Can you imagine what I felt at that moment? My paradigm shifted. Suddenly I saw things differently, and because I saw differently, I thought differently, I felt differently, I behaved differently. My irritation vanished. I didn’t have to worry about controlling my attitude or my behavior; my heart was filled with the man’s pain. Feelings of sympathy and compassion flowed freely. “Your wife just died? Oh, I’m so sorry! Can you tell me about it? What can I do to help?” Everything changed in an instant.”