Tag Archives: redemption

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.

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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).

The Conscience of the Modern Man

By guest writer Kachi Ngai.

“Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself, but which he must obey, its voice ever calling him to love and do what is good and to avoid evil… For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God… There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths.”
— Article 1776, Catechism of the Catholic Church

We no longer live in an age where truth and reason guide our principles. The mood of the current age is one of emotionalism, where a person’s feelings now become the inviolable truth for that person, and God forbid if someone else should dare to question it. The objective truth has given way to the subjective truth, provided that someone feels strongly enough about it. Take a look at how love is considered these days. The concept of agape (the supernatural, and certainly superior, sacrificial form of love) has been overthrown in favor of eros, the natural and more receptive form of love.

Variations on catchy slogans such as “love is love” and “love wins” are thrown around to somehow suggest that we as a society have thrown off the shackles of discrimination, and that only by “following what’s inside our hearts” will we find inner fulfillment and freedom. Arguments in favor of the protection of the family unit and society are pitted against the supposed personal fulfillment of the individual. If someone “follows their heart”, then they cannot stray.

I accept that I am taking liberties by assuming that the objective truth is a given, mainly because whether truth is objective is not the focus of this. I will discuss objective truth and how it is tied to human dignity in a later article. For now I will focus only upon the actual nature of the conscience, something on which Cardinal John Henry Newman spoke at great length, and how it applies to our Catholic Faith and the spiritual journey.

Newman was 15 when he experienced his first conversion which brought him into the Protestant faith. It was not until much later that he converted to the Roman Catholic Church, which he describes in his Apologia as largely due to the acting of his conscience.

Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman saw the conscience as the connecting principle between the creature and his Creator. He went as far as to describe it as the aboriginal Vicar of Christ (Newman, 1885). In the secular world, a certain primacy is given to the conscience, almost as if it is some infallible judge. This is a far cry from the notions Newman had.

Our concept of conscience is misconstrued these days, whereby if our conscience dictates that we can act upon our whims even if they be contrary to Mother Church’s teachings, this would be permitted provided that we are at peace with it. Newman argued that this disparity between the internal conscience and the teachings of the Church did not give us free rein to reject the Church’s teaching. When the conscience no longer points towards the external (the Church’s teachings), but instead towards the internal, instead of directing us towards God and a life of virtue through obedience and discipline, it is turned towards the selfish and interior. Instead of God being our Lord and Master, it will be as Henley once poetically described in his famous poem Invictus:

“I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.” (Henley, 1875)

A lovely-sounding sentiment of the triumph of the human soul over suffering, but it encapsulates the current idea that the personal conscience is the final judge.

Newman argues that conscience advocates for the truth, and that the conscience is much cruder and almost ruthless. The conscience is the compass for non-believers by which God re-directs us towards Him. The voice of conscience has nothing gentle, nothing to do with mercy in its tone. It is severe and stern. It does not speak of forgiveness, but of punishment” (Newman). This is why the redemption by Our Lord Jesus Christ is The Good News. It provides the relief for the condemnation offered by the accusing conscience. The conscience is to direct us towards where there is a particular deficiency or uncertainty in our judgement and spiritual life, and the conscience is the starting point for a particular conversion in our life.

The conscience is the call for conversion and a sign of humility. This is counter-cultural to the secular understanding of conscience as a sign of personal freedom, especially the freedom to reject the objective truth when it makes one uncomfortable (Pell, 2005). As a result of free will, man can choose to reject the prickles of their conscience, but the conscience is the beginning of the exploration and conversion through prayer and discernment, it is not some infallible judge. In Veritatis Splendour, Pope St. John Paul II describes the formation of the Catholic Conscience as a dignifying and liberating experience (Pp. St. JPII, 1993), which is why as Catholics we have a moral responsibility to develop an informed conscience (CCC 1780).

By divorcing the Catholic Faith from reason, reason becomes effectively neutered because we fail to see the impact of moral predispositions in reasoning. Simply put, the conscience can easily be fooled by our own inclinations and desires whether subconscious or otherwise, and can lead us down the path of lining up our reasoning in view of a desired result (Armstrong, 2015). This is the danger of reducing the conscience to a mere moral sense. Natural religion is based upon the sense of sin; it recognizes the disease, but cannot find the remedy (Armstrong, 2015). To emphasize the earlier point, this is where the call to conversion is required, and through this we can start to appreciate the necessity of Christ’s redemptive act.

The conscience points towards the need for constant discernment, prayer, and the turning of the heart towards the objective authority of Christ through His Church. To follow one’s conscience is not to do as one pleases, but to earnestly seek what is true and good, and to hold fast to this, as repulsive as it may appear. Only then can we truly and honestly say to our Lord: Speak Lord, your servant is listening (1 Sam 3:10).

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References:

Armstrong, David (2015). “Newman’s Conversion of Conscience and the Resolution of the Crisis of Modernity.”

Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Douay-Rheims Catholic Bible.

Henley, William (1875). Invictus. England.

Newman, John Henry (1885). “Letter to the Duke of Norfolk,” V, in Certain Difficulties felt by Anglicans in Catholic Teaching II (London: Longmans Green, 1885), 248.

Pell, George (2005). “The Inconvenient Conscience.”

Into the Woods: A Catholic Perspective

I have read many articles and Facebook posts lately bashing the recent Disney movie, Into the Woods, for its darkness and supposed relativism. Having seen the movie, and having had a very different experience, I am compelled to bring you:

A Catholic Perspective of Into the Woods

Now, the movie is not appropriate for 5 year olds. If Johnny Depp’s character can freak out this 23 year old and her husband, then it is most certainly not appropriate for young children.

That being said, there are plenty of gems in the movie that can have a strongly Christian, if not Catholic, twist.

First, there is the garden that begins all of the trouble. The Baker’s father found himself in a beautiful and luscious garden, idyllic in many ways. Of course, he goes and ruins it by taking the fruit of a tree he was not supposed to eat of.

Sound familiar?

More over, just as Adam and Eve are cursed for taking the fruit, so too does the Baker’s father and his family become cursed. The Baker works hard day and night baking, but never betters his situation and the Baker’s wife, played by Emily Blunt, faces pain of childbirth: she and her husband long for a child, yet are infertile due to the curse.

The movie plays strongly on the pun “in the woods” both metaphorically and literally. All of these people have fallen on hard times, thus finding themselves metaphorically “in the woods,” but they are also literally heading into the woods. The woods, then, take on a double metaphor. Not only are these people “in the woods” in hard times, but they have taken to drastic measures, entering the confusing wood of sin to try to better their situation. This brings up the timeless question of “If I do this for a greater good, do the ends justify the means?”

straight-path1As each of the characters approaches the woods, they sing “the way is clear, the path is straight, the light is good,” suggesting that they are on the straight and narrow and won’t fall since they know where they are going. They will be able to safely navigate through the twisting and confusing aspects of the temptations they are bound to encounter.

The woods as representative of sin become clearer the longer the characters are in the woods. The longer there, the more bad decisions they make and the worse they become as people, which is exactly what happens when one dabbles in sin and evil.

At one point, Emily Blunt’s character is seduced to commit adultery. After the deed, she struggles with herself to figure out what is right and wrong. She says there are rights, wrongs, “shoulds and shouldn’ts,” but she is unable to truly discern what is what because her moral compass has been redirected by her time in the woods. Even after she discerns what is right and wrong, she is unable to figure out how to get out of the woods to safety.

Many times sinners lose the ability to discern what is right and wrong as they spend more time in sin and evil. They justify themselves the way Blunt’s character does, saying “it only happens in the woods.” When they do have a conversion, how often do they want out but do not know where to start? Many people are trapped in sinful lives despite their desire to do better because they have no guide to show them the way out.

As the characters fall ever more into sin, a line about returning to the straight and narrow path comes up more frequently. Their consciences call them to return to the good, an urge they verbalize but do not know how to act on. Finally, the characters find themselves in a blame game in the middle of what used to be an idyllic and enchanting forest.

Adam and Eve, too, found themselves in the middle of a blame game in what used to be their idyllic and enchanting home with God.

When Meryl Streep’s character asks what has happened, the Baker proceeds to blame the boy, who blames the girl, who blames…you get my point. Eventually, Streep’s character calls on the other characters to move on, telling them they can blame her, if that’s what they want, but they need to focus on fixing things.

So too, Christ comes to us and says “you can blame me, if that’s what you want, but I want to fix our relationship.”

There are beautiful lines in the movie about the humanity of each individual, and how we must practice forgiveness. There are lines about respecting your parents, honoring their mistakes, and listening to your elders. All of which are beautiful, biblical, and Catholic.

Finally, no one character is entirely good or bad. Some are worse than others, but each has his redeeming qualities and his sinful habits, and at many points the characters remark on how following the straight and narrow is complicated.

Isn’t it though?

We all struggle to follow the straight and narrow on a daily basis. From refusing to snap at our spouses, or practicing patience in the grocery check out line, to navigating our way through the mazes that are relationships with other humans, all of us has experienced on a daily basis the complexity of the moral straight and narrow.

The movie points to a basic human fact that is often overlooked: humanity is messy, and no one person is entirely good or bad. Only Christ and our blessed Mother can stake a claim to the “perfect” card. The rest of us are a poor mash up of our fallen nature and our faith which redeems.

These characters point to what happens when we do not have faith: we do not have a compass to guide us out of the woods, we do not have a standard by which to judge our behavior, we find ourselves lost even when we are not in the woods.

For those who have faith, we can count on our Redeemer to guide the way, to give us a standard, and to retrieve us out of the depths of sin when we are incapable of retrieving ourselves.

For those who place their faith in Christ, the woods are “just trees,” and our trials become something small. We are able to place our hope in the Lord, trusting that His path is straight, well lit, and that all will be well in the woods if we trust Him.