Prayer and Suffering
Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
Christianity is unique among the religions of the world in giving a rational and adequate explanation of suffering. In fact, it goes beyond giving a strong motive for suffering, this motive being the fact that God became man in the person of Jesus Christ. Those who love Christ are to love the whole Christ, the child of Bethlehem and the naked, condemned criminal on Calvary, the Christ in the manger and on the cross. Those who love God, therefore, on Christian terms, do not or should not run away from suffering. If anything, they expect it, and for nineteen centuries they have not been disappointed. In every age and in every stage of their passage through time, the experience of Christians has been a share in the experience of Christ which includes joy and peace, of course, but also and emphatically includes suffering.
Our focus in the present reflections, however, is more particular. We wish to look at two cardinal mysteries - the mystery of prayer and the mystery of suffering.
What Is Christian Suffering?
We begin by looking at what may seem plain enough on the surface, but is not as plain as many people think, namely, just what is suffering? If there is one thing that everybody experiences but few people define, it is suffering. As commonly understood suffering means the experience of pain. It may be due to a variety of causes. Every organ of the human body, every limb and joint, in fact, every cell is capable of greater or less, and at times, excruciating pain.
So great is the horror of bodily pain that annually billions of dollars in our country are spent by those who can afford it to avoid pain or lessen it. And every drugstore is a symbol of man's dread of pain and his desire to be relieved of bodily suffering. But there is pain not only in the body. It is not just our body that suffers, it is we.
There is pain in the human soul. To be rejected by those we love is pain. To be misunderstood and worse still to be misrepresented is pain. To be passed over when others are chosen or ignored when others are recognized and praised, or forgotten when others are remembered, is pain. To have strong desires, noble desires like union with God and a sense of His nearness, and not have these desires fulfilled, as the mystics tell us, is great pain. To make mistakes and as a consequence be embarrassed, or to do wrong, then have to live with the memory of our sins, is pain. So the litany of pain goes on and its experience is suffering.
The Sanctification of Suffering
But Christian suffering is not the mere experience of pain, nor even just the tolerance of pain. In the Christian philosophy of life suffering is to be sanctified and the sanctification of suffering is called sacrifice. It took me twenty years to reach that definition. I share it with you.
Every human being suffers, some more and others less, but all have to undergo pain. But sadly and most tragically, not everyone sanctifies their suffering to make it a sacrifice. And it is here that Christianity has so much to teach the world, in fact, so much to teach Christians. So we ask: How do we sanctify our sufferings such as they are and change them by divine alchemy into sacrifice? We do so through the mysterious power of prayer.
What do I do when I suffer prayerfully?
Now that is a new term, I suppose. When I suffer prayerfully I do many things but especially these:
First, I see that behind what I endure is not the person or the event or the mishap or even the mistake (as obvious as these may be). I acknowledge that the real active agent responsible for my suffering is the mysterious hand of God. When David on one dramatic occasion while on the road, was being insulted by a certain Shimei who cursed the king, called him a scoundrel and an usurper and began to throw stones at him, David's armed guard exclaimed. "Is this dead dog to curse my Lord, the King? Let me go over and cut off his head!" But David would not let him. "Let him curse," he replied. "If Yahweh said to him 'Curse David.' what right has anyone to say 'why have you done this?' Perhaps Yahweh will look on my misery and repay me with good for his curse today." David was inspired by Yahweh.
First, then, when I suffer prayerfully, I recognize that God is behind the suffering and I humble my head in faith. Second, when I suffer prayerfully, I trust that God has reasons for permitting what I endure and that in His own time and way, the experience now suffered will eventually somehow be a source of grace. What David did in the Old testament, Christ, the Son of David, not yet born, enabled him to do by anticipation because of the mystery and merit of the Cross. If ever we are tempted to doubt the value of suffering patiently, according to the will of God, we have only to look at the Crucifix. Talk about value in suffering! But the value derives not from physical or spiritual pain. It comes from the Infinite God who showed us - this is God teaching us - by His own passion and death how profitable prayerful suffering can be. The most important single lesson mankind has to learn is the meaning of suffering and its value. It took God to teach us. And He has to resort to the extreme expedient of becoming man and suffering Himself to prove to us that suffering is not meaningless: that it is the most meaningful and valuable experience in human life.
For reasons best known to the Almighty, once sin had entered the world, grace was to be obtained through the Cross, which really means, through the voluntary acceptance of God's will crossing mine. This voluntary acceptance on our part is what the Father required of His Son as the condition for opening the treasury of mercies. It is still the condition today for conferring these blessings on sinful mankind.
Suffering Elevates Prayer
No one who understands even the rudiments of Christianity should doubt that prayer is necessary for every believer if he wants to be saved. It is further well known that progress in virtue, and growth in holiness depends absolutely on fervent and frequent prayer. What is perhaps not so well known is that prayer has interior depths that are not exactly the same as having ecstasies or even going through what some of the great friends of God, as Francis of Assisi or Catherine of Sienna, received from the Lord. Those are depths, though I suppose more accurately, are heights of prayer.
We are talking about depths. These interior depths of prayer are not phenomena that some people mistakenly take to be God's special presence and evidence of the miraculous diffusion of His gifts. The depths of which I am speaking are those of the souls in love with Christ the Savior in prayer, when this prayer is joined with suffering willingly undergone or even willingly undertaken as evidence of a generous heart.
St Ignatius, My Father and Guide
There is a passage in the writings of St. Ignatius that I almost hesitate quoting for fear of having him misunderstood. The saints sometimes said strange things. But it is worth the risk in order to make clearer what I think is so much needed today to protect people from what I consider the heresy of instant mysticism. When all sorts of fads and gimmicks are being sold to the faithful as means of becoming "their oneness with the Absolute." I quote St. Ignatius:
"If God gives you an abundant harvest of trials, it is a sign of great holiness which He desires you to attain. Do you want to become a great saint? Ask God to send you many sufferings. The flame of Divine Love never rises higher than when fed with the wood of the Cross, which the infinite charity of the Savior used to finish His sacrifice. All the pleasures of the world are nothing compared with the sweetness found in the gall and vinegar offered to Jesus Christ. That is, hard and painful things endured for Jesus Christ and with Jesus Christ."
We may object that these are the sentiments of a great mystic who, as all mystics, spoke in symbolic terms and are not to be taken literally. Not so. They are the prosaic words of all those who believe that the most pleasing prayer to God is one that proceeds not only from the lips or even from the heart indeed, but one that is suffering in union with the heart of the innocent Lamb of God. Not all the faithful are called to the heights of this kind of prayer, although no Christian is exempt from his share in the life of the Master whose prayer to His Father was so elevated by the Cross.
Other things being equal, the more my prayer life is crucified, the more meritorious it becomes. The more what I say to God is combined with what I offer to God, the more pleased He will be. The more my petitions to the Lord are united with sacrifice willingly made, the more certainly what I ask for will be received.
There is such a thing as cheap prayer. I call that comfortable prayer. There is such a thing as dear prayer. I call that sacrificial prayer. I don't know where the idea came from that the essence of prayer is just praying and presto, we have satisfied our prayerful duties and can go on to other things. Not at all. Prayer is an ongoing enterprise and its continuance is especially a prolongation of what I say to God (which may not be much) with what I endure and suffer for God (which can be very much).
Peaceful Endurance through Prayer
We still have one more reflection on our general theme of prayer and suffering that should not be omitted: how to maintain one's peace of soul while undergoing whatever trial God may send us. This is no trivial question because for failure to answer it - either at all or at least satisfactorily - I am afraid that many otherwise good people do not grow to the spiritual stature that Providence intends for them, and certainly do not accomplish in their service for others all that they could.
What are we saying? We are asking ourselves a very special question. How can I live up to the sublime teaching of my faith and suffer as God wants me to without becoming anxious, worried and irritable in the process? Christ could not be plainer in telling me not to worry, but to be at peace. The problem is: how do you combine the two? How can I practice the one that is, carry the Cross: and maintain the other, that is, be at peace? I am afraid that sometimes God often tells us: "Well, if that's the way you feel about it, all right. All right, no more Cross, at least of that kind, for you. I can see you can't take it." The answer on how to combine the two is the prayer of sacrifice.
We begin by admitting, without deletion, that suffering means suffering and there is no disguising the fact. But there are two sides to every painful experience. There is objective pain and there is subjective reaction. The same objective source of pain, say a cut or wound in the body, an insult or humiliation in the soul, can produce only a mild reaction in one person and invoke a delirium of agony in another. Or even the same person, on one occasion is not much disturbed over the painful experience he has, and at other times, feels it excruciatingly or worries himself sick over some future suffering or convulsive fear. Our interest here is not to know how psychologically to cope with the trials of life so as not to suffer more than we should; it is rather to see how we can preserve ourselves in peace whenever God's hand touches us, or He asks us, as He does to carry our cross.
The method, we said, is through the prayer of sacrifice. What does this mean? It means that whenever any trial enters our life, no matter how small, we prayerfully place ourselves in God's presence and voluntarily accept the trial. Memorize that. We prayerfully place ourselves in God's presence and voluntarily accept the trial. I said, we should do this no matter how small the trial may be, and one index of how big we are or how grown-up spiritually, is the little things that can rock us. After all, most of our difficulties are not individually major problems and there is great wisdom in spelling them out and dealing with each one as it comes; one trial at a time. These trials can be humiliating small things taken separately but together they can become oppressively big.
A priest confrere of mine tells the story of a pilgrimage he once attended and how, during the pilgrimage, he shared his room with another man. The priest said, "Hardly had my partner gone to bed than he began to snore loudly, loud enough to waken the dead. At first I started to be impatient, then I applied the remedy: I willed to listen to the snoring and hear it clearly, tranquilly observed it and, a little later fell asleep. Waking up once during the night (the noise was terrific!), I used the same method again and returned to sleep."
There are in the lives of all of us countless sources of annoyance, all kinds of noise and distasteful persons, place and things. We can be opposed or oppressed but we should never be depressed by no-matter-what tribulation enters our lives. The way to retain our peaceful serenity is to promptly ask God for the grace to endure what cannot be changed or in His own time, to change what for the time being is to be endured. What God wants of us is a pure sacrifice unalloyed by our reluctance to suffer at His hands or made worse than His Providence intends. He will never give us more than we can bear. What He does not want is to have us spoil the opportunity for sacrifice by making an issue of what is, after all, the normal way He deals with those whom He calls His friends. This is God's way of embracing those that He loves. What God wants is that "we", by resigning ourselves to His gracious will, may do His will, which can sometimes be hard but always is to be done in peace. This is what Christ must have meant when He told us: "My yoke is easy and My burden is light."
Surely, serving God does mean carrying the yoke and the burden that He sends us. He wants us prayerfully to realize that they are His yoke and His burden that He places upon us, and let us be sure that is plenty and for that we have the grace. If we can keep this vision before us through life, we shall not, of course, be spared the Cross - that would be unthinkable - but we shall be at peace. Peace is the absence of conflict between wills, here between the will of God and ours. It is open to everyone who is willing to pray and live by His prayer: "Lord, not my will but Thine be done."