How The Church’s Understanding of Suffering Makes Today “Good”

While some people balk at the Catholic Church’s teaching on suffering, it was precisely that theology—and its sweet relief to my soul—that pulled me back into the Church from evangelical Protestantism nearly thirty years ago. The Catholic notions of expecting suffering in life, turning toward the Cross and embracing it, and “offering it up” for redemptive purposes not only helped make sense of my own suffering, but changed my perspective on suffering entirely.

You see, somehow the message I received in evangelicalism felt like a hammer that nailed me repeatedly to the crosses of my life by implying the suffering was somehow my fault. Having spoken to a number of former Protestants about this issue, I know that my experience was not unique. Being told that reading our “Believers Identity In Christ,” memorizing Bible verses, or having more faith in Christ’s promises would cure our suffering only exacerbated it. I was extremely grateful to finally lay hold of the Catholic teaching on suffering, and I believe it must be unapologetically offered to a hurting world today.

Since it’s Good Friday, it’s a good day to consider a few of the Church’s salient points on suffering:

1. We will suffer!

Suffering is an unavoidable part of life, given the fact that we live in a fallen world where sin and death have been overcome by Christ’s death and resurrection, but have not yet been eradicated. Jesus said: In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world.   (John 16:33)

We live in a culture that peddles the lie that we are entitled to pain-free, pleasure-filled lives, and that suffering can and should be avoided at any cost. We are constantly encouraged to seek heaven on earth by quelling our hunger and quenching our thirst with the enjoyments of this world. But with life being what it is, we will all learn one way or another that “there is a heaven, and this ain’t it.” Living as though this is true benefits us in a number of important ways, including helping us avoid the inevitable addictions that occur when we compulsively try avoid suffering by making the pursuit of pleasure an end unto itself.

2.  Suffering and death have eternal meaning.

Because of Christ’s death and resurrection, suffering and death have been given an entirely new and eternal meaning. Instead of dreaded curses to be shunned, the God-man transformed suffering and death into a portal of love and life, making suffering an opportunity to grow in love and death the hallowed entrance to eternal life.  In other words, suffering embraced with love makes us grow up and learn to live and die for others, an all-important lesson we must learn if we are to follow Christ.   Death, when welcomed with faith and hope, loses the sting of defeat and becomes instead the ultimate human victory. These critical truths need restating in a culture that endlessly seeks to avoid pain, aging and death.

3. “Offering it up” makes suffering redemptive.

While some Catholics roll their eyes as they remember being told to “offer it up,” there is profound truth to this quip. When we make an intentional decision to unite our suffering to the suffering of Christ and offer it as a prayer for others and ourselves, the prayer takes on supernatural potency and makes our afflictions a cause of rejoicing. Why? Because suffering, united to the infinite merits of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, enables us to fill up in our flesh “what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, the church” (Colossians 1:24). What could possibly be “lacking” in the suffering of Christ? Nothing. Except its application to your soul and to mine—an application that occurs in time with our free cooperation. When we embrace suffering with love and offer it up, we expand our capacity for love by inviting God’s love to expand in us. This gives suffering powerful, redeeming value.

It’s Good Friday. A perfect day to remember that when the Cross presents itself in our lives, we can choose to turn and embrace it—even if it hurts—and let it bleed its transforming power right into our lives. I’d say that’s good news, indeed.

This article was previously published at Aleteia.

If The Cross Has Triumphed, Why Is The World Still A Mess?

img_0119 With the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross having just presented itself again on the liturgical calendar, it’s hard not to wonder: If Christ triumphed on the Cross, then why is the world such a mess?

During the past two weeks, I’ve wept over the news of a precious friend’s recurrence of beastly breast cancer, wept with a still-grieving friend over the loss of a loss of her infant son several years ago, and listened to a friend’s weeping heart over the agony of his son’s addiction. These friends I’m crying with and for? All great people of faith. All devout Catholics who deeply love the Lord. All seeking to look at the serpent that’s bitten to find life instead of death (Numbers 21:9).

For a long time, I believed that being triumphant as a Christian meant that life would somehow magically go well. I can still hear that peppy song we used to sing every Sunday at the little evangelical church I attended in my twenties: Abiding in the vine/abiding in the vine/ love, joy, health, peace, he has made them mine/ I’ve got prosperity, power and victory, abiding, abiding in the vine.

I bit into that message hook, line and sinker because I wanted to believe that faith could somehow produce a particular outcome from God, and hence assure me of some control over life. I wanted to believe that faith could guarantee good results, because that perspective made life seem less daunting and me more powerful. The rude awakening of learning the hard way that “the abundant life” does not equal a pain free life was itself extremely painful, but it compelled me to seek a new understanding of the meaning of the Triumph of the Cross. In so doing, I discovered the work of Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) who’s had plenty to say about the meaning of the Cross.

Ratzinger once wrote:

God’s compassion has flesh. It means scourging, crowning with thorns, crucifixion, a tomb. He has entered into our suffering. What does this mean, what can it mean? We learn this before the great images of the crucified Jesus and the Pietà, where the mother holds her dead Son. Before such images and in them, men have perceived a transformation of suffering: they have experienced that God himself dwells in the inmost sphere of their sufferings and that they became one with him precisely in their bruises. (Ratzinger, The God of Jesus Christ: Meditations on the Triune God, 53)

Truth be told, many of us believe that if we could just get rid of our bumps and bruises, then God would be with us. Or conversely, we think that if God were really with us, then we wouldn’t suffer so many bumps and bruises. But that is not the message of the Cross. Ratzinger goes on: The crucified Christ has not removed suffering from the world. But through his Cross, he has changed men. (Ratzinger, 53)

How, we want to know? How has God transformed suffering when he hasn’t taken away life’s pain? And how has he changed mankind through the Cross, when life on this Earth is still disordered?

By entering into the bowels of human suffering, Christ transformed suffering from a dreaded curse into a love offering that becomes the gateway of intimacy with him—a door through which he comes to meet us in our broken humanity. On the Cross, Emmanuel’s presence on this Earth finds its definitive meaning—the place where the deepest human anguish becomes the very locus of God with us; where he makes himself present in every God-forsaken experience of human life. Further, Christ asks us to embrace the Cross and let its triumphal resurrection fruit bleed grace into us—grace that enables us to stand in faith, hope and love in the face of life’s most formidable challenges.

It is instructive that the Church places the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows one day after the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross. The Mother of God, at the foot of the Cross, incarnates for us what “redeemed” suffering looks like. There she stands in travailing union with the God-man, uttering an acquiescent: Let it be done to me according to your will. There she stands in piercing pain, anticipating new birth, new life, a resurrection. There she stands with eyes fixed on Christ, trusting that love is stronger than death.  The Crucifixion—his, hers, ours—thus becomes the place where each human being is intimately united to God.

It is not by eschewing pain and sorrow that we become victorious, but by inviting Christ into it that we receive the grace to perceive suffering as love, as gift, as triumph. And it is this very love—this self-gift—offered for others that turns wounds into glorified gashes in humanity capable of bearing great fruit. That is how the Cross changes us. And that is precisely where we experience its triumph.

This article was previously published at Aleteia.

Dear Self: How Holy Are You? How To Become Holy In One Not-So-Easy Step

IMG_3312 What does it mean to be holy? And how do we become holy?

These two questions burned in my mind for years as I moved from agnosticism, to fundamentalist Protestantism, then home to Catholicism. When I returned to the Catholic Church, I continued to ask the same questions about holiness as I specialized in apologetics, moral theology and bioethics. Finally, thanks to my life imploding, I came to the conclusion that holiness consists, quite simply, in love of and surrender to God.

Truth be told, I can now see that my trajectory within Christianity was an attempt, albeit a worthy one, to have an authority tell me the truth in black and white, give me the laws, and present me with the parameters in which to live. I used to joke that I just wanted someone to tell me the flipping rules so I could follow them!

Because deep down I knew that following the rules was a heck of a lot easier than surrendering to a wild, unpredictable God—especially a God who allows so much suffering in life. It took many years of prayer, study, soul-searching and, of course, personal suffering before I began to see that the essence of holiness is not formulas, facts or feats—good as those can be—but trusting God. And that the indispensable ingredients of holiness are hoping in God in all things, believing he is good no matter what, and surrendering to his love with abandon.

Sounds simple enough, right? Simple maybe. But easy, no.

Thanks to a suggestion by Amazon, I recently happened upon Dr. Peter Kreeft’s new book, How To Be Holy: First Steps In Becoming A Saint, which explains masterfully why holiness is simple but hard.  Amazingly, at least to me, Kreeft affirms exactly what I’ve been trying to say in both my writing and talks—that holiness it isn’t about performance, but surrender. In other words, holiness has much less to do with asserting my will as it does with assenting to God’s. And therein lies the crux of Kreeft’s message.

With the brilliance, wit and logic that is classic Kreeft, the prolific author and philosopher sums it up neatly in these words:

“Abandonment’, or “islam”, or “surrender”, to God’s providential will is also the very essence of holiness.” Kreeft, How To Be Holy, 31

He builds his thesis on the truth that God is all-good, all-knowing and all-powerful, and upon St. Paul’s words in Romans 8:28 which say: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”

Most of us would readily agree that God is good and working all things together for our good when things are carrying on happily in our lives; that is, when they are going according to “our will.” During these times, we are invited to cultivate the virtues of faith, hope and love by aligning our will with God’s and growing in relationship with him.

But it is when God allows us to be sanctified, or made holy, “against our will, through suffering” (Kreeft, 32), that we are frontally challenged to exercise the theological virtues in a more radical way. It is then that we must decide whether we really believe that God is good and whether we truly trust that what he is permitting in our lives is for our good. In these moments of permitted purification, we are beckoned to abandon ourselves with confidence to God’s providential will, allowing the fire of God’s love to burn away the dross of our own self-love and self-will—in a word, selfishness—which, Kreeft says is the main obstacle to holiness. When we assent to God in the midst of suffering, we begin to experience what the sage author calls “joyful, trusting self-surrender,” which requires saying: Not my will, but thy will be done.

And that, my friends, that hard prayer of willing, intentional surrender in abandonment to a God we believe is good and loving—in the teeth of what is often a hard-fought battle through suffering—is what makes us holy.

Simple perhaps. Easy no. But entirely possible with grace.

This article previously appeared at Aleteia.

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Is God Good All The Time? Or Only When We Feel Blessed?

  Our home flooding in Hurricane Isaac

Forty thousand Louisiana families lost their homes this week to what is being called the “Great Flood,” and more homes are about to go under as I write. Meanwhile, I’m reading posts on Facebook that are saying things like: “God is so good! He spared our home. We are so blessed.” And I’m asking very seriously: Really?

So if your home had flooded, would God be less good? And where does that leave the forty thousand now-homeless families in our state? Are they cursed instead of blessed? Or maybe just less blessed than those whose homes were spared?

One of my pet peeves in life is how often we Christians equate “the blessing” with our own physical and material prosperity, and God’s goodness with how well our lives are going on any given day. Without being cognizant of it, we have somehow bought lock, stock and barrel into the “prosperity gospel,” which purports to guarantee blessing in the lives of those who are favored by God—those who pray hard enough, have potent enough “prayer warriors” in their camps, and do this thing called Christianity just right.

This convoluted approach to the Christian faith has seeped deep into our collective Christian psyches, and it seems to reverberate everywhere we turn. It’s also a message that I personally experienced as a despair-provoking battering ram in the midst of multiple life calamities; during the long, painful years I spent with clenched fists asking God: “What does it take to get the flippin’ blessing?”

After many years and much suffering, I finally came to the conclusion that I was asking the wrong question completely. It was then that I began to ask instead: Lord, what IS the blessing?

So what does Jesus actually have to say about “the blessing”? There’s only one place in the Gospels that Jesus repeatedly invokes the word “blessed,” and that is in the Beatitudes. In Luke 6, Jesus uses the word “blessed” four times in a row (nine times in a row in Matthew’s account in Chapter 5). In every case in Luke’s Gospel, the word is followed by an adjective that describes people that most of us would consider anything but blessed: the poor, the hungry, the weeping, the hated, the excluded, and the insulted—those we would probably quickly deem “cursed” today.

I’ve pondered much about Mary—the most blessed woman that ever lived—and how her life would be judged were she alive right now. She was apparently widowed; and then lost her only son to a brutal, violent death upon a cross between two notorious criminals. And that was only after her beloved son was publicly accused of being a blasphemer, a lunatic, and possessed. In spite of this, we find the word “blessed” used repeatedly in regard to Mary; starting when Elizabeth proclaims to her in a loud voice: “Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb…blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled” (Luke 1:42-45). We hear those words again in reference to Mary when “a woman from the crowd” cries out to Jesus saying, “Blessed is the womb that carried you and the breasts at which you nursed” (Luke 11:27-28). Jesus’ response—“Rather, blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it”—is an implicit reference to his mother’s unwavering faith in God that echoes the words spoken by Elizabeth.

Mary’s life gives us a glimpse of what the blessing looks like, and it is not based on the fact that her life went “well”—at least as the world defines “well.” Instead, her beatitude was found in her steadfast trust in God no matter what trials life brought, in her continuous “yes” to him in the face of great adversity, and in her constant cooperation with his salvific plan, no matter how much it suffering it involved.

This is the blessed state of being to which we are all invited to participate as Christians—a way that defies this world’s way of thinking. It is a way of living in peace and hope that comes only through faith, trust and surrendered abandonment to a God we believe is always good, no matter what happens.

This article was previously published at Aleteia.

The Painful Pruning of Our Diseased Hearts and the Glorious Mark of the Cross

FullSizeRender-1 They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord to display his glory.

Isaiah 61:3

They were at it again when I woke up this morning: amputating dead limbs from the majestic oak trees that line the brilliant white beaches of Pass Christian, Mississippi, which is perched like a pearl on edge of the Gulf of Mexico. Lying in bed at my sister Jojo’s tranquil beach house, I could hear the saws humming since practically the crack of dawn.

I’ve reflected a lot on the oaks in recent years, especially since they’re the only things that stayed standing when a massive tidal surge slammed these shores during Hurricane Katrina. That, thanks to deep roots grown over many long years, roots that held the trees in place when the “hundred year storm” swamped the entire Mississippi Gulf Coast. And though the oaks survived the hellacious storm, it’s been an ongoing project ever since to trim their dead branches, branches that require constant stripping in order for the trees to grow and prosper.

He takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit, and every one that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit (John 15:2). I thought of Jesus’ words as I took a long walk beside the beach later in the morning, observing how many dead oak branches still need to be cut off. Like the oaks, we must all encounter the necessary pain of pruning, as the Divine Grower mercifully strips away everything in us that hampers our growth in him. Paradoxically, when God wields the pruning shears it is not for our destruction, but that we might have life. I experienced this first hand the year my late husband Bernie died, a year when many of my diseased beliefs about God were cropped off as a Category 5 storm blasted our lives.

I’d been dreaming about Bernie when I woke to the sound of saws, probably because yesterday was his birthday. Hit by a massive heart attack seven years ago, Bernie was given the great grace of undergoing a near-death experience, of clearly seeing the condition of his soul, and of being sent back by God to undergo, as he put it, “necessary purification.” Over the course of three long months in the ICU, Bernie suffered profusely as his life was stripped away, all the while discovering inexplicable peace, joy and love as the pruning hand of God reordered the very depths of his soul. Previously a very driven man, Bernie found himself devoid of all power, possessions and productivity, laid bare before a merciful Father who wished to communicate only one thing his broken son, a mantra Bernie would repeat many times during his short time left on earth: You have no idea how much God loves you.

When Bernie got sick I, too, was in need of radical healing; healing of my trust in God’s unbounded goodness. A deep wound of mistrust in God had festered in me since childhood, keeping me in a defensive posture against a distorted image of an angry, exacting God I believed was out to get me. It wasn’t until an unexpected cyclone hit our lives that those distorted beliefs were cut away, when I personally experienced the miraculous love and goodness of a Father who demonstrated in no uncertain terms that he would not only hold me steady in the teeth of death and devastation, but would do so with unspeakable tenderness and love.

So much of our walk with God is about encountering the inevitable storms of life, and about what the tsunamis that hit us expose in our hearts. Do we trust the Lord with all of our hearts, believing that he’s not out to get us, but that he’s got us? Do we believe that God loves us, that he is good and that he works all things together for our good, even the things we may consider disastrous?

One thing I noticed about the oaks is that they each bear a telling mark of their stripping; a mark that often takes the shape of a cross. The cross that takes shape in their flesh is a sign not only of their struggle for survival but of their pruning, the very pruning that leads to transformation and new life.

This article previously appeared at Aleteia.

The Hidden Glory of the Cross: What the Blessing Looks Like

the-pieta

Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.

Luke 1:42

“What does it take to get the blessing?” I asked my spiritual director, Sandy, two years ago as I walked through the front door of her home in a huff.

“The question is not what it takes to get the blessing,” Sandy replied pointedly. “It’s what you perceive the blessing to be.”

Her comment came after I’d shared the news that my then-25-year-old son-in-law, Grayson, had just been diagnosed with cancer—the same week Sandy had directed me to beg for the grace to truly know and experience God’s tender love for me.

“Grayson has cancer,” I spit out as I entered her home for our weekly meeting, where she was leading me through the 19th Annotation of St. Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises. “Is that how God demonstrates his tender love for me? By sending more suffering?” I scoffed. “I can’t seem to get the freaking blessing.”

“You keep thinking that the blessing means that everything goes well in your life,” Sandy countered. “A Catholic understanding of the blessing is that we know that God is with us and we trust his love for us no matter what circumstances life delivers. You’ve bought in to the prosperity gospel,” she pushed further, “and I want you to spend the next week renouncing that false belief from the core of your being.”

Bam! Sandy had hit the nail right on the head. Needless to say, it was a painful week of renunciation.

Before Sandy confronted the problem directly, it wasn’t so clear to me that I was a card-carrying member of the “Secret Prosperity Gospel Club.” But somewhere, I had definitely bought into a specific idea of what the “blessing” looks like: a happy marriage, successful kids, good health, financial stability, etc.—in other words, a life where all goes well. With that paradigm tucked deep into my mind, I’d spent much time and energy over the years not only comparing myself to others who appeared to have the “blessing,” but also wrestling with God about why his “blessing” had eluded me, especially as multiple tragedies visited our lives. The fact that Sandy pegged the problem so precisely prompted me, at long last, to nail to the cross the insidious lie that a blessed life equals a prosperous life, and that my life was therefore cursed.

Now let’s be clear: I do not attend a church that teaches the prosperity gospel; nor do I follow a single mega-church TV minister who preaches this popular, culture-friendly message. I am Catholic—one of more than a billion people in the world who attend a church where the crucified Christ is the focal point of our worship. In spite of that, a virulent strain of the prosperity gospel somehow seeped into my heart and brain; a “gospel” that essentially looks like this: I believe that my will should be done on earth. And when it’s not—for example, when people get sick, when they die young, when children have serious life crises, when finances crash—I conclude that God’s “blessing” is not on my life.

This false and frankly, un-Christian, belief wreaked havoc in my soul as I grasped for my way, my will to be done in the face of tremendous suffering, which included the deaths of a stepson, two brothers and my husband, Bernie—all in a few short years. It was after our lives imploded with loss—Grayson’s cancer being the last straw—that I finally discovered the paradox that only a surrendered life is a blessed life, with the most blessed life of all being a life that is fully surrendered to God. Those are the terms of God’s kingdom.

I have learned that Christianity is not for wimps or for those who want the soft, easy way. No. It’s strong medicine for those who desire to be Christ-like, which means taking up one’s cross, dying to oneself and uttering the often gut-wrenching prayer: Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.

Christians are called to live in a land where swords that pierce hearts are willingly embraced, where glory is revealed through open wounds, and where the fragrant aroma of holiness pours forth from souls who have been tried and tested—and found to be true. This is the hallowed ground of our Savior, and his Mother. And as their lives clearly tell us, it’s territory that’s accessed only by way of surrendered acceptance of the cross.

“The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God,” St. Paul tells us in his First Letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 1:18).

Truly, I am finally being saved. Through the cross and from my own twisted notion of what the “blessing” looks like.   Better late than never.

Note: This article was previously published on Aleteia.