It doesn’t seem right, does it, calling suffering precious? Some might even have an angry reaction to that statement. Please know it’s one I do not make lightly. It obviously requires some reflection.
And that’s precisely why I want to tackle the topic of suffering; because there are so many ways to understand it. As I’ve found, seeing it from the proper angle can make all the difference.
Perhaps only one real certainty about suffering that can be agreed upon by all: that being, each of us will experience it. None of us will escape this world without going through some sort of suffering period.
So it’s not so much whether we’ll experience it, but how we might approach it when we do. It was Pope John Paul II who once said, “Your suffering is never useless…it’s a precious thing.” (The Sword, Volume 71, Number 1, 2011, p. 86-88)
What could he have meant by that? Edith Stein, or St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, expounded on this in some of her writings. As Sarah Borden Sharkey notes in the above-mentioned source, Stein viewed suffering as a way to build our souls, a tool that might be used to help purify our hearts.
But how can we take something so awful as suffering and see it thus? Well, for one, Sharkey points out with Stein’s help, we can become compassionate through our suffering. When we have been harmed, we come to understand what others experience when they, too, endure pain and insult. “We can become generous through knowing what it is like to barely have enough,” Sharkey said. “And we can come to value the peace of God as we struggle with domestic instability and violence.”
In other words, she said, through our trials we can begin to see the world through Christ-like eyes. “This building up of the soul is not, for Stein, simply a turning away from, or despising, earthly life. Hers is not the pragmatic advice – because you have been hurt, care a little less about the world.” In contrast, Sharkey notes, Stein believed we ought to love deeply and be profoundly invested in this world.
At the same time, Stein didn’t encourage inaction or apathy when it comes to suffering, whether our own or that of others. “It seems to me that suffering is always something that – at a very important level – ought not to be…it is not how the world ought to be and thus our hearts ought to rebel against suffering,” Sharkey said.
There it is: “Our hearts ought to rebel against suffering.”
But, as Stein pointed out, suffering “is also the instrument of our salvation. It is the pathway Christ has chosen for Himself, and thus for those who follow after Him.” (p.100)
So, suffering, from the Catholic perspective at least, is something that we ought to rebel against, but at the same time, can be used for the good – as an instrument of our salvation. We can both resist it and view it as a help in transforming ourselves to a more Christ-like existence.
There can only be good in that, it seems.
I hope that through the words of these women – one, a saint, the other, a woman who has reflected meaningfully on her words – that my initial statement of suffering as precious can be better absorbed and accepted.
Certainly, God did not create the world so that we might experience pain. We chose, through The Fall, to go our own way. We have, in essence, brought suffering onto ourselves in a collective manner.
Rather than delight in this fact, God stays near us during our suffering, gently leading us toward healing. Through Christ, we can allow our suffering to propel us more deeply into His arms.
What could be more precious than falling deeply into the embrace of Love? And that…is how suffering can become “a precious thing.”
Q4U: When has suffering turned into something precious to you?