Sufferin’ Succotash!

In my very recent Scripture reading, TV viewing, and radio listening the issue of suffering seems to keep coming up again and again.  Maybe it’s because it’s the season of Lent, and it’s topical during this time.  Last week I watched a 30-minute show called “The Choices We Make” on EWTN, and a priest who I guess you could say was a specialist on the subject was the guest.  He promoted to his parishioners who were ill or in elder care to get with him for names of people they could pray for, because he always had a long list of names.  His very Catholic idea was that suffering was never meaningless, but an invitation to share in the Passion of Christ.  “If God is good, why is there suffering and evil?” is one of the greatest human questions, and an enormous obstacle to faith for many, many people.  It’s easy to intellectualize about suffering, that it’s a necessary component of human freedom, but it’s a tough one to wrap one’s heart around.  Most of the Pharisees could not do it, with their firmly held belief that suffering was for jerks and losers, despite having the Book of Job to fall back on.  Jesus was an enormous conundrum to them: “Why are you associating with the lame (they are so lame!)  the tax-collecting turds, and the knuckleheads that don’t use hand sanitizer?”  And Jesus would never clear it up for them, replying in a way that made them want to stone Him, throw Him off a cliff, or not invite Him to bar-mitzvahs.  It’s one of those signs of contradiction that if you live a really holy life – St. Francis of Assisi holy – Christ deigns to gift you with the stigmata, to share in His Passion in the most intimate way.  And those saints so gifted uniformly bore the stigmata reluctantly in their humanity, because the stigmata…..…wait for it..….HURT LIKE BLOODY HELL!  And the stigmata also bled like bloody Hell:  Padre Pio used to buy Isotoners by the case.

The world naturally views suffering as meaningless and to be avoided at all costs.  I suppose there are a select few who come to adulthood and never experience significant suffering: always enjoying great health, career success, and predeceasing spouse and worldy-successful children (the death of parents, grandparents, et. al. viewed as “a blessing”).  But for most of us, suffering – intense suffering – is inevitable.  It’s a sublime moment in My Dinner with Andre when Wallace Shawn fixes his “Inconceivable!” expression upon Andre Gregory and blurts “I just want to be comfortable!”  I was most amused a few years ago when there were a plethora of ads out where investment companies targeted boomers by showing old people parachuting and skateboarding, not just selfishly enjoying retirement but channeling their inner teenager in the process.  At 56 for me a nap is much more attractive than a weekend sequestered with Sofia Vergara in a Motel 6 – let alone rafting the Colorado or climbing the Matterhorn.  My jobless journey of the last almost 5 years has been a particular invitation to share in carrying the Cross, but at the same time an invitation to gratitude, because all around me a people I know carrying much heavier Crosses.  For example, Mary and I know a couple – very nice Christian folk – with two children: one’s a meth addict and in prison, and the other one created a horrible accident while under the influence and was sentenced to 20 years.  I know guys and gals with spouses battling cancer.  These are Crosses I’m thankful I haven’t had to carry.

So while I’m ruminating on the issue of suffering, something motivated me – probably Benedict XVI’s renunciation – to read his encyclical Spe Salvi (SPE Salvi facti sumis – “In hope we are saved”).

It’s a stunningly beautiful work, a profound reflection on Christian hope in a world of suffering and disorder.  I just want to share a part that moved me profoundly, from section “II. Action and suffering as settings for learning hope”:

We can try to limit suffering, to fight against it, but we cannot eliminate it. It is when we attempt to avoid suffering by withdrawing from anything that might involve hurt, when we try to spare ourselves the effort and pain of pursuing truth, love, and goodness, that we drift into a life of emptiness, in which there may be almost no pain, but the dark sensation of meaninglessness and abandonment is all the greater. It is not by sidestepping or fleeing from suffering that we are healed, but rather by our capacity for accepting it, maturing through it and finding meaning through union with Christ, who suffered with infinite love. In this context, I would like to quote a passage from a letter written by the Vietnamese martyr Paul Le-Bao-Tinh († 1857) which illustrates this transformation of suffering through the power of hope springing from faith. “I, Paul, in chains for the name of Christ, wish to relate to you the trials besetting me daily, in order that you may be inflamed with love for God and join with me in his praises, for his mercy is for ever (Ps136 [135]). The prison here is a true image of everlasting Hell: to cruel tortures of every kind—shackles, iron chains, manacles—are added hatred, vengeance, calumnies, obscene speech, quarrels, evil acts, swearing, curses, as well as anguish and grief. But the God who once freed the three children from the fiery furnace is with me always; he has delivered me from these tribulations and made them sweet, for his mercy is forever. In the midst of these torments, which usually terrify others, I am, by the grace of God, full of joy and gladness, because I am not alone —Christ is with me … How am I to bear with the spectacle, as each day I see emperors, mandarins, and their retinue blaspheming your holy name, O Lord, who are enthroned above the Cherubim and Seraphim? (cf. Ps 80:1 [79:2]). Behold, the pagans have trodden your Cross underfoot! Where is your glory? As I see all this, I would, in the ardent love I have for you, prefer to be torn limb from limb and to die as a witness to your love. O Lord, show your power, save me, sustain me, that in my infirmity your power may be shown and may be glorified before the nations … Beloved brothers, as you hear all these things may you give endless thanks in joy to God, from whom every good proceeds; bless the Lord with me, for his mercy is for ever … I write these things to you in order that your faith and mine may be united. In the midst of this storm I cast my anchor towards the throne of God, the anchor that is the lively hope in my heart”[28]. This is a letter from “Hell”. It lays bare all the horror of a concentration camp, where to the torments inflicted by tyrants upon their victims is added the outbreak of evil in the victims themselves, such that they in turn become further instruments of their persecutors’ cruelty. This is indeed a letter from Hell, but it also reveals the truth of the Psalm text: “If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I sink to the nether world, you are present there … If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall hide me, and night shall be my light’ —for you darkness itself is not dark, and night shines as the day; darkness and light are the same” (Ps 139 [138]:8-12; cf. also Ps 23 [22]:4). Christ descended into “Hell” and is therefore close to those cast into it, transforming their darkness into light. Suffering and torment is still terrible and well- nigh unbearable. Yet the star of hope has risen—the anchor of the heart reaches the very throne of God. Instead of evil being unleashed within man, the light shines victorious: suffering—without ceasing to be suffering—becomes, despite everything, a hymn of praise.

Spe Salvi filled me with a profound humility, making me feel like a chimpanzee pounding a Selectric compared to a theologian and intellectual like Josef Ratzinger, but at the same time filled me with love and faith in the Church, knowing that such holy, prayerful, powerful thinkers and lovers of God are guiding us.

We adore you O Christ and we praise You;

Because by Your holy Cross You have redeemed the world!

God bless us all!

Explore posts in the same categories: Catholicism, Faith

2 Comments on “Sufferin’ Succotash!”

  1. Stan Sikorski Says:

    Hey Pastor Tom;

    Did you know that celibacy in the Catholic Church is not something passed on down to us, via God or the Bible? That St. Peter was a married man and that celibacy was added to church doctrinaire only 1,000 years ago, mostly to discourage the wives of priests from suing the church to get access to their husband’s “property” upon their passing? I DIDN’T KNOW THAT!


    • Matthew 19: 11-12
      “Jesus said to them, ‘Not all men can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth,
      and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the
      kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive this, let him receive it.’”

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