The Dignity of Suffering
February 9, 2003 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Reading I (Job 7:1-4, 6-7) Reading II (1 Corinthians 9:16-19, 22-23)
Gospel (St. Mark 1:29-39)
In the first reading this morning, we hear Job asking the question, “Is not man’s life on earth a drudgery?” Some days, I think we have all felt precisely that way. In fact, when we stop to think about what happened to Job for days and weeks and months one can understand why. He tells us that he goes to bed at night and wonders if the night is going to end; he gets up in the daytime and it seems to go faster than a weaver’s shuttle and he is back in bed wondering if it is ever going to end. He tells us he becomes like a slave, like a hireling. That is part of the human condition, the suffering that we all endure.
The question really revolves around how we are going to deal with our suffering. We know for a fact that Jesus took our suffering onto Himself. The prophet Isaiah, in the fifty-third chapter of his work, tells us, “It was our infirmities that He bore.” It was for our sins that He endured all of the things He endured; He took on our weakness and our infirmities. In the Garden, He was crushed under the weight of our sins. What happens for each one of us, then, is that a choice is given in the midst of all of our suffering because it is going to be there. There is no one who is going to be able to escape it. And in this society, any suffering that comes along, we try to rush to the doctor and get some pills to cover it up or we find interesting ways of trying to ignore it, like sitting in front of the TV for hours and hours and hours, or playing video games, or going gambling, or drinking, or doing whatever it is that people do to try to cover up all of the pain in their life. The reality is that all of the things we try to do to cover it up only cause it to get deeper; it just simply digs the hole even further and we continue to go downward. We realize eventually that we have to face the reality that the suffering is there and that it is not just going to go away, and that if we try to cover it up, it only gets worse. And so the question really revolves around how we are going to deal with it.
In the Gospel reading, we see that all these people who were suffering with various ailments and with demonic problems came to Jesus and He healed them. We know that the people of Capernaum were all at the door of Saint Peter’s house – the entire town, we are told, was there – and He cured many people and He cast out many demons. Undoubtedly, the people of that town rejoiced that they were cured and that they were set free from the bondage to Satan. But we know, from what Our Lord tells us elsewhere in the Gospel, that they did not change their lives. They rejoiced that they were free from what was troubling them but they did not give their lives over to God. Jesus condemned Capernaum and said, “If the works that had been worked in you were done in Sodom and Gomorrah, they would still be standing. If they were done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have converted and they would have put on sackcloth and ashes.” But the people of Capernaum were caught up in their own selves. They rejoiced in their good fortune that they had been healed, but they refused to acknowledge the One Who healed them. Consequently, rather than the suffering they endured with their sicknesses or with their demonic problems, what befell the people of Capernaum was infinitely worse because they refused to recognize the One Who was in their midst. They sought Him for their own selfish gain, but they refused to serve the One Who came to heal them.
Saint Paul then gives to us another view of the way we can do things. We have Job telling us that man’s life is like that of a slave. We have Saint Paul telling us that he became the slave of all. So Job, in the midst of his suffering, is crushed down and he is oppressed like a slave. And Saint Paul, with the full freedom of his will has chosen to make himself a slave; he has chosen to make himself a servant of all so that he could save at least some. So we see three possible ways of dealing with things. We see Job, who at the time (at least in the little passage that we are given in the first reading today) sounds utterly hopeless. When we look at human suffering – and, as I said, it is going to be there in every one of our lives; none of us is going to be able to get around it – if we follow the logic that is presented to us in the first reading (forgetting the way that Job ultimately handled things, but just looking at what is there in the first reading), we would say, “In that case, there is no difference between human suffering and that of an animal. It is useless and worthless.” If all we do is sit there crushed under our suffering and we complain and we whine – which, if we are honest, I think we would have to admit that we do a pretty good job of that, and all too often – and when suffering comes along, rather than trying to deal with it, we try to avoid it, we are no different than what we hear in the first reading. We can look at it the way the people of Capernaum did and we can find an easy out. We can be totally caught up in ourselves and we can rejoice that we have been freed from our suffering, and then we can go out and get ourselves into all kinds of sinful exploits because now we have the capacity to do it. We can wind up with eternal suffering rather than dealing with the temporal suffering the way that it would have been better to do.
Or we can deal with it the way that Jesus did, the way that Saint Paul did, the way that Our Lady did, the way that all the saints have done, and that is to embrace the suffering, to unite it with the suffering of Jesus Christ, and to make it of infinite value because it becomes the very suffering of the Lord Himself. It becomes the means for the conversion of sinners, starting with the sinner who is suffering: our own self. It becomes the means to growth in holiness. It helps us to recognize our own weakness and therefore our dependence upon God. And like the people of Capernaum, then we will come to Jesus but for a very different reason, or at least with a very different attitude in the way that we are approaching Him.
Now what happens with most people in the midst of suffering is that we go through exactly these phases. We may wind up feeling totally crushed under our suffering and think that it is utterly hopeless, that it is worthless, that all our life is just a drudgery and it is useless and worthless. We might even think there is a quick fix to our problems and we can race to Jesus and we will see if He will just simply take it away. And sometimes He does. But the question is: What is going to be the best for us? The Lord knows that if He took our suffering away and it would only make things worse, that would not be good for us and so He will sometimes leave us in our suffering. If, on the other hand, our suffering has borne the fruit that is necessary and He will choose to take it away, it is so that we will be able to serve Him, like the demoniac that He healed from Legion who then went off and preached the Gospel to the ten cities, or like the man who had the leprosy that He healed and he went off and told everybody about it, or the blind man that He healed who went off and spoke of Jesus to everybody. Then it will bring greater glory to God. It will bring about the conversion of souls because they will hear of the healing that took place in our lives. But even when you look at the Gospels, you realize that there were thousands of people in the area of Palestine who were suffering and only a very tiny fraction were actually healed because for the rest it would have been to their detriment and not to their good.
And so what we can do is unite our sufferings with the Lord. We can become like Saint Paul and we can use our free will and we can make our suffering the very suffering of Christ. Then it brings great hope and consolation, and we can see that our suffering is not worthless but in fact our suffering becomes the most dignified thing in the entire world. Just look at the Cross. That which is the most humiliating and the most undignified thing in the world, from a human perspective, has taken on infinite dignity because it is God Himself Who has chosen it, Who has willed it, and Who has made that the means of salvation. If your suffering becomes the means of your salvation, if your suffering becomes the means of the salvation of others, if your suffering is united to the suffering of Jesus Christ and literally and actually becomes the suffering of Jesus – because you are united with Him and you are a member of the Lord, and therefore your suffering becomes divine – then it becomes the most dignified thing because you get to share in the suffering of Christ.
But the manner in which we suffer is left to us. Are we hopeless in the midst of it? Are we seeking a quick fix? Or are we uniting it to the Lord? Even when we unite it with the suffering of Christ, we must remember that there are even three stages of that. There is first the acceptance of our suffering. Once we realize that it is there and we cannot get away from it and it is not just a drudgery day by day but we need to keep going on and we need to make something good of it, and once we realize that there is not going to be a quick fix to our suffering, then we finally accept it. But as we come to accept it and we continue to work with it, after a bit we actually learn to embrace it. We begin to see that there is good that comes out of it for ourselves because there is growth in virtue and for others because our suffering becomes the means to their conversion and salvation. Then finally we can rejoice in our suffering.
That sounds to the American mind like something that is completely foolish and ludicrous, and yet it is exactly what we see in the lives of the saints. It is exactly what we hear in Saint Paul’s Letter to the Hebrews when he says of Our Lord: “For the sake of the joy which lay before Him, Christ accepted the Cross, heedless of its shame.” He rejoiced for our sake that He would be able to suffer. We can rejoice for his sake that He has given us a share in His suffering. We can rejoice for the sake of others. And then we begin to see that life is not a drudgery, it is not hopeless, it is not useless, but rather it is an immense gift and our suffering is also a gift. We need to see it that way. Rather than trying to escape it, then we begin to make good of our suffering. In fact, through our suffering, we can actually become saints. And when we ask the question very simply: Would we rather suffer a little bit here in order to become saints and go to Heaven for eternity, or would we rather escape the suffering here and choose it for all eternity in hell? I do not think there is any one of us who would say, “I’d rather escape it here so I would have it for eternity – and have it infinitely worse.”
So if we keep that in front of our eyes then we can accept the suffering, we can embrace it, we can even rejoice in it, and we can make great good come of it. Like Saint Paul, we can choose it freely. We can use it to serve others. We can unite it with Christ, Who bore our sufferings and our infirmities. And we can use it to bring about the salvation of others so that not only do we not have to suffer the eternal consequences of trying to avoid it all here, but we can help others to avoid eternal suffering as well. That is what is being offered. When we look at the options that are available to us, we need to be filled with hope. We need to reject the idea that this is just useless. We can come to the Lord and we can ask Him if He chooses to heal us, and if He does not then we need to embrace our suffering. We need to use it for the service of others and for the greater glory of God and the salvation of souls.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.