An important dimension of Catholic Christian spirituality is the embracing of suffering for the spiritual benefit of others. This isn’t a sort of holy masochism, but rather a desire to follow closely in the footsteps of Jesus, who embraced the cross for the salvation of the world.
We believe that when we “offer up” suffering — whether intentionally or unexpectedly encountered — and unite it with the cross of Jesus, God will look favorably upon this sacrifice and bestow grace upon those for whom we are praying.
This is the mystery St. Paul expresses in an enigmatic statement in his Letter to the Colossians: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church…” (Col 1: 24).
A beautiful example of the joy and spiritual benefit that comes from such a radical notion of redemptive suffering is found in the life of the famous St. Francis of Assisi.
One day, St. Francis was on a journey in the dead of winter with his fellow friar, Brother Leo, and they were both shivering from the cold. St. Francis began a long discourse, listing for Brother Leo so many amazing things that their new religious order might accomplish — being a shining example of holiness, working great miracles, preach convincingly, knowing all the mysteries of nature and of scripture, causing great conversions, etc. Throughout this discourse, which lasted the length of 2 miles walking, Francis occasionally interjected that, “These things would not be perfect joy.”
Finally, Brother Leo’s curiosity got the better of him and he asked, “Father, I pray thee teach me wherein is perfect joy.” St Francis answered him that if they arrived at their home and the gatekeeper mistook them for robbers and let them suffer out in the snow and cold and if they accepted this with great humility and charity, that this would be perfect joy.
But the saint wasn’t content with his musings and he went on to say that if the gatekeeper yelled at them harshly, refused to let them in, and even beat them with a knotted stick, continuing to let them suffer in the cold and if they patiently offered this suffering to Jesus out of love for him, that this would be perfect joy.
St. Francis summed up the moral of the story himself: “Above all the graces and all the gifts of the Holy Spirit which Christ grants to his friends, is the grace of overcoming oneself and accepting willingly, out of love for Christ, all suffering, injury, discomfort and contempt; for in all other gifts of God we cannot glory, seeing they proceed not from ourselves but from God, according to the words of the Apostle [Paul], ‘What do you have that you have not received from God? And if you have received it, why do you glory as if you had not received it?’ [1 Cor 4:7]. But in the cross of tribulation and affliction we may glory, because, as the Apostle says again, ‘I will not glory save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ’ [Gal 6:14].”
So, as the wise old saying goes, “Offer it up!” And such an act of charity will bring meaning to your suffering, grace to your neighbor and joy to your heart.
Fr. Robert Rodgers is an associate pastor at Holy Name Catholic Church.