Archbishop Hughes visited me while I was injured and in bed on two occasions. On each visit, he offered some advice that stuck in my head:
It is important that we never waste suffering.
You have been given a gift to participate in the sufferings of Christ and the Paschal Mystery. Those mysteries that we enter into symbolically in the Triduum, you are actually experiencing.
Both times he visited me with these sage words, I was acting jovial and happy, but I admit that I was deeply suffering inside. The struggles I was encountering were far from easy for me to face. Another friend pointed out that the physical suffering that I was experiencing was sure to make my emotional and spiritual suffering seem all the more insurmountable. I have to admit, she was right. Facing emotional and spiritual suffering while it is multiplied by physical suffering is daunting to say the least.
This hasn’t been my first experience of Christ’s passion. I once asked Jesus to let me understand His suffering. So, God allowed those closest to me to abandon me one by one. That wasn’t what I meant, but I have to admit, it was what I had asked. Clearly, the physical suffering that our Lord underwent was dwarfed by the abandonment of His friends of the years leading up to his passion. Now, Over the last few weeks, it seems I was finally ready to face a far more profound answer to that prayer.
When the archbishop said that I should remember to never waste suffering, I didn’t want to hear it. I knew it was true, but I also knew that I was in pain, and I just wanted to hurt. Then, after my surgery, as I lamented the fact that I would miss the liturgies (or, more properly, liturgy) that marks the holiest part of the Christian calendar, he offered those second words of wisdom. Even though I was to be absent from the church building as the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, the Veneration of the Cross, and the Easter Vigil were to take place, if I let myself, I was gifted to be even more present in the sufferings of Christ. I was, as Christ experienced His passion, experiencing my own to be united with him.
The archbishop was right. I had been given a great gift. I was encountering and experiencing the emotional, physical, and spiritual sufferings of Christ in my own passion during the waning weeks of Lent. I was experiencing the abandonment of some of those closest to me. I could no longer carry even the weight of my own body, much less a cross. I felt the loneliness that was behind Jesus’ cry on the cross as I cried myself to God, “Why have you abandoned me?” I wish I could hold my head high and say that I never lost hope through it all. But I did. I broke down several times; the tears have come; I gave in to the despair that knocked on the door. At the same time, I have returned. That’s something.
God has absolute control over the entire universe, except one thing He has given into my control: my will. It is the only thing truly sovereign to me that God refuses to take over. That means to unite my suffering to that of Christ is to say with Him, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me; still, not my will but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42, NABRE) I unite my suffering to that of Christ by uniting my will to that of God.
As I spend the next three days apart from the community, I am, in a way, more joined to the community than I could otherwise be. If I allow it, I am joined to Christ in the agony He experienced in the Garden of Gethsemene, as He was betrayed and abandoned by those closest to him, and as He endured physical torment to the point of death. I hope that I am not meant to suffer unto a physical death, but, instead, a death to the self that I have long been. God calls me, as He does each of us, to a death to the self so that we can live for Him. There have been parts of my life and ministry that have always been for me. They have been to fill holes in my heart and in my life. I have a choice today: will I allow God to fill those, or will I continue to fill them with the temporary fixes of the past?
That’s how I can embrace and not waste the suffering of today. I can encounter Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection in a way that it can heal my heart as I’ve never allowed it to do before. I can allow this experience to give me the strength to live as God has wanted me to live. I know that I sound like I’m just being preachy now, but the harder part is asking myself if I can really do what I’m saying here. Can I? No. Can God in me? Yes. I’m not claiming to be Christ; but I’m asking to be united with him as I grow in and from this suffering.