Finding Purpose in Suffering

In the three videos embedded below, Servant of God Fulton Sheen, one of the great preachers (and, yes, saints) of the last century explains the mystery of suffering with his usual mix of humor, drama, and philosophy.

Catholics always have understood suffering in the context of the cross. Although pain may come, it ends in triumph. St. Augustine located its purpose in his famous observation that “God judged it better to bring good out of evil, than to suffer no evil to exist.” No evil was greater than the murder of the incarnate Word, no pain was worse, yet that evil ends not in death but resurrection.

Fulton Sheen begins this episode of his show by locating the source of modern discontent in materialism: “We’ve made our philosophy a philosophy of having, rather than a philosophy of being.”  He then goes on to ponder why we have a greater capacity for pain than for pleasure.

It’s an odd reality of human existence: we can exhaust our pleasures, but there seems to be no bottom to our pain. Bishop Sheen locates the answer for this in God, who draws us to a time when all pain will pass away, and only infinite joy remain. One day we shall indeed exhaust all our pains, and by their light we may better understand and appreciate the pleasures He has to offer.

Fulton Sheen’s explanation of pain finding its purpose in expiation and reparation–payment for both the sins of the self and the suffering and sins others–is a uniquely Catholic idea that has fallen out of fashion in modern times. It used to be common to urge someone to “offer up” suffering, seeing pain as a kind of currency that can be used for the benefit of others.

It’s a mysterious and improbable-sounding idea, but it has deep roots in Catholic theology. The sacrifice of Christ was a single sacrifice, but one which resonates through eternity. We access this eternal sacrifice every time we partake of the Eucharist, but we can also access it through an act of the will by uniting, through personal intentions, our present suffering with the suffering of Christ. In doing so, we draw closer to him, and follow his command to take up our own cross and follow him. When we attempt to redirect our own suffering toward the benefit of others, we become Christ-like ourselves.

Pain tends to fold the psyche back in upon itself. It pushes you down, drives you inward. It’s hard to avoid becoming self-centered when you’re suffering. It’s difficult to turn outward to others when pain is tearing through your body, or despair is consuming your mind. I remember literally (and, yes, I actually mean literally) perceiving pain as a red cloud over my brain and even my vision, enveloping the world in an impenetrable fog. Pain messes with your head. I’m certain there is a pain worse than what I experienced at the depths of my psoriatic arthritis, but my mind cannot conceive of it.

I don’t see that pain as pointless now. For me it was as, as CS Lewis said, “God’s megaphone.” I was functionally lapsed as a Catholic for almost 15 years when my illness first struck. God had been trying to get through to me gently, but I required some stronger medicine. I needed to reduced in order to call out to him. That doesn’t say much for me, who had been blessed with many gifts and still not recognized God as the source of those gifts. When a child fails to say “thank you” to the source of a present, I reprimand that child. When I failed to understand the call I’d received, and the blessings with which I’d been showered, God allowed me to be reduced to a state where I was humble enough to hear that call and recognize those blessings. It worked.

Bishop Sheen was quite right to observe that “sometimes the only way God can get into some hearts is to break them.” Or, as Oscar Wilde said in the Ballad of Reading Gaol: “How else but through a broken heart may the Lord Christ enter in?” The St. Augustine quote in the sidebar puts it well: “The doctor doesn’t stop cutting just because the patient is screaming for him to stop.” Pain is medicinal.

The people who are said to “suffer with grace” are indeed suffering with grace: by the grace of God. They have moved to a higher level, perhaps because of some spiritual breakthrough, perhaps because of really good drugs, often by a combination of the two. I have seen that almost beatific expression on the face of people who I know are in absolute misery (even without the really good drugs), and experienced their total concern for everyone around them.

Those are the people who have taken the first step to becoming Christs. (Jesus did not come to make us Christians: he came to make us Christs.) To do so, they had to be lifted upon the cross, and each of us gets a different cross, whether it’s called cancer, or poverty, or madness, or depression. There comes a point in suffering when you either resist it or you embrace it. Jesus gave us a choice: we can either be of the world, or we can be of the kingdom.

In our world we have pain, but we are not of this world. We are exiles yearning for home. “In the world you have tribulation;” we were warned, “but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” And so He shall overcome our suffering, and wipe away every tear, and there shall be no more death, nor mourning, nor crying, nor pain, for the former things will have passed away.

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About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.

  • robin

    One of the strongest draws for me (as a recovering Southern Baptist) to Catholicism is the unique view of suffering as indispensable to life. The viewpoint seems to be almost that of hoarding: to collect all the pain in one’s immediate area and refuse to spread it around.
    I got a glimpse of this attitude in Raymond Arroyo’s biography of Mother Angelica, particularly the miracles that began with her healing as a teenager due to the intervention of Rhoda Wise. The photo of Mrs. Wise in her vicarious suffering so unnerved me that it took a couple of years for me to screw up the courage to buy her biography. I finally posted about it here:
    The Southern Baptist in me still doesn’t know what to make of the phenomenon of victim souls. You touch on it in this post, but I’m interested in your take on the literal embodiment of it that Mrs. Wise became.

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    Rhoda Wise is a tough case. I, too, withdraw at some of the more excessive aspects of the story, but at the same time (as you observe in your excellent post) she always directed the gaze back to Christ. I don’t really have too much trouble with the whole idea of victim souls, because there are so many of them to be found in the rosters of the saints.

  • robin

    Thanks for the kind words. Yes, I keep coming back to St. Therese of Lisieux. Although her story is hard for me to read, I do believe there is supernatural grace in it.

    Another drawing point for Catholicism is its frank dealing with the supernatural. To most Baptists, talk of the supernatural is highly discouraged, unless you’re touting miraculous numbers in attendance or giving. But I think people are hungry for evidence of the unknown, and if their church won’t provide it, they’ll look elsewhere.

    Anyway, a lot to think about here.

  • Joanne K McPortland

    The root of the word “suffer” is the Latin for “to bear, to carry, to undergo,” and in English it also has the meaning “to allow.” That etymology is a good reminder that redemptive suffering is not something that happens to me, as a passive object, but something I am actively engaged in, even when my physical and mental resources appear exhausted, something I choose to take up and carry to the place where it and I belong. It is an act of will, emboldened by grace. That’s why our faith, while finding redemptive value in suffering, can never be about causing needless suffering to others.

    I, too, often have a difficult time with the more florid accounts of victim souls who seem to take pleasure in pain, but I think that’s more a question of the language of the times from which these accounts come. There are many ways to spin the straw of suffering into spiritual gold, and all can serve as an example to someone.