peace

Blessed are Those Who Suffer

“In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world” (John 16:33). This verse has brought me consolation amidst the trials of my life for a long time. At the age of four-and-a-half, I was diagnosed with a rare brain cancer. It was a huge shock to my family. I did not have a normal childhood, to say the least. I am very blessed to have had the support of my family, friends, and doctors to help me through my treatment at such a young age. After going through surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and physical therapy I was prognosed to be cancer free. Yet, I still deal with the effects of battling cancer at such a young age. I have some physical limitations, and I still deal with the reality of being robbed of part of my life by a serious illness. Throughout the years, I have revisited the reality of suffering. Below, are some of my reflections. Though I have spent time thinking about this topic, I still struggle with embracing suffering each day. I hope my thoughts can deepen some of your own reflection on the problem of pain.

Suffering, toil, and death, are the price of the fall of man in Genesis. God tells Adam, “Cursed is the ground because of you! In toil you shall eat its yield all the days of your life. Thorns and thistles it shall bear for you, and you shall eat the grass of the field. By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread, until you return to the ground, from which you were taken; For you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:17-19). Adversity comes in all shapes and sizes. People experience it at all stages in their life. It can be physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual. Often, we feel alone in our suffering because we think that we are the only one experiencing such hurt, that no one understands what we are experiencing, and we do not see a purpose in our suffering.

Thankfully, Christ is a mend for all of those concerns. He comes to carry our crosses with us; He took all of our suffering upon Himself on the cross; and, He gives meaning to our suffering by giving it an eternal purpose it through His passion, death, and resurrection. Jesus’s life is a model for us to “deny [ourselves] and take up [our] cross daily and follow [Him]” (Luke 9:23). Throughout the Gospels, he sacrifices his public image and personal comfort, embracing the more humble and selfless path. Ultimately, it is his submission to this way of life that leads him to fulfill the Father’s will. Through his suffering and death on the cross, He redeemed all aspects of mankind, including our own suffering. Our adversity can participate in His salvific mission and His sacrifice. St. John Paul II advises us that, “Jesus Christ has taken the lead on the way of the cross. He has suffered first. He does not drive us toward suffering but shares it with us, wanting us to have life and to have it in abundance.” We can give our daily sufferings to Him, that they may participate in His cross. Better yet, we can offer them to Our Lady who can perfect our gift, and present them to Jesus more perfectly that we can.

Blessed are they who suffer well. I have been reflecting on this phrase recently. It seems to fit well with the other labels in the Beatitudes: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the clean of heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness (Matthew 5:3-12). Suffering is to live out the Beatitudes in this world because they are a humble, uncomfortable lifestyle. In our society, suffering has become very taboo. Ironically, we lament the suffering of those less fortunate than us; yet, we flee from it, whenever it comes our way. Nonetheless, there are those who bravely accept the suffering in their life, knowing that it is actually good for them. St Teresa of Ávila tells us, “we always find that those who walked closest to Christ were those who had to bear the greatest trials.” In the same paradoxical way that true love is the giving of oneself for the good of another, welcoming suffering is the way by which we become detached from our pride and selfishness, and are formed more perfectly into who we were made to be. St. Mother Teresa echos the words of St. Teresa of Ávila when she said, “I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot, to share it with the passion of Christ. I think the world is being much helped by the suffering of the poor people.” I often find that when I encounter a homeless person, they seem to be some of the most grateful people that I have met. I believe that their suffering helps them to see the world more clearly because they have fewer comforts and distractions to blur their understanding of who they are.

I have witnessed a similar effect in my own life. As I mentioned, I still deal with some physical limitations from the brain cancer that I survived as a child. For example, some daily tasks are a bit more difficult for me to accomplish than for other people to complete. Often, I deal with bitterness towards and jealousy of others who do not have to deal with the same struggles. But, when I try to be thankful for the many abilities that I do have, instead of focusing on the few crosses that I bear, I am able to find meaning in the midst of my suffering. Similarly, Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor, wisely noted, “when we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” Many things do not cause us to suffer of their own power. Rather, we perceive them as such. I am not trying to say that certain things do not cause harm to us. There is a difference between causing actual detriment and causing temporary discomfort. For example, a weapon surely causes harm; but, a short sickness, or a stressful time at work, cause discomfort. When we encounter challenging circumstances in life, we should not run from them just because they are difficult. We should accept them, knowing that Christ redeemed our suffering to lead us and others to heaven. We should not choose to see these challenges as suffering; instead, we should strive for joy in the midst of our trials. It does not come easily; but, with dedication to taking up your crosses daily, you can begin to better see how Christ is using those sufferings as a part of His eternal plan to bring you to heaven.

I would encourage you to take some time to meditate on what crosses you have in your life, how you deal with them now, and how you can unite yourself more with Christ. Then, he may help you bear them; and, he may show you how they are there to help you become more like you were made to be.

Silence.

Listen.  That is the first word St. Benedict instructs his monks and nuns in the Rule he wrote fifteen hundred years ago.  For all of humanity's advances, especially in the last hundred years, human nature has not changed.  Men's hearts are still capable of being troubled by the unsettling burdens of life, or of being silent so as to hear the voice of God.  Thus, St. Benedict’s instruction is just as pertinent to our culture at the start of the Third Christian Millennium as it was when he was alive in the sixth century A.D.

So, we must listen.  But to what . . . and how?  “To the master’s instruction . . . with the ear of [our] heart[s].”  There is a lot to unpack in those few words.  To submit to a master’s instruction, one must admit that he has something to learn. That is, one must have a teachable spirit.  Humility is needed in order to submit one’s will and intellect to eternal truths buried under a cacophony of “Noise–Noise, the grand dynamism, the audible expression of all that is exultant, ruthless, and virile” [C.S. Lewis, “Letter XXII” in The Screwtape Letters]. 

Listen - with the ear of the heart.  St. Benedict combines two disparate organs - one dependent on the other.  We use our ears to listen, but the ear cannot function if the heart's not beating; no heartbeat, no hearing.  So, we then must recognize that we are alive, and by being alive, we are capable of listening to noise, or for the voice of God.

One cannot listen if he is talking, and that is the problem for anyone who is trying to take the faith seriously and live according to it’s life-giving precepts.  It is so easy to “babble as the pagans who think they will be heard by their many words” (Matthew 6:7).  I speak from experience as one who always has something to say - to God, to my brother monks, or to anyone within earshot.  This is why a monastic vocation is such a gift, for monasteries are places that work hard to preserve silence. 

Silence is like a garden that produces the fruits of the Holy Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control: (Galatians 5:22-23).  Noise is like weeds in the garden that chokes the life of the Spirit within the soul.  Silence is not a void to be filled. Rather, silence reveals a Presence that is always with us - a Presence that is Eucharistic and only revealed with the eyes of faith, a Presence in whom “we live, and move, and have our being.” (Acts 17:28)

In these dog-days of summer when the Church commemorate the Feast of St. Benedict, may we listen to his instruction and learn to be silent so that the “still soft voice” of Jesus might draw us more closely to Himself.

The 8th Deadly Sin

Before there were the 7 Deadly Sins, Evagrius of Pontus offered the 8 Thoughts. One of those 8 Thoughts that didn’t stick around through the evolution to Deadly Sins was acedia. This Thought is at least as prevalent and problematic as the others in our time and in my life.

Currently I’m transitioning from one job to another. Still with the old job, looking forward to the new. I’ve been on the hunt for a while and for many different reasons. But as I look forward to the new job, it’s been helpful to realign my expectations when I’ve caught myself thinking, “It will all be better when I start something new!”

While in any situation for long enough, it’s easy to wonder if life would be better elsewhere, if a change of circumstances, surroundings, or people might resolve the problems of boredom, dissatisfaction, stress, or any other affliction. This “grass is greener” syndrome is a primary expression of Evagrius’ acedia.

 

Evagrius was a Desert Father writing for monks over 1,600 years ago. His acedia was also called “the Noon Day Demon,” because it tended to come in the middle of the day, when time moved slowly, and the day appeared “fifty hours long.” The demon settles in the mind, and causes suspicion to grow about the monk’s surroundings and takes his mind to other worlds such as a past life, or imagined future. The monk began to wonder if anyone would even ever visit him (sad face). Not only did it cause the monk to lose enthusiasm about his duties, perhaps more alarmingly acedia also caused him to miss the music of the moment, the daily fruit of his vocation.

Preparing for a new job, I’ve paid special attention to what I’m looking forward to. How much of what I am looking forward to is the actual good that I am following? How much of it is just acedia? Why does it matter? Acedia creates an illusion that acting on acedia's promptings will solve our problems. Yet in the end, it brings us to the same problems we left. Many of my problems start with me. And no matter where I go, I will be going, too. There will also remain problems of other people and the occasional trudger, especially in work. No change in circumstance resolves these totally!

Answering questions of motivation now helps me not to temper, but to realign my expectations. My expectation for happiness and satisfaction should be grounded on something real, something good, not illusions of solving my problems by changing this or that circumstance. Continuing to ask the question of motivation after the change will help keep acedia at bay, as I hopefully remain aware of the sustaining and real reasons for the change and the real source of my satisfaction in work.


My prayer is to look forward to the new job with gratitude for the gift that it truly is, and the Presence I will find there for my satisfaction, the same Presence that the demon of acedia has helped me overlook in my old job:

Help me to remember that the grass is greener where You are present!

Summertime Invitations

Summer: It’s a little word, like many, that conveys a great deal.  I have had an affinity for this season for as long as I can remember (which more than likely stems from celebrating a July birthday). Summer has signified a break from school, a trip to the lake, sunflowers in my wedding bouquet, camp songs, garden produce, thunderstorms, cook-outs, sleeping in tents, long days and warm nights.  This season is a sensory experience. What’s not to love?!

It has taken on a new look while the academic calendar does not define our days, and I am being offered a new invitation in this season of my life. Sometimes I crave those stretching, long days that lingered on and on. Sometimes I feel the nostalgic pull of the school year. But recently, I find myself rising with the sun and quietly making my way onto my back stoop, hot coffee in one hand, cool of the morning on my skin.

From my stoop, I am struck by the smell of dill in our garden, the cold dew on the grass, the chipper songs of birds in my ears, the pale light of the morning, the color of the flowers in bloom. And I feel myself breathing deeply in gratitude. This is summer.

Before I sat down to compose this post, I was on a walk on a favorite path. There is a point on this trail that rises over a bridge and then dips low. In the evening, cold air and the scent of fragrant branches collect there and stop me in my tracks. Every time.

The invitation that I am receiving with new ears is not only a response to the fragrance, or the coolness that gives me pause, but an out and out collision with the glory of the Creator--a glimpse of artistry as manifested in the beauty of the flourishing life around me.

Saints and Theologians dating back to the third century have referenced the ‘two books of revelation,’ suggesting that human reason is so perfectly created by God that we are able to learn about God through experiencing creation itself. This was particularly important to communicating revelation and wisdom to communities that historically were highly illiterate, and remains so for a variety of reasons. Certainly the ‘book of nature’ has been read in light of revelation through Scripture, but the two are seen as complementary.

How poetic that our souls are attuned to beauty in such a way, that we can catch a glimpse of God’s glory in a garden patch, the power of a summer storm, in the feel of the sun on our back and water rushing over toes. I love the way Elizabeth Barrett Browning notices the prevalence of God’s invitation and self-revelation:

Earth’s crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God; But only he who sees, takes off his shoes - The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.”
— Elizabeth Barrett Browning

This is not to say that ducking out of church for the summer and heading to the mountains will provide everything necessary for spiritual growth. Nor is it to say that this invitation beckons only in these long days. It is to say that our senses are alive with the palpable beauty of creation and it seems to me that any time God means to communicate by way of reaching out to all of my senses, then the invitation therein is likely one to which I should be attentive.