Change of Focus

New converts to anything are notorious for zealously spreading whatever they’ve recently converted to. I, like all the rest, have done my fair share of trying to convince people that Catholicism is the most reasonable choice available to mankind that ever existed. But a recent conversation with my wonderful RCIA director struck me. We noticed, people don’t convert because they’re argued into it. Although some convert because they married a Catholic and they just want to unify the family or raise the kids a certain way, other people convert because they witness someone’s faith and they recognize something authentic about it. I’m not even an exception, despite all the arguments Chris and I have had about religion. It was his faith, learning the truth about the Church, and experiencing it for myself that converted me.

On top of this revelation, I also find that I’ve reached a place where I’m tired of wasting my breath and debating with people who stubbornly insist on seeing things through their own myopic lenses, despite all evidence given to contradict their baseless attacks on the Church. I’m happy to answer questions and feel a duty to correct outright lies when I come across them, but overall I feel rather done with persistent debates. At least, that’s how I feel today 😉

What I’d rather do is figure out how to live my life as a Catholic. Right now, the biggest mystery for me is this whole suffering thing. Catholics are like no one else when it comes to suffering. They’re not masochists, no matter what anyone thinks about mortification. They don’t believe the flesh is evil like Puritans, instead they believe that everything is inherently good. Catholics see suffering as redemptive, because Christ redeemed death at the cross and with His resurrection, and redeemed suffering with His passion and successive glory. He even redeemed boring manual labor through His many anonymous years as a carpenter.

Exactly how is suffering redemptive? Well, I can easily see a few things. If our own God Incarnate is not above suffering, then neither are we. He gave a perfect example of submitting to suffering in humility through the events leading up to His crucifixion. We should imitate Christ in all things, and His suffering is not an exception. We share in His suffering so that we may also share in His glory (Rom 8:17).

Also relatively easy to grasp is that our resistance to suffering comes from the same source as our sins — our pride. Acceptance of suffering goes an awfully long way toward uprooting our selfishness, our pride, and the “right” we think we have for a “good life”. When we forget about ourselves, we don’t care about our own suffering. Christ defined love as giving our lives for each other (John 15:13), and this perfect love comes with perfect trust and no fear (1 John 4:18), and no harm can touch us (Luke 10:19). It’s not that we won’t encounter problems and pain. It’s just that when we reach this point of perfectly selflessly loving God and others, none of this temporary hardship matters. If we have no pride, suffering can’t harm us.

There’s a third, more mysterious aspect to the redemptive nature of our suffering as Catholics see it. This one is hard for me to accept, because it’s one of those hard to define issues that make Protestants gasp and accuse us of trying to earn our way to heaven and not giving Christ his proper glory. In our sufferings, offered up to the Lord, we share in the sacrifice of Christ on the cross in a very real way. We die with Him in His death (Romans 6:4), paying for and redeeming the sins of the world. I try to tell myself that it’s our mission as Christians to unite ourselves with Christ, it’s only natural. All good things we do are by God’s grace (1 Cor 15:10). All of our merit is through Christ’s merit. It is Christ who now lives in us (Gal 2:20), and we are a pencil in God’s hand. It makes sense… but I can’t see it.

I especially have a hard time seeing it when our entire household is sick for over two weeks straight. The flu, colds, ear infections — moaning and groaning ensues, not any thoughts of the redeeming the sins of the world. It all seems like a pointless hardship with no outward profit that we just have to survive. But I can see Christ in others who suffer graciously. It’s noble and good and makes us all admire them, because it’s praiseworthy. It’s good because God is in it. And that’s all that I can grasp.

If it is Christ living in me, how should I respond to suffering? He wouldn’t be whining about how hard His life is. He never thought about Himself enough to whine, merely to ask that His cup of suffering be taken from Him if possible, but surrendered to it anyway as the will of the Father. If it is Christ living in me, then nothing I go through is worthless, because Christ is God incarnate. Nothing that Christ does is worthless, even if I don’t quite understand how that applies to the mundane in my life. I do know that if everyone everywhere took this attitude, it would be beautiful.

So I think all I can do right now is just change my attitude. I may not understand it, but I can see that it is good. I can see that it is better to accept our sufferings and give them to God as a work done for Him, since all we do is done in service to Him (Col 3:17, 23-24). No less, then, is our suffering to be done for God. That would be funny, wouldn’t it? If we did everything for God, but nursed our suffering as some private endeavor, an injustice of the universe or Satan pitted against us alone? In which we think, what? That God is helpless or unwilling to rescue us?

Look at Saint Paul, as Rob has recently brought to my attention:

For I am even now ready to be sacrificed: and the time of my dissolution is at hand… At my first answer no man stood with me, but all forsook me: may it not be laid to their charge. But the Lord stood by me, and strengthened me, that by me the preaching may be accomplished, and that all the Gentiles may hear: and I was delivered out of the mouth of the lion. The Lord hath delivered me from every evil work: and will preserve me unto his heavenly kingdom, to whom be glory for ever and ever. (2 Tim 4:6,16-18)

Paul had hardships and physical evils. He was about to be sacrificed and everyone had deserted him, but he still said “The Lord hath delivered me from every evil work.” How can he have said that? Because he was Catholic is all I can figure. We all may suffer much in this world. The only way it cannot harm us is if we are in Christ, and He in us. Then, no physical evils can touch us. Mysterious. I’ll first work on doing it, then maybe I’ll understand it better.

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5 Responses to Change of Focus

  1. agellius says:

    As to your question, “Exactly how is suffering redemptive?”

    Lately I have started to think that it boils down to obedience. While meditating on the sorrowful mysteries of the rosary, every mystery seems to have at its root obedience.

    The agony in the garden: Christ prays that the cup of suffering might be taken from him, but that his Father’s will be done and not his own.

    The scourging at the pillar: Christ endures painful agony because it is in accord with his Father’s will. When weighing relief from suffering on one side of the scale, and obeying his Father on the other, despite the fact that Jesus could call on twelve legions of angels to come to his aid, there is no contest: obedience wins.

    The crowning with thorns: A crown woven from the branches of a thorn bush is placed on Christ’s head, in mockery of the notion of his being a king. Yet in reality he is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, from whom all kingship derives its authority. Therefore this is the most unjust humiliation anyone ever had to endure or ever would. If anyone could ever be right in protesting an insult, Christ would have been right to protest in this situation. Yet he kept his mouth shut because it was his Father’s will that he should offer himself in this way willingly and without protest. Any effort to defend himself would have detracted from the willingness with which he embraced his sacrifice.

    The carrying of the cross: Jesus is made to carry the cross through the streets of the city. In this way he is made to appear as though he were guilty of some heinous crime. And doubtless a lot of those who saw him in this circumstance would have believed exactly that. His crime was said to be violation of God’s laws. Yet the very fact that he found himself in those circumstances is proof that he would endure anything rather than violate his Father’s will. Still, he allows himself to be humiliated and insulted, and falsely accused of wrongdoing, because his Father willed that it should be so.

    Christ’s death on the cross: Shows the ultimate extent to which Christ would go rather than disobey his Father’s will. Obedience to the Father is so important that we should rather suffer a horrible, agonizing death than fail to obey his will.

    I think the willing embrace of suffering is a way of acknowledging that God created a world with the potential of falling, which did in fact fall. Yet despite the fact that it fell, God nevertheless willed that we should be born into this world, with all its attendant sufferings. Thus, it’s God’s will that we should live a life in which suffering is inevitable. Will we accept God’s will, or will we fight against it and try to “defend” ourselves from it?

    I’m not saying we should never fight against those who would harm us. I’m saying that the sufferings in life which are unavoidable — tedium, illness, accident, etc. — should be embraced as being in accord with God’s will for us, and offered in union with Christ’s sufferings, which also were endured willingly out of obedience and thereby made into an acceptable sacrifice.

    “Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice.” 1 Sam. 15:22

    Philippians 2:8 “Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

    Hebrews 5:8 “Son though he was, he learned obedience through his sufferings.”

  2. kkollwitz says:

    “..people don’t convert because they’re argued into it.”
    Yes. Arguing about religion usually isn’t productive. I do think it works well for Catholics facing potential arguments to say “this is how the Catholic Church understands this passage” or “the Church teaches that…” In my experience it tends to reduce the listener’s need to rebut; he may retain more of what you say, and privately reflect on it later. For someone who thinks the worst of the Church, to discover one little thing the Church could be right about is often an indispensable first step to conversion.

  3. Stacey says:

    Thanks so much for your insights here, agellius. I struggle a lot in understanding suffering, and I know there are others who do, too. It’s interesting that you look at the sorrowful mysteries here. I’ve written (but not finished… surprised?) a post on the sorrowful mysteries and how they’ve really opened up this whole suffering issue to me. But when I looked at them, I focused more on the humility of Christ, and didn’t think much about the obedience. I think the reason is that I have a hard time with the concept that God’s will is in everything, including our sufferings. Not that He wants us to suffer, but that it is in His permissive will, and that He much more wills that we are changed and respond well to the suffering than that we avoid suffering altogether. So the obedience aspect is elusive for me. I hope you will post more on it when I actually push through my post 🙂 It is a crucial point where you said “I’m not saying we should never fight against those who would harm us.” There is a fine line between “giving up” and “accepting” suffering, and I think it’s our attitudes that mattes. We always pursue what is good (freedom, peace, goodness, truth), but never assume we have a right to be respected and without pain and persecution. So when all these hardships do come, although we strive against them, we trust that God has a better way and ultimately our reward is not in this life.

  4. Stacey says:

    Yes, I’m trying to stick to correcting factual misunderstandings of Catholic teachings, but sometimes, even that will be rejected, like in the comments here. That’s when it’s nice to have our own corners of the internet where we can say how it is and let people come and read if they want.

  5. agellius says:

    Stacey:

    Thanks for your response to my response. It’s nice to find that other people are thinking about the same things you are. Regarding the fine line between giving up and accepting suffering, I agree that it’s our attitude that matters.

    I think it boils down to a couple of things: First, not complaining about suffering (and believe me, I’m not claiming to live up to these principles). If we see that someone is unjustly causing us to suffer, there is nothing wrong with confronting them in one way or another, or otherwise trying to alleviate suffering when it’s within our power. But I think it’s key that we not complain about the fact of having to suffer. God may not positively will this particular thing to happen to us at this time, but he did, in creating our souls, positively will that we — you individually, and me individually — enter a world where suffering is inevitable. He has also provided ways of putting it to good use — indeed, our suffering helps to “fill up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ”, and we Catholics have the Mass, which gives us a direct way of offering our sufferings in a redemptive manner, in union with the sacrifice of Christ. To complain that we “have” to do such a thing would seem mightily ungrateful.

    Second, remaining patient, and charitable towards those who cause us to suffer. Charity is pretty much mandatory, under all circumstances and towards all persons whatsoever. Therefore enduring suffering obediently means remaining charitable towards those who inflict it on us, whether deliberately or not. I assume it’s easy for most of us to see how obedience and charity are redemptive.

    In other words, we don’t have to “give up” in terms of trying to alleviate suffering, in order to accept suffering obediently and charitably, and put it to good redemptive use. We can try to get someone to stop inflicting suffering, or try to alleviate the suffering inflicted by illness or accident, while at the same time trying to remain patient and charitable, and redemptively offering, in the Mass, the suffering which we experience.

    As to the question how suffering is redemptive, the Mass, of course, is the answer to how anything whatsoever is redemptive for us. The whole Catholic faith (as you know) is built around the concept of sacrifice. We can’t redeem ourselves, but we have been given the gift of participation in redemption — of ourselves and of the whole world — through the sacrifice of the Mass, which of course is one with the sacrifice of Calvary, without which nothing we do would have any worth whatsoever.

    1 Corinthians 10: 18Look at the nation Israel; are not those who eat the sacrifices sharers in the altar? 19What do I mean then? That a thing sacrificed to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? 20No, but I say that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God; and I do not want you to become sharers in demons. 21You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; you cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.

    St. Paul is here saying that those who eat of a sacrifice participate in the sacrifice, which is why it was forbidden to eat meat sacrificed to idols: We cannot partake of the table (altar) of the Lord and the table (altar) of demons.

    But if eating of the sacrifice is participating in it, then receiving Communion is participating in Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary. In fact my old missal has the heading “The Communion — Or the participation in the Sacrifice”.

    Which is why the Mass says, “Be mindful, O Lord, of they servants and handmaids, (name) and (name), and of all here present, whose faith and devotion are known to thee, for whom we offer, or who offer up to thee this sacrifice of praise for themselves and all those dear to them, for the redemption of their souls, the hope of their safety and salvation: who now pay their vows to thee, the eternal, living and true God.” (From the Roman Canon, now known as Eucharistic Prayer I.)

    And also: “This oblation, therefore, of our service and that of thy whole family, we beseech thee, O Lord, graciously to accept, and to order our days in thy peace and bid us to be delivered from eternal damnation and numbered among the flock of thy elect.”

    Unfortunately, I find that this central aspect of our faith nowadays is hardly ever mentioned, at any time, let alone at Mass where the very thing takes place.

    Anyway I’m sorry to ramble on so long. One thing seemed to lead to another once I got going. : )

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