I remember when I stepped into a hospice care center for the first time. I was 17 years old and my grandma was nearing the end of her life. I remember seeing her lying in her bed as she was suffering. At that moment I was battling frustration and confusion. I remember thinking: isn’t there anything someone can do to keep her alive? I was struggling to accept the fact that she was too weak to receive any more treatment for her cancer. In my 17-year-old mind, I couldn’t understand why her suffering existed and why there wasn’t any solution to it.
What is the first thing that you think or do when you are living a difficult period? Whether it is physical or psychological pain, or someone else’s suffering that is affecting you (and thus becoming also your own), how do you react? Oftentimes, we are uncomfortable with the reality of suffering and we try to avoid it at all costs. Suffering causes pain, and worst of all, it is often impossible to understand. Suffering is mysterious.
At age 17 all I wanted was to find a solution so that the suffering in that hospital room would vanish. And in different ways, perhaps we all search for this sort of solution. Perhaps we search to medicate the suffering, to avoid it, or to distract ourselves from it, hoping that it will disappear. Today, is there a specific type of suffering that you are experiencing? If so, how are you living with it? I am sure if we are able to think logically about how we choose to numb or run away from our pain, we know that this only does more harm to us. But, in these times, it can feel too hard to do anything else.
So, how do we find the courage to live with our suffering? Alone, we are not strong enough, but through relationship, with the presence of another, it becomes possible. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:13)
Mysteriously, God permits suffering, but He does not ever will us to suffer alone: “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20). Only Jesus has the capacity to not only be with us in all of our suffering, but also to understand it, because He himself experienced it. He Himself already took on all of our suffering through His crucifixion, and we can find consolation and healing in this reality if we invite Him into our suffering.
Is it that easy, though? What obstacles may there be that can get in the way?
We already mentioned the common struggle of “self-medication” or distraction which is a great temptation that is important to be honest with ourselves about. We can ask ourselves: how am I tempted to avoid my suffering?
Some other obstacles could be the temptations to feel ashamed of or to be judgmental of our personal suffering. Do I make excuses for all the reasons why I shouldn’t be suffering? Maybe I feel like my suffering is my own fault and therefore is not valid. Perhaps it has to do with suffering from strong emotions such as anger or sadness, suffering from regret of a mistake that I have made, or habits of sin that I am discouraged by. Furthermore, am I able to look at my suffering with compassion instead of judging myself for suffering? Maybe I am suffering with a type of physical or psychological pain that nobody can see from the outside, and while watching the news on TV I see events of war and violence and judge myself because my suffering doesn’t seem to compare to what I am seeing in the lives of others.
Maybe reflecting on some of these examples can help us see where it is that there may be a “block” for us to accept the state of our physical, emotional, and spiritual health. It does no good to compare our sufferings to another’s. Suffering does not have to enter into a certain category for Jesus to care about it. Jesus cares. He cares so much that He not only is available to be with us in our suffering, but He desires to. And He Himself understands this human temptation to not want to suffer. In the garden of Gethsemane, as He knew His time to die was arriving, He prayed: “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” (Luke 22: 42). Jesus shows us here that He did not seek to flee from His pain, even if the temptations to do so were present in His humanity. He trusted fully in the will of His Father. We too can meet Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane and ask for this grace to trust the Father. Even if we feel ashamed that we are suffering, even if we are struggling with self-medication, and even if we cannot make sense of what we are living, we can always choose to invite Jesus to rest with us wherever we are.
Jesus is our refuge. In His Sacred Heart, there is a specific place where only our suffering can fill. Only we can meet Him in that place of His heart; nobody else can. Let us ask for the grace to let Him meet us in our suffering and to be open to how He desires to encounter us there. Maybe He wants to transform it into something beautiful.
On the same day that I visited my grandma in the hospice care center at the age of 17, I later that evening went to daily Mass at the parish nearby because, after a little while, I couldn’t handle being in the hospital room any longer and I didn’t know where else to go. After Mass an elderly woman came up to me and said, “Did you know that the pew where you sat was exactly where your grandma sat every day when she came to Mass?” I shook my head, astonished. There were over 100 empty spots I could have occupied. I had no idea where my grandma usually sat, but discovering that I sat in “her seat” at that moment was a little sign from God that He saw me in my suffering and was with me.
Suggestions for prayer:
- Think back to a moment of suffering you experienced (or an experience you are living now) that allowed you to grow closer in relationship with a friend or loved one. Ask the Holy Spirit to help you see how Jesus was present in this situation and what He wants to communicate to you through it now.
- Take 15 minutes this week to be in the presence of Jesus (visiting Him in a church or looking at a crucifix or an image of Him) and talk to Him (or write a letter to Him) about your situation of suffering. Invite Him to encounter you there.
This month’s meditation is by Elizabeth Vishnefske, an AVI in formation