Posted On May 3, 2022

The Power of Powerlessness

Over the last few months, we have begun our considerations of the meaning of suffering as we seek to live out our Christian faith. Being baptized into Christ’s death and Resurrection, we too are called to “pick up our cross daily” as Jesus taught us. This month, however, we will reflect on another aspect of human suffering. Not the kind where we pick up our cross, but the kind where we must watch someone else pick up theirs. And sometimes this is even harder. Have we experienced moments in which we would have liked to take on the sufferings of someone else? How many times have we tried to find a solution to someone’s sufferings but have found ourselves powerless?

As we begin to ponder this, I would like to recall last month’s meditation, in which we saw the importance of naming our emotions and reactions. We can ask ourselves: When I see the suffering of others, do I feel helpless? Anger? Confusion? Guilt? Do I blame myself or others? Do I lose trust in God and His goodness? Maybe we are able to finally come to peace with a person’s suffering, but then something happens and all the “negative” emotions and reactions and fears come back. We must be able to freely say to ourselves, to God, and perhaps to a trusted person, the truth of what we are experiencing. It’s okay to have all of these reactions. They are part of the journey. But it is only the beginning. There is so much we can learn about ourselves, about God and about others through these experiences.

As we watch a loved one suffer, it is good that we try to do everything that we reasonably can in order to alleviate that suffering. It is part of the call to live out charity: to have compassion on those who suffer and to allow ourselves to be moved to action. However, when we have tried to take away another’s suffering, and we’ve come to a point where all the doors have closed, we are called to accept the suffering. We might try to rebel at this point, doing everything we can to knock down the doors. It is hard for us to accept our helplessness. Often we try to grasp for control. This experience of helplessness can be very beneficial to us, because it reminds us that we are not God. I often like to reflect on these words from the prophet Isaiah:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your way my ways—says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, my thoughts higher than your thoughts.” (Is 55:8-9)

We might not understand why God allows our loved ones to suffer. We can, however, be sure that God loves the people we love more than we do. He knows the weight they can carry, and He gives them the grace to carry their cross. As much as we would like to take away the suffering of others, we can trust that God is using that suffering for that person as a means of personal sanctification, as a means of intimacy with Himself, and as a means of a participation in Christ’s redemption of the world.

What’s one thing that we can do, even in our helplessness?

“Standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdala.” (John 19:25)

These three women gave the greatest gift that they could give in Jesus’ moment of deepest agony. They were present. The Gospel doesn’t speak of any words or any actions performed by these women. But they were present. These women had hearts that were pure, that were full of love, and in that moment that were full of pain. They didn’t have the answers. They couldn’t solve the problems. But they are the ones who brought consolation to Jesus in a moment when consolation seemed impossible. How did they console Jesus? By sharing in his suffering. By not abandoning him. By remaining faithful to the end. By their affection and care.

In that moment on the cross, Jesus entrusts his Mother to the beloved disciple and entrusts the beloved disciple to his Mother. The beloved disciple is not named because he is meant to represent all of us. Jesus gave his Mother to us all, and we can bring Mary into our homes and learn from her. She too had to grow in love, increase in faith and grow in trust throughout her life. She never sinned, but she didn’t have all the answers. She, like us, lived in time and had to learn to love through her experiences, through her prayer, and through her Son. She had to learn to suffer and to watch others suffer. We can ask her to teach us how to be with those who suffer. We can ask her to teach us how to trust in God when we don’t understand. We can ask her to help us entrust all who suffer to God, whether it’s people we know and love, whether it’s people we hear about from friends, or whether it’s people we hear about on the news. Mary truly is our loving Mother, and she desires to be close to us and close to those we love.

Mary is also a model for us by her intercession. One thing that we can always do is pray. Mary knew the importance of bringing people to God. She knew that she was a humble instrument in God’s hands and that the primacy belonged to Him. For example, in the Gospel passage of the Wedding at Cana where the wine was running low, Mary didn’t solve the problem. Rather she went to her Son and she brought others (the servants) to her Son so that they would listen to Him. In the same way, we can also go to God and ask Him to intervene. We can ask God to take away the suffering of our loved ones. But even if God doesn’t respond the way we would like, we can intercede for people by asking God to give them the grace they need. We can pray that their suffering becomes a means of grace for them and growth in love and trust. God doesn’t allow us to suffer simply for the sake of suffering, but He always wants to transform that suffering into glory, as He did with His Son.

Mary, Comforter of the Afflicted, pray for us!

Suggestions for a concrete resolution:

  • Take time to close your eyes and imagine the scene of Jesus on the cross with the women at his feet. See the pain in Jesus’ body, in his face, in his eyes. Then watch him shift his gaze toward the women, and especially toward his Mother. Contemplate this moment and imagine what was taking place in Jesus’ heart as he saw that he was not alone.
  • Is there someone I love who is suffering? If I’m not able to take away the suffering, how can I show closeness? Perhaps I can even explicitly ask the person what he/she needs or wants. (They might want to talk. They might want to be together in silence. They might want to know someone is praying for them).

This month’s reflection is by Alexa VanLerberg, AVI in formation.

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