Today I want to write about Christian suffering. Familiar readers will know that when I write about such personal matters, I am only giving my own understanding. My intention is to provide a starting point so that contributors can agree or disagree and – even more valuable – share their own insights with us all. Secondsightblog has, for me at least, proved an invaluable way of exploring what are often difficult matters.
I confess that, by comparison with many others, I have had very little suffering. Ups and downs of course, some periods of misery, but nothing catastrophic or lasting unduly long. Indeed I am often tempted to remind God that I am far from the holy Christian who may be put to the trial. I would expect to crumble at the first blow.
I am going to start with a brief poem which I wrote many years ago. I was attending a Mass in a little chapel to pray with a friend whose young wife had died from cancer. I simply did not know how I would have coped in my friend’s place, but I knew that he was suffering just as his wife had suffered from her illness before her death. Suddenly, as the priest elevated the chalice, I had a moment of insight. And this was the poem I wrote as a result.
This is my body, the high priest said,
And my blood, as he proffered the wine;
And I trembled in front of the chalice
For I saw the body was mine.
I had thought the price of my passion
Had satisfied sin and had won,
But the bread on the table was broken
With suffering still to be done.
I had known the scourge and the nailing
I had known the rack of the tree;
And I saw them again in the chalice
That the high priest offered to me.
You will see a certain ambivalence in that poem: Is it I, or is it my friend, or is it Christ, who is speaking? Perhaps all three of us – in different ways, for Christian suffering is not personal territory.
Then there is an enigma. Was Christ’s suffering insufficient – surely the tortured death of the Son of God was enough, and more than enough. Traditional Protestantism taught that we are justified simply by Christ’s sacrifice. We did the sinning, Christ picked up the bill. But Catholic understanding rejects this. St Paul tells us: “(I) rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up those things which are wanting the sufferings of Christ…” (Col 1) And this is remarkable because it means that our suffering is the share which Christ allows us to take in the redemption of the world. Every pang is a pang which Christ did not have to feel, because we have felt it.
Should we rejoice in suffering, as Paul appears to do? I don’t think we should pray for it. Even if my cowardice protects me from a prayer that might just be answered, it would be presumptuous of me. But I should be able to rejoice in what comes my way. Not a tear is wasted when a Christian accepts suffering.
But as I, and my best beloved, foresee the shades of night, we know that we must suffer. When the times comes, will I remember all this? Some of you who have been through suffering will know the answer for yourselves. I must pray and see.