Monday, February 22, 2021

The hidden value in taking on suffering in the life of one who is serious in Christian discipleship.

I was sent a message by someone who was quite bothered by something she read in a book on the life of St Pio of Pietralcina.  The book had described how this saint had suffered tremendously from a young age. That’s not what bothered the reader. What disturbed her was how suffering was presented in the book as something good and because it is good, it is willed by God.  Futhermore, the writer also said something along the lines of “the greater the pains, the greater the love God bears you.”


It wasn’t surprising at all that this person ended the message by declaring “I don’t know what kind of theology this is”.


In my cryptic way, I responded with this line – “you just answered your own question”.  Of course, she didn’t really ask me a question, but from the last line, one can easily infer that she had a burning question, phrased in an almost exasperated declaration.


Indeed, not just this person, but many people do not know what kind of theology this is, mainly because this isn’t commonly taught neither in seminaries nor preached by homilists at Masses.  Redemptive suffering seems to have somehow fallen by the wayside, in favour of preaching centered on a God whose mercy trumps even logic and rationale, and who doesn’t even seem to care much for justice.  Falling together with redemptive suffering by the wayside is that in God, mercy and justice embrace, and that this truth necessarily requires a recompense for sins committed as well as the effects that those sins have on souls and on the world.  


Yes, I would agree that redemptive suffering is a great challenge to preach and teach, but in order to do that well, one needs a good foundation of the theology of redemption and soteriology (the theology of salvation).  Sometimes, when I get excited and really get into the groove of preaching and speaking about redemptive suffering, I find myself painfully frustrated, almost like a literature teacher at college or university level would be frustrated when he wants to impart the amazing beauty of Shakespearean poetry or the depths and beauty of any of the literary giants like Dickens, or Tolstoy or Trollope, when his students have only a primary three level of the English language under their belt.


Now it doesn’t mean that one who isn’t familiar with soteriology 101 should not be reading the kind of books that this friend picked up.  But there are a couple of things that one should be mindful of when encountering these tough subjects which to the uninitiated, easily can be deemed ridiculous or bordering on masochism with a spiritual bent.


Firstly, I believe that it is crucial to examine the attitude one has when encountering something that one doesn’t immediately grasp or understand when reading books of a spiritual nature, especially those which bear a nihil obstat, meaning ‘free from error’. One needs to ask this question : Do I want to be open enough to accept as true what I read with my eyes but cannot yet understand or accept in my heart?  In other words, we need to ask if we have the attitude of a cynic or skeptic, or if we humbly acknowledge that what is written or spoken about is true, but I need a shift within me to be made in order to appreciate and accept as true what it is that I am unable to accept?  In other words, am I ready for metanoia?


Second, it would be extremely helpful to bring to prayer what it is that one cannot (or will not) understand and accept, and be able to articulate what it is that causes one to have this block. Is it a language problem?  Is it a culture issue? It could also be a lack in humility to admit that whatever is presented is challenging not only to accept but to also practice and live out.  And if this is so, to admit that one needs the grace of God to want to overcome this block in order to accept as true what is being presented.


I must admit that whenever I read about how heroic the saints were in embracing the numerous crosses in life, that I never once recoiled in horror, disdain or disbelief in the way that they faced their challenges with so much faith and effortful love.  And this wasn’t even when I was facing my impending possibility of death.  I recall how even when I was much younger, in my late teens that whenever I read the stories of the life of the saints, I had wanted to emulate them because I saw that they were so graced to have been given this ability to stand so close to the cross of Christ. I prayed for the opportunity to similarly practice it myself. Perhaps that is why when my own cross came to me in the form of Leukemia 9 years ago, I embraced it so happily. The groundwork had been laid for me to be able to carry my Cross with such alacrity.


And this is where I think most peoples’ struggles with cross-carrying lie.  The groundwork had not been laid, or if it was laid, it was done insufficiently and in a random and unfocussed way. For most Catholics, especially those who have not been exposed to such heroism in living out their faith, the knee-jerk reaction would be to balk at such teachings.  The beauty and truth of living our faith so heroically would never be seen to be attractive if one’s heart had not been previously prepped with having been shown that coming close to Jesus necessarily entails one to be also close to Jesus in his most salvific moment of his earthly life, and that God can and does will this in his beloved children.  


I know that speaking or writing like this will always seem to be incongruent with how the world sees joy and how the world defines what being fulfilled in life means.  Yet, I also know that it is my personal mission to speak or write about this whenever I feel moved by the Spirit of God to do so. Fresh angles to look at this ‘gem’ always somehow seem to come to my consciousness, and I would be derelict in my duty as a pastor of souls to ignore and put aside these opportunities to carry out my apostolate.


Someone asked me if speaking like this on such a challenging issue like the joy of Cross-carrying requires a new lens to look at life through.  “No”, I replied, but I added “it requires not just new lens, but new eyes”.  


  1. Hi Father,

    What's the difference between using new lens and new eyes to look at redemptive suffering?

  2. Hi Alvin

    It's my way of saying that true vision doesn't only require the use of a part of the eye (the lens) but to truly behold with the entire eye. In the same way, true conversion isn't going to happen if only a part of you is changed. Metanoia has to affect the way the entire person changes his or her attitude toward sin and the way one had not been living with one's whole heart, mind, body and soul loving God above all else.

    I hope this helps.

    Fr Luke