Making Suffering Meaningful

Who hasn’t suffered? Suffering may stab us periodically, like a toothache or a friend’s betrayal. Or we may be awash in it constantly, as when we have a chronic illness. The mystery of suffering has always tormented us—in particular, why do the innocent suffer? Why is there such devastating misery in Ukraine? No answer satisfies. We can’t fully explain this mystery, other than attributing it to original sin. God doesn’t even give Job, the quintessential sufferer, a satisfying answer, but basically just says, “Who are you to question me?”

But we take comfort in the fact that as Jesus, God experienced suffering, both mental anguish and excruciating physical pain. He cried over Jerusalem and the death of his friend Lazarus. He died by the cruelest execution Romans invented. In doing so, Jesus infused suffering with meaning. By his agony and death, Jesus redeemed the world. When we unite our suffering with his and offer it to the Father, we share his cross, we become partners in his act of redemption.

Sometimes it helps to endure suffering by clinging to the thought “This too shall pass.” For Catholics there is an additional dimension to suffering. We can offer it up for an intention, for other people. When I was writing high school textbooks and living at our provincial center, one of our young sisters was dying of cancer in our Health Care Center. I would visit her during my lunch break. One day she asked a favor: would I find out if the Church still taught that suffering could be offered for others. I researched the topic and told her yes. That day as I was leaving her room, she said, “Kathleen, I offer my sufferings today for you.” What a beautiful gift!

Because of Jesus, although we don’t understand suffering, we can turn it into something holy. And we can make it useful. It is rather like transforming coal into diamonds. The Catholic attitude toward suffering helps us live through it with peace, patience, and hope. We know that beyond all suffering lies new life.

When we meet with suffering we can always “kiss it up” to God.

• When have you put your suffering to good use?

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