Look to the spiritual classics to find joy in suffering

If we seek to conform ourselves to Christ, then we seek to conform ourselves to his cross. In the timeless spiritual classic, “The Imitation of Christ,” whose authorship is commonly attributed to Thomas á Kempis, we receive profound insights into suffering. In our modern society, suffering is to be avoided at all costs, and if avoidance is impossible, then numbing it is the next best step. What if suffering was viewed not only as beneficial but desirable in advancing on the path of holiness? The writers of some of the great Catholic spiritual classics have much to say on the presence and purpose of suffering.

What’s the point of suffering?

We know that Christ, who was perfect in every way and knew nothing of sin, could not escape pain and suffering in this life. How, then, could we as imperfect and sinful persons possibly avoid what he could not? Suffering is so large a cross that one can only bear it — let alone desire to bear it — if they believe that by doing so they will arrive closer to Christ and become as like him as possible. Á Kempis writes, “In the cross is health, in the cross is life; in the cross is the fullness of heavenly sweetness, in the cross is strength of mind, joy of spirit, height of virtue, full perfection of all holiness.” This can only be because the cross is the means — the road one travels — in order to reach the greatest of gifts: Christ and his kingdom.

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In spending time learning about the lives of the saints and their written works as part of my theology coursework, I encountered the recurring theme of embracing suffering. Suffering can be used to strengthen and strip us bare of the sins of pride, earthly attachments, and false allusions of our own power and control, unveiling the reality that we owe everything to Christ who suffered the most. Through his passion, he redeemed and gave meaning to suffering by calling us to unite our crosses with his for the salvation of the world.

Words from the saints

The saints quoted below are a small number of the many whom the Church believes now joyfully and without fail intercede on our behalf. These pilgrims carried the cross before us and even at times achieved a holy jealousy over those around them who were suffering, desiring that they, too, would be given the opportunity to unite themselves more fully to Christ through this form of sanctification. May you be sustained and strengthened by their saintly words.

  • On the loss of good and the sufferings that result to achieve that good once more, St. Augustine in his “Confessions” (A.D. 300s) writes: “What is it in the soul, I ask, that makes it delight more to have found or regained the things it loves than if it had always had them? … Universally, the greater joy is heralded by greater pain.” Suffering as a result of faithfully pursuing a great good results in a fulfillment far more elevated and deepened upon reaching our goal than if we had never struggled to attain it.
  • On being patient amid suffering instead of constantly longing for the pain to leave us, St. Benedict in his Rules for Monasteries (A.D. 500s) writes: “We may by patience share in the sufferings of Christ and deserve to have a share also in his kingdom.”
  • On conversion of heart regarding one’s opinion toward the value of suffering, St. Teresa of Ávila in “The Way of Perfection” (15th century) writes: “There is no poverty, trouble, or persecution, which is not easy to bear, if we once begin to taste and relish His sufferings.”
  • On suffering as the deepest expression of love, St. Catherine of Siena in “The Dialogue” (13th century) writes: “Mysteriously, God deepens His love by sharing with us the cross of His Son: Suffering and sorrow increase in proportion to love.”
  • On believing and seeing God drawing closest to us in our suffering, Jean-Pierre de Caussade in “Abandonment to Divine Providence” (18th century) writes: “[In] all you suffer … [these are] mysterious by which God gives Himself to you.” Author Peter Cameron, in commenting on this particular work, explains: “We need faith in order to see God at work in the raging torrents of so much distress, so many troubles, so much embarrassment and weakness, and so many setbacks that he allows. In turn, faith, de Caussade assures us, “is nourished and strengthened by these happenings.”

God may not wish suffering upon us, but he does meet us most intimately in our suffering, enabling it to assist in our holiness, and allowing our willingness to suffer to serve as a stark example of grace to a world that rejects pain. Therefore, it might bear fruit and contribute to the salvation of others. In this way, suffering, when viewed well, does not have to be something we numb ourselves or run from, but can be something we embrace for the sake of Christ and the world.

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