Tag Archives: pain

Making Sense of Suffering

By guest writer Sarah Coffey.

Why do we suffer?

I’ve wrestled with this question and with God for a long, long time. It’s still a struggle sometimes, more often than I’d like to admit.

If God is so good, and if God loves me like He says He does, then WHY do I have to fight a chronic illness? Why do I have to watch my family members suffer? Why did my grandfather have to die a slow death from cancer? Why did my grandmother have to suffer so much with loneliness and illness? Why did her death have to be slow and painful, too?

I’ve never understood suffering. The first time I came face to face with people telling me that suffering is redemptive is when my husband (who was at that time my boyfriend) lost his mother unexpectedly. I read things about suffering. Catholic things. Things written by literal saints.  They told me that suffering — the pain of losing someone, the pain of seeing someone else hurt, and your own hurt be it physical or emotional — can bring you closer to God. It’s redemptive and salvific.

But suffering didn’t do that for me — it didn’t bring me closer to God. Instead, it made me quite frustrated, and even mad at Him.

This was not just a battle I faced every so often, when a big life event like someone becoming sick, hurt, or dying occurred. No, this was something I faced every month for the past several years as I battled the effects of endometriosis and severe PMS (medically diagnosed as PMDD, which goes WAY beyond typical premenstrual mood swings) plaguing me every four weeks and many, many days in between.

Relentless pain, emotional turmoil, and at times, the feeling of being incredibly depressed for days that interrupted almost every facet of my life and relationships. It made me constantly say WHY, God, WHY do I have to deal with this, when you could so easily will it away? Is this fun to you? Am I just not faithful enough, tough enough, strong enough to deal with this, because this sucks so much?

My dislike — no, loathing — of suffering went on until a few months ago when after it looked like just about every feasible medical option for treating the ridiculous effects of this awful illness had been tried and found wanting. That’s when, by God’s grace, I finally relented in my anger and took this struggle to the foot of the Cross. I prayed that if this was a struggle I had to deal with, that God would give me the grace to carry it better. That He would help me understand this Cross and have peace with why I had to carry it. Just as with St. Paul wrote, that God won’t take away the thorn in our side, but He’ll give us the grace to deal with it: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

My answer, my help in understanding this suffering and all others came in the form of a talk by none other than Fulton Sheen.

I watched a clip of him giving a talk, in his lofty, articulate, awesome voice about a time he had a toothache as a child. To paraphrase, he was a young boy and he HATED going to the dentist. But he developed a severe toothache — an abscess, even. He hid it from his father as long as he possibly could to put off going to the dentist, which he HATED and wanted to avoid at all costs. But his father eventually found out. And took him to the dentist.

Now, mind you, this was the dentist’s office in like the early 1900s. So you can imagine the kind of suffering that went on in there when you came in with an abscessed tooth. Fulton Sheen talked about how, as the dentist began to work on fixing his tooth, Sheen became so upset at his father, wondering why he wasn’t helping him, protecting him, sheltering him from this immense suffering of the dentist treating his tooth.

At the time, as a child, it didn’t make sense to him. But his father knew that ultimately, even if he protected his son from this momentary suffering of going to the dentist, which he really hated and didn’t want to do, it would be very bad, would result in even more suffering, and at that point in time could eventually have caused serious illness or death if left untreated.

Fulton Sheen’s father allowed him temporary suffering for his ultimate good.

And it sort of clicked after I listened to this story. God doesn’t enjoy watching us suffer no more than Fulton Sheen’s father enjoyed watching his little boy writhe in pain in the dentist’s chair. For Fulton Sheen, his father allowed suffering because it was for the good of his ultimate health. For us, God allows suffering because it’s for the good of our souls.

When I heard suffering presented in this way, I was able to finally pray, Lord I don’t like this suffering. In fact, I HATE IT. But if this is for the betterment of my soul, I trust in you, I trust that you, the loving Father that you are, know what is best for me, and that you’ll give me the grace to bear it.

It became so much easier to carry that cross.

Peter Kreeft wrote, in Spiritual Direction from St. Thomas Aquinas, that “Nothing more powerfully helps us to bear pain than the realization that God wills it.” And I can say that in my own life I have experienced that this is true.

Not more fun — as the struggle was and still is definitely there. And I. don’t. like. it. But seeing it as something God allows for my ultimate good — something that can help me grow in faith for the sake of my eternal salvation — helped make me less bitter and more at peace.

I was challenged again by this as I watched my grandmother suffer in her last few weeks of life. And in watching my family members suffer, too, as they experienced her suffering at her side. Those questions crept back: Why, God, why do you allow her to suffer so much? Why can’t you just take the pain away?

But I am not God. So I don’t know why these things happen. But He does know why. And His ways are higher than mine. And just as Christ’s suffering led to the resurrection and the promise of eternal life, God allows our suffering to bear the fruit of our redemption — even though we probably can’t see it now or even until after our own death.

Our sufferings here on Earth make sense if we trust that there is something after this earthly life. If there’s nothing after that, then suffering means nothing. It is just endless pain and sadness and sorrow and heartbreak. But if there is something beyond this, as Jesus promised and as the Church teaches, then our suffering has so much meaning. Because God wills it for sake of our eternal salvation.

Peter Kreeft also wrote, “… God in His wisdom wills that we suffer because He sees that we need it for our own deepest, truest, most lasting good, or the good of someone else.” For our own deepest, truest, and most lasting good. May this truth help us to take suffering to the cross, and say Lord, use this to mold my heart even more into Yours so that I may spend eternity with You.

_____

Originally published at Sarah Coffey.

Sarah Coffey is a convert to Catholicism who enjoys delving into Church history and the Theology of the Body. She is blessed with a wonderful family, husband, and a cat named Stella (as in “Ave Maris Stella”, of course).

Grief into Joy

Jesus said to his disciples:
“Amen, amen, I say to you, you will weep and mourn,
while the world rejoices;
you will grieve, but your grief will become joy.
When a woman is in labor, she is in anguish because her hour has arrived;
but when she has given birth to a child,
she no longer remembers the pain because of her joy
that a child has been born into the world.
So you also are now in anguish.
But I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice,
and no one will take your joy away from you.
On that day you will not question me about anything.
Amen, amen, I say to you,
whatever you ask the Father in my name he will give you.”
—John 16:20–23

Often we have a tendency to assume—even, sometimes, when we know better—that if we follow Jesus perfectly, we will live a charmed life free of suffering. Thus, when we experience suffering that seems “undeserved,” we become frustrated with God and think that there’s no way we can handle what He’s asking of us.

Christ_in_Gethsemane

But Jesus doesn’t negate the suffering of the Christian life. He acknowledges it fully, saying that if they persecuted Him they will surely persecute us. He tells us we will weep and mourn and grieve while the world rejoices. Yet our pain and suffering are not wasted in His plan of salvation. When we meet Jesus in Heaven, when we see the destination to which He has led us on such a long, winding journey, our hearts will rejoice. We will receive a lasting joy, greater than anything of this world.

We will experience suffering in this life, but through Christ, this suffering becomes a holy calling. We don’t need to put on a happy face and pretend everything is fine—no, this trial is a gift, meant to break and re-form our hearts, making them more like His own. We can embrace our suffering and lean in to it. And we don’t need to spiral into despair, either, for this trial is not the end. A greater joy awaits us, a joy that will eclipse any memory of pain.

piergiorgioOur patron, Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, was a joyful, exuberant young man who radiated hope. He loved to have a good time with his friends, sharing inside jokes and enjoying outdoor activities. But at the same time, he did not shy away from suffering. Although he easily could have stayed within the comfortable bubble of wealth provided by his family, he ventured into the poorest parts of his city, undeterred by the noise and smells, to seek those who needed company and support. He saw the beauty in each person he encountered and considered them friends. His passion for the Lord propelled him to serve, and even when he contracted a fatal disease through this service, he embraced this, too, as a gift. His love for Christ emboldened him to face every trial without fear.

Fear not. As Christians, we always have reason for hope. Inspired by the example of Pier Giorgio, may we face our sufferings with boldness and joy, knowing that all our earthly pain will pass away and that the joy to come is worth it all.

We are an Easter people, and hallelujah is our song.
—Pope Saint John Paul II


1. Heinrich Hofmann, Christ in Gethsemane / PD-US
2. Photograph of Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati and friends

Originally posted at Frassati Reflections.

The Vocation of Motherhood

One of the most insidious and harmful ideas that mothers labor under is the idea that we can raise flawless children. Rationally we know this isn’t true, but emotionally we throw ourselves into this impossible task. It is honorable and understandable to try to always do best by and for your children. But this can become an idol unto itself, an untenable goal, the impossibility of which serves to demoralize us as we pursue our vocation.

In some ways our mothers had it easier. No blogs, no parenting websites, no constant stream of opinion and advice, citing research and various studies. Everyone has an opinion and no qualms about sharing with maximum certitude the absolute correctness of their ideas. With constant, often contradictory messages, frustration and angst build. Did I birth correctly? Should I have breastfed longer? Co-slept? Worn my baby more? Tandem nurse? Did I fail my children; did I harm them by not doing this? By doing that?

Worry and stress are not tools of the Lord. Self-doubt and angst are not part of His call for us. Nothing changes the reality that we are flawed human beings raising flawed human beings. All of our efforts, all of our study, all of our desire to find the perfect method, the path that gives us children with no heartbreak, none of these can eliminate baggage and hurt from our children’s lives.

I used to be much more certain about how I was raising my children. I never thought I had all the answers, but I certainly knew which ways were better. I unabashedly announced my opinion on a certain parenting style, only to discover that a mother I respected actually practiced this particular parenting method. Despite my strongly-held opinions, her children were happy and delightful and loved her fiercely. Maybe, just maybe, this mother knew better how to raise the children God gave her than I did. Maybe what I felt so strongly about simply wasn’t right for my children. Didn’t fit with my personality.

We can try to do everything right. We can try to be the most educated, the most empowered parents out there. We can everything we can to avoid the mistakes our parents made, but it won’t change the fact that we are making our own. The failure in parenting doesn’t come from mistakes made, but the refusal to learn from them. If we learn, improve and grow from our struggles in parenting, then we are doing right by our children. There is no perfect parent, but there is the parent who is perfecting. And this side of Heaven, that’s as good as we can do.

And just as we cannot avoid mistakes along the way, neither can our children. As they grow and mature into the people God has called them to be, they will have struggles. They won’t always make the right choices, despite our best efforts to teach and guide them. We can give them all the “right” tools, all the answers we know, but they won’t always listen. This isn’t necessarily an indication of a failure in parenting. How do I know? Look at the Original Parent. Look at Our Father.

God actually gave His children the world. He gave them everything they could ever want. And He still had to send them to the world’s worst time out. They still ignored Him, still disobeyed, still brought pain and suffering upon themselves. God is both firm and just. He dispenses justice and consequences for sins. But He merciful and quick to forgive. He wants nothing more than His children to be happy, but truly happy not momentarily indulged. So He does deny, when it is appropriate, He does say no, but He always acts in complete love. What better role model can there be? God certainly doesn’t have a universal; one size fits all, approach to care for His children. Rather, He meets them where they are, challenges them individually and wills the best for them always.

Motherhood is one long learning curve. From the different personalities that burst into your life to the different stages that each child grows through, children keep you on your toes. Yesterday’s game plan doesn’t always meet today’s needs. And yet there is one immutable reality, love. Passionate, motivating love.  The one consistent factor in our lives is love, whether it is God’s love for us or our love for our children.

That’s what our vocation is. That’s what the calling of motherhood is. To be a mirror of God’s love. To show our children how much He loves us, for them to begin to experience and recognize that love in their daily lives. It’s not about forming them into the people we think they should be. It’s about forming them into the persons God created them to be. It’s not about raising people who won’t make mistakes, who won’t make choices that we don’t understand. It’s about making sure that through the fog of error they know they are never alone. Never without that love. And that love will always be calling them home.

Of Mountains and Molehills

One of my favorite throwaway phrases is “first world problems.” It never fails to make me laugh. Whether it’s my sister and a friend complaining about having to replace the batteries in her battery-operated wine opener, or my friends and I griping about too many fashion images and not enough fitness pins in our Pinterest feeds, it’s fun to be able to laugh at our “not” problems. It’s nice to be able to use a phrase that indicates we appreciate and recognize how blessed or pleasant our lives are, while still complaining.

But there can be a downside to flippantly dismissing our frustrations and struggles. Not that anyone really cares if your dvr turns off one minute too early, but it’s not to say that our daily struggles aren’t truly challenging, truly difficult. We might live in a first world country, but that’s not to say our hardships aren’t truly hard.

My husband and I are both employed. We have five beautiful children, who have no serious health struggles. When they are ill, we are able to access healthcare for them. We have a home that meets our needs. And, as I explained to my son, as his eyes widened watching the cost of filling up the gas tank, we have enough money to meet our needs. So any struggles we have, they’re pretty minor aren’t they?

There’s a healthiness that comes with being able recognize the positive in any situation. When my children are frustrating me, I like being able to step back and remind myself that they are alive to annoy me, which is something, sadly, not every friend of mine can say. When I feel lonely and neglected when my husband plays video games for hours, well at least his time on the computer is spent with fellow nerds and not X-rated playmates. At least he’s coming home every night right after work, rather than hanging out in bars. There’s truth there. And there are certainly silver linings to almost every situation.

However, that doesn’t remove frustration or hurt. And just because it could be worse, it doesn’t mean it isn’t hard. Motherhood is exhausting. It’s hard having one child, being their everything, always. It’s exhausting having several children; in the words of Jim Gaffigan, “Having a fourth baby is like you’re drowning… and someone hands you a baby.” Staying at home with your children is a wonderful gift, one that doesn’t allow you any downtime and can be very draining. Working while mothering small children can be heartbreaking, the guilt overwhelming, a constant struggle to balance and give to your children all that they deserve.

No one has an easy, carefree life. Events and circumstances strike different people in various ways. No one should feel like she has to excuse and minimize her struggles, just because they aren’t as severe as others. Some people might find it overwhelming to care for their children alone while their spouse is on a business trip. That’s ok. Yes there are spouses who single-parent through year-long deployments, and they are remarkable. But that doesn’t mean someone should feel bad from struggling over the course of a few days.

No good comes from comparing crosses. I was part of a larger conversation not that long ago. One participant asked that those women who were struggling with NFP or with their large family not complain because infertility was a harder struggle. I disagreed. I’ve sat with friends weeping at their inability to conceive a child. I’ve sat with friends dealing with unplanned pregnancies. I’ve sat with a mother panicking at the thought of her fifth C-section in five years. These aren’t comparable.

I believe we should try to walk just a few steps in our fellow mothers’ stilettos, not so we can compare lives but so we can better support and encourage. But we do no one any favors when we diminish our own, or any others, struggles. Maybe we can’t relate. Maybe it doesn’t seem that overwhelming to us. But that’s not the issue. It’s that someone is struggling, for whatever the reason.

God gives us what we need to grow. And each of us will grow differently, each of us have different aspects of ourselves that we need to improve. Each of us has our own baggage, our own hurts and scars. We should be honest when we struggle; open about what is overwhelming or just discouraging. It might not be as hard, outside looking in, as someone else’s struggle. But that’s not the point. The point is help is needed, support is required. Love is necessary.

Don’t apologize when life is overwhelming. You don’t have to justify your struggles. Be open and let others lift you up. Appreciate the blessings in your life, but don’t be afraid to honestly admit what’s challenging as well. It doesn’t matter if your problems seem simple or minor to others. What matters is that they are problems to you. Problems you shouldn’t have to face alone.

The Good News About Suffering

We are surrounded by human suffering. Many people are hurting in today’s world. Some suffering is horrific and some minor, but every kind can be soothed, and even removed, by trusting in God’s infinite Love and Mercy. Furthermore, God desires for us to become images of His Love and Mercy and to play a role in the alleviation of the suffering of others.

“We know that in everything God works for good with those who love Him, who are called according to His purpose.” Romans 8:28

God brings good out of all situations for those who love Him. Nothing on our planet has happened, is happening, or will happen without God’s allowance. And He would not allow something to occur if He could not use the situation for our good.
Sometimes, we who have our tiny perspective of the world, history, and even our own life, forget this. We forget that God has the bird’s eye view of every human’s life and desires all to find fulfillment in Himself. We lose sight of the fact that He understands that there is nothing in our existence worth more than this fulfillment and that even our temporal suffering is worth it if it helps us to our Salvation.
So does God hurt us to save us? No, He allows us to be hurt to save us, seeing the pain we experience infinitely less important than our salvation. Our pains come from ourselves, other humans, or the world around us, which has been broken by the first humans and many more thereafter.
Humanity was created with, by, in, and for Love, to be Loved and to Love. However, love cannot be forced. It must be freely given and accepted or we would be merely programmed robots instead of free humans who can choose and therefore Love. So, with the freedom to choose comes the freedom to be wrong, and with the wrong choice comes the undesired outcome, which will bring with it some level of pain as proportionate to the choice.
God is Love. He knows us. He knows what we can take and what would be too much for us.

“No trial has come to you but what is human. God is faithful and will not let you be tried beyond your strength; but with the trial he will also provide a way out, so that you may be able to bear it.” 1 Corinthians 10:13

God is faithful and will not let us be tried beyond our strength. In the Gospel, Jesus asks what father would give his son a snake when the son asks for a fish, or a stone when he asks for a loaf of bread. God is a Good Father. Sometimes it might seem to us like He is giving us stones and snakes, but in reality we are getting bread and fish.
God wants to give us every desire of our hearts, but we have tarnished hearts filled with desires that could keep us from God and Salvation. Therefore, God might need to change our hearts, redirect them, in order to satisfy us completely. Anxiety, sadness, pain, discomfort, death, all these remind us of our human nature and need for God.
This humble remembrance of our humanity allows us to approach God in the way we ought. In return, He provides for us in all of our necessities. Keeping this in mind, we can live each day in the satisfaction that God will provide for us today and in the future. We can be at peace with the truth that we already posses, in a way, all that we need, because we know that God will provide it.
Suffering is a difficult aspect of the human condition. It has caused many to walk away from the Faith and seek consolation in other things. However, it is only through God that we can overcome suffering.
My favorite example of this is found with St. Thérèse of Lisieux, who was able to transform suffering with love. She understood the value of her suffering in the currency of souls saved. Furthermore, she loved God and souls so much that she said she could no longer suffer as she fully grasped the true meaning behind it.
Likewise, Jesus said to St. Faustina, “accept all sufferings with love”. By keeping these words of Our Lord to heart, we can find in our suffering opportunities to grow in virtue and open the floodgates of grace into our lives. This grace will not leave us unchanged. But first, we must change our approach and our attitude toward suffering, and in particular, our approach and attitude toward the daily grind of our lives.

“If you wish to feel and to have an attraction for suffering, you are in search of your own consolation, for when we love anything, pain disappears.”
— St. Thérèse of Lisieux

On the Suffering of Christ

Maybe you can remember some of the most unpleasant feelings in your life.

Heat so scorching that your skin burns, your head throbs, and any water you drink is a poison instead of a cure.

Pain so intense that you remain suspended and twisted in an agony of body and ineffectiveness of mind.

Humiliation so complete that though you feel it is unbearable, you still have to live with its crushing mockery.

Grief so deep that it reaches to rack your body as well as your soul.

Fatigue so entire that you seem disembodied and stumble with your own weight.

Remember the worst time you’ve ever had to endure any one of these distresses. Multiply that suffering thousands of times upon itself, and you would still not be close to what He felt. You would still not be able to completely imagine what He endured. The suffering He endured included the sins of every single sinner, not simply the suffering of one man. And everything He endured was for you, no matter how you have hurt Him; every last ounce of His suffering, He bore, because He loves you so dearly.

Picture Him. Sharp thorns pressed into the soft flesh of His head. Rivulets of blood flowing, trickling down from the gouges in His flesh. Gory skin hanging loosely around Him in tatters. And through all the heat of Calvary, the pain of wounds, the humiliation of derision, the grief of rejection, the fatigue of the heavy cross—His eyes never lose their love for you.

For this is the Love with which His Heart burned.

 

Opening Hands

Before I left for college, I wrote about how my tendency to control and plan every aspect of my life often hurt more than it helped, leaving me frustrated and stressed because I was counting on my own strength instead of God’s.  As the weeks leading up to college quickly passed, I made a daily effort to surrender all of my fears and concerns about my approaching new chapter of life to God. Unfortunately, during my first couple months of college those efforts fell to pieces, and once again I was forced to learn the hard way that things will never go well until I throw my hands up, cry “whatever!”, and give it all up to God and His Providence.

letting-goI knew that college would bring new struggles and difficulties. I knew that I would miss my family and that the homesickness would be hard to bear alone. So I leaned on God for comfort- but I forgot to come to Him for guidance.

So accustomed was I to having things under control, especially on the academic side of things, I expected to fall into my class schedule, homework load, and new social life without a glitch.  I never thought I would have a problem keeping up with assignments, finding time for studying, or learning to balance work and play, so I never asked God for help, because I had it covered.

Oh- how many times must I be reminded that “pride cometh before a fall”!  The first couple weeks were full of headaches- literal and figurative ones- and the following weeks bore every type of heartache.  After a night when both decided to plague me at once, I looked down and realized my hands were clenched- holding on much too tightly to every thread of my life, both future and past. I was trying to control everything: who would like me, who I would like, where I would go, who I would go with, what I would do, what I wouldn’t do, what was most important, what wasn’t, and what I thought I should do in each situation.  I was acting according to the plans my already frenzied and confused mind was attempting to lay down, and I was suffering from the pain of trying.

Then I realized what I had done: I had ripped everything I had given to God out of His hands, so that I could hold it instead.  And in the aftermath I had been reminded of why Jesus was the one who carried the cross for me: He knew I would never be strong enough to handle life on my own, much less death, and that attempting to bear the weight of my decisions would be hard enough without having to carry their consequences as well.

Though I write this with teary eyes and shaky hands, I know that things will be all right, because God once again reached down through the mess of my life to pull me out of my self-made grave and set me back upon even ground.  Once again He’ll hold my hand and I’ll hold His, just like a child learning to walk.  And in this beautiful, broken weakness, He will be stronger- He is always stronger- and will lead me back onto the right paths.

Praise be to God for His infinite mercy, patience, and love, and for being the great, guiding light which saves me from descending beyond hope time and time again.  Chances are this will not be last time He catches me before a fatal fall, but it is so wonderful to know that- for the time being- His grace has once again set me straight.

Suffering to sanctity

If it causes pain, it cannot be true.

This principle, it seems to me, is an unspoken premise underlying the general public’s passionate opposition to many of the Church’s teachings. The same-sex marriage movement, for example, decries the Church’s position on the subject because it causes emotional pain and anguish to gays and lesbians. Abortion advocates constantly bring up the physical pain, financial difficulty, and psychological challenges that many pregnant women face, the implication being that their struggles make abortion a tragic necessity.

Yet the same conviction outside the Church — that a moral precept that causes pain cannot be true — is present inside the Church, too, and probably in our hearts. On one Catholic blog, a female commenter said her (Catholic) husband was struggling to accept the Church’s teaching on contraception because natural family planning (when used to postpone childbearing) requires abstinence at the peak of a woman’s sexual desire.

So if any given ethical principle requires some degree of sacrifice, pain, or unpleasantness, it’s unfair and probably untrue.

Obviously, when it’s stated like that, almost everyone would reject it. Those of us who theoretically accept all the Church’s moral teachings would definitely reject it. But how much of the (unavoidable) pain of obeying Christ’s moral teachings are we actually willing to bear?

Are we willing to give our money and attention to the poor? To accept correction humbly? To criticize our own political parties when they fall short? To forgive those who have hurt or slandered us? To acknowledge the authority of flawed Church leaders? To face rejection for proclaiming the Gospel?

Does some internal resistance to sacrifice prevent us from accepting the full ramifications of following Jesus Christ?

Just some questions I’ve been pondering.

Because if Flannery O’Connor is right about sanctification — “All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful” — and you’re not encountering pain in your efforts to live virtuously, you may be doing something wrong.