The next phrase is “he suffered.”
We are familiar with the agony in the Garden of Gethsemane that Jesus endured on the night before his passion, but there are other times in the gospel stories where it’s clear that our Lord is suffering. After his 40 days in the desert, he is hungry. And hunger is a kind of suffering. He is also hungry when he comes to the fig tree that does not bear fruit. And when he meets the woman at the well, the woman with the irregular marriage situation, he is tired and thirsty. That’s why he stops at the well and asks for water.
These are important things for us to remember as part of our faith because they confirm our teaching that Jesus was fully human. Except for sin, he was human in all things like us. And it helps us make sense of suffering a little bit when we know that our Lord suffered with some regularity before the end of his life. Being hungry, being tired, or being thirsty are all things that all of us have experienced in our lives and expect to experience in our lives. And Jesus experienced them as we do.
In his ministry, Jesus came across many people who were suffering. And many of those people were healed or cured by him, and they’re suffering ended. But Monsignor Knox does not want the girls at the school to slip into the false idea that the miracles that Jesus worked during his earthly ministry were part of a program to eliminate suffering. The idea that with enough technology we can eliminate human suffering is very popular in our culture, but it is not consistent with the Gospel.
As we are getting closer and closer to Holy Week, we are entering that part of the church year when suffering will take center stage. And Monsignor Knox takes a little time to try to explain suffering. He describes it as an imperfection brought on by the Fall. That is to say that all of the natural systems worked harmoniously until Adam and Eve chose the serpent over God.
Natural things that we think of as bringing suffering, such as earthquakes and avalanches, were there as part of the creation but their earthquake-ing and avalanche-ing did not result in human suffering. After the fall, they did. And we see this in the dialogue between God and Adam and Eve after they have eaten from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Before the Fall, Adam worked in the garden. So work is part of God’s plan for Humanity. But after the Fall, God says, “your work will become toil.” So suffering enters into something that had been prior to the Original Sin noble and pure. God makes it clear that the suffering a mother endures in childbirth is due to the Fall, which suggests that pain was not supposed to be a part of God’s plan for childbirth. The suffering is the imperfection of something good like work that turns it into something we don’t like like toil.
So suffering is a blot on creation. Remember from some of the Gospel stories how the demons that possessed the people would recognize Jesus as holy, and they would try to get away from him. Monsignor Knox suggests that in the same way suffering by its own nature is an evil and so when it is brought into contact with a very holy person it tends to disappear just as when you bring a candle into a darkroom the dark goes away. This means that when we encounter suffering in our lives, how we respond to it we’ll have a lot to do with whether or not it helps us grow in holiness.
Those of us who do not have children with severe disabilities, either physical, or mental, or emotional, tend to think that the lives of those children are endless misery or endless suffering. But when we listen to people who have to live with people with severe disabilities, for example children with Down Syndrome, it is pretty consistent that those people with those kinds of disabilities seem to have lives filled with joy. Yes, they cannot do everything that we can do as quickly as smoothly as we do it, so in that way they suffer, but in another way they are freed from so many things it might cause them to suffer. And in a mysterious way the Holy Spirit seems to have given them the gift of this knowledge. Their lives may not be easy, but their lives can be holy. Our holiness will lead to joy.
Monsignor Knox goes on to suggest that suffering is an evil, so we do have a right to avoid it. There’s no masochism that’s a part of authentic Christianity. We don’t go out and seek suffering in order to demonstrate our toughness or something like that. And it shouldn’t be inflicted on somebody else by us except in the pursuit of a greater good. Monsignor Knox uses the example of getting a tooth fixed. Parents can think of corporal discipline. Nobody enjoys spanking, including the spanker, but sometimes that little bit of suffering can help a strong-willed child learn temperance and prudence and the rest of the virtues. So part of our Christian walk is to try to alleviate suffering in others. That’s what the Corporal Works of Mercy are all about.
But suffering as a consequence of the Fall means that we should all expect to encounter suffering as a part of life here. There’s no magical Christian way to dance our way through the raindrops of suffering and make it to the other end completely dry. We are going to get wet. We are going to suffer.
And Monsignor Knox puts it this way:
“Suffering which we can’t avoid because it is God’s will for us can be turned from an evil thing into a good thing, if we treat it in the right way.”p. 75
He gives the imagery that a light switched off seems pointless. You have a light in order to dispel the darkness. That’s what lights are for. In the same way, suffering can seem pointless until we turn on the switch of how we accept it or welcome it. Then it becomes a glowing focus of charity. Our ability to manifest love – for God and for neighbor – is deeply connected with our ability to welcome suffering.
And our Lord Jesus Christ wished that we would all be his disciples and his friends, so he gave us a model of how to live as a son or daughter of God. And if we honestly go look through the Gospels, especially as Holy Week approaches, Jesus accepted and even welcomed suffering. So it’s really inconsistent with the fullness of the Gospel to insist that Jesus came to eliminate all suffering from our lives. Certainly his example suggests that he did not come to eliminate suffering but rather to use it to glorify God.
Monsignor Knox reminds us that we were made to do God’s will. And we certainly see that many times over in the gospels where Jesus teaches his disciples how to pray and it starts with “Thy will be done on Earth as it is in heaven.” And in the long speech that Jesus gives to the disciples in the upper room on Holy Thursday, there is so much about how he and the father are one and he comes to do his father’s will. So that’s what we were made for. If we accept suffering as his will for us, and we do it for him, then we can be sure that the graces from the Holy Spirit will flow upon us.
Therefore, while this kind of conclusion makes no sense to the world, we really should try to welcome more suffering — the kind of things we call mortifications — as long as they are a means to an end of holiness. Remember that enduring suffering is not some kind of a competition, so the mortifications should never be an end in themselves but only the means to an end of holiness.