The Right to Suffer

When our Lord had reached the 40th day after His birth, and as our Blessed Mother listened while a total stranger, Simeon, held her newborn Son in his arms, she heard it prophesied that her child was destined to be a sign of contradiction.  And, if all that was not enough to take in, she also heard Simeon explain that one day a sword would pierce her own heart, so that the thoughts of many hearts would be revealed.

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Thus, what was set before Our Lady on that day was a choice:  to accept the suffering that would come with her vocation as the years passed, or to resist it.  To embrace her portion of the cross of her Son, or to run away from it.

Of course we know that she did freely choose to accept the suffering that was inevitable, and in so doing she became in yet another way a perfect model of discipleship for all of us who, too, receive in this life our own allotment of suffering.   And we, too, face the same decision every day:  to accept the sufferings that come which God permits ultimately for our sanctification, or to fight against them in a spirit of frustration, fear, or even despair.

For the Christian, suffering is never wasted nor is it ever empty of meaning.  It always has the potential to be a pathway of union with Our Lord so that we can more deeply relate to His sufferings undertaken for our benefit.  Suffering is an essential channel or opening between our heart and God’s heart, a meeting point, a common frame of reference.  It is a means to learn trust and humility.

Imagine if we all were shown, at the beginning of our lives, all the suffering that would come to us.  Imagine if as we were contemplating getting married, or ordained, or taking a major step forward in life, God revealed to us all the pain that we were going to experience as a result.   Likely we would spend much of our lives immobilized.

God (usually) keeps such prophesies from us.  But, suffering still comes.  Therefore it is essential that we discover in our sufferings the gentle voice of the one who gives us hope, lest we entertain the mistaken notion that the remedy to all of our pain and difficulties rests squarely on our own little (inadequate) shoulders.

To put it another way, we all have the right to suffer, and to do so freely, as an act of love and trust.

This right, and the witness of Our Lady of Sorrows, stands in stark contradiction to the prevailing cultural mindset that wants to invent a right to die so that people who are suffering can legally choose to take their own lives.  California has now become the latest, and of course the largest, state to pave the way for such wrong-headed thinking.

What they are proposing is legalized despair, and legalized irrationality.  And what they are enshrining into law is the horrifying reality that when someone explains that they want to kill themselves, we are all supposed to call that a reasonable decision rather than doing the loving thing of trying to stop them.  If I were standing on the ledge of a building, ready to end it all, I would hope anyone watching would at least be concerned, rather than engaging in the rationalization that “he’s probably really in pain, let him jump.”

But all of this is the result of a collective cultural mindset that wants to avoid suffering at all costs, and has come to believe in some vague notion of the afterlife that we are all apparently going to slide right into once we’ve ended it all, taking into our hands a decision that only God can truly make.  What proof is there that the afterlife, or the nothingness, that some are chasing as an escape is actually going to be better than this life?   If one is going to borrow the Christian notion of heaven as the inevitable destination after such behavior, then it is helpful to remember that Christian teaching is a package deal, and it includes the Fifth Commandment as well.  It is difficult to divorce one from the other.

Our Lady of Sorrows weeps for all of us who try to make the alleviation of suffering the ultimate end.  Is it Christian and in keeping with our human vocation to soften pain, to help the sick, to comfort the dying, to look for cures?  Absolutely.  But legalized suicide is no cure for anything.  And our ultimate end is not health, nor a pain free life, but rather salvation.  And God uses suffering all the time to save us.    Good enough for His Son, good enough for us.

Let us run to Our Mother in our pain. Her suffering is deep.  She knows what it means to exercise the right to suffer, and to find union with her Son as a result.  She knows that the greatest comfort in our pain, at the deepest level, is to find meaning in it, and to hand it over to her Son for the salvation of the world.

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About Father Nathan Reesman

Father Reesman is a priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. He is the Shared Pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish, and also of Saint Frances Cabrini Parish, both in West Bend, Wisconsin.
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