In 2014, I’m reading and blogging through Pope Francis/Cardinal Bergoglio’s Open Mind, Faithful Heart: Reflections on Following Jesus. Every Monday, I’ll be writing about the next meditation in the book, so you’re welcome to peruse them all and/or read along.
In this week’s chapter, I was particularly struck by some excerpts from St. Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises that Pope Francis decided to include:
When Saint Ignatius treats of the mysteries of the passion in his Spiritual Exercises, he tells us to ask for “sorrow, regret, and confusion, because the Lord is going to his passion for [our] sins” (SpEx 193). He also recommends that we request “sorrow with Christ in sorrow, a broken spirit with Christ so broken, tears and interior suffering because of the great suffering that Christ endured for [us]” (SpEx 203). Our meditation will lead us to “consider what Christ our Lord suffers in his human nature, or desires to suffer,” and we “should begin here with much effort to bring [ourselves] to grief, sorrow, and tears” (SpEx 195).
In a casual reading, these lines get very close to the worry that Catholicism can wind up wallowing in suffering and the grotesque. If Christ died to set us free and unite us to him, why would our response to that act be to request sorrow? At what point does this kind of spiritual mortification turn in on itself and become a private festival of excess, unlinked from a connection with Christ or anyone else?
These kinds of questions came up during my Adult Sunday School class this weekend, when, during a lesson on eschatology, my classmates had plenty of questions about Purgatory, and the role of suffering in sanctification.
Here’s part of how I approach these questions — suffering is often a knock-on effect of a good, rather than pursued as an end in itself. But, because we know it is frequently the side effect of a particular kind of good (understanding and repentance), we develop the (reasonable) disposition of being grateful/longing for it in those circumstances.
Let me get a little more concrete. When I misunderstand a friend, and go around in circles for a while, there’s often a sense of hilarity when we finally unwind all the mishegoss that led us to this point. When I misunderstand them more severely, and take action that harms one or both of us as a result, there’s a sense of sorrow when I finally catch on, even if there was no malice or negligence involved. And the pangs of grief are much more acute if I pushed myself into misunderstanding, listening uncharitably or refusing to humble myself to ask for clarification.
In each of these circumstances, my unhappiness doesn’t exist in order to punish me, or even to do some kind of strange hedonic account settling. It’s the natural consequence of both caring for my friend and frustrating their good and mine. If the sorrow after a stumble were absent, it would be a very bad sign for our friendship, since it would imply I was indifferent to the connection between us.
Desiring to enter into Christ’s sorrow is desiring to be aware of the wrongs we’ve done, and to feel the natural sorrow that comes with hurting a friend. It’s not a desire to luxuriate in guilt or self-pity, but an understanding that we usually flinch away from pain, even to the point of self-deception, so, in order to take an honest look at our actions and to seek full reconciliation, we have to spend some time steering for the “ugh fields” in order to be able to lay ourselves fully before God as a parrhesiastes.