Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Suffering Revisited

"Without even realizing it, I had reduced Jesus to the equivalent of an antibiotic..."

When I entered religious life at 23-years-old, I was passionate, idealistic and determined.  I said goodbye to the world without blinking an eye and threw myself wholeheartedly into my vocation.  I devoured the teachings and perfectly obeyed all the rules of my community and the Church.  Though it wasn’t my primary motivation, a part of me thought if I just did what was right and believed what was true, God would protect me from suffering.  After all, isn’t this the promise God makes through the Psalmist, “Because you have made the Lord your refuge, the Most High your habitation, no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent” (Psalm 91:9-10)? 

 Within the first two years of my religious vocation, life unleashed a series of events that led me to a crisis of faith.  One of my best friends from college, a devout and beautiful woman named Nicole, was diagnosed with cancer at age 23.  Six months later, filled with shock and sorrow, I was reunited with all of our friends from college at her funeral, as we asked God why.  

My mother, who was already ill at this time, was slipping deeper and deeper into depression.  As the days drew on, she lost the desire to live, wanting only to be reunited with her parents, whom she so desperately missed, despite having a family of her own who needed her.  Even though I told myself that God was all that I needed, I was still, in many respects, a little boy who needed a mother to console him.   

Living in a religious community, I not only experienced “how good and pleasant it is when brothers live in unity,” (Psalm 133:1) but I also encountered the misunderstandings, annoyances and tensions that are part of that unity.  Despite the many hours of prayer, the grace of the sacraments, and strong fraternal support, nonetheless forgiveness, charity and generosity were not getting any easier.  In fact, in some ways, they were becoming more difficult.

I examined myself repeatedly and thought, “I must be doing something wrong.  Perhaps I need to fast more, pray more or make another general confession.”  I sought counsel from books and spiritual directors believing that there must be a solution to my problems.  Once I found it, I thought, these trials would cease.  

After much searching, I began to ask, “Is this what life with God looks like?”  Suddenly, one day with this question echoing in my heart, I heard a voice that said, “Yes, this is exactly what life with God looks like.”  And then came the real stinger: “Do you think that you are exempt from human suffering because of your vocation to religious life?”  Even though Jesus had clearly said, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take us his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23), part of me believed that those words did not apply in my situation.

Without even realizing it, I had reduced Jesus to the equivalent of an antibiotic.  If I just follow the prescription: prayer, fasting, obedience, etc. then all of this suffering would disappear and I would return again to good health.  Without question, Jesus is our refuge and our physician, but he protects us and heals us in a way much different than our limited minds can comprehend.    

Looking back at those first two years of religious life, I realized that the suffering I encountered during that time was actually therapeutic for my soul and led me to an intimacy with God I had not yet encountered.  In those moments of suffering, and all the many ones that have occurred since, I am reminded of an important truth:  God is bigger than this world.  Without diminishing the importance of our earthly lives, our destiny lies beyond the limits of this world.  “For here we have no lasting city” (Hebrews 13:14).     

Despite our best efforts to avoid suffering, no one is exempt.  Too often we think that suffering is a sign that one has done something wrong, or that if that I just try harder it will go away.  Many people who have just experienced a conversion, or, like I was, beginning the initial stages of a vocation, assume this is true.  I realized, however, that this picture is incomplete.  By using God simply to avoid trials I was living only for myself.  Suffering, oddly enough, has enabled me to live for God.  

+ Fr. Jeremiah, CFR
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