Today, September 15th, is the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows. How fitting that today some of my students want to talk about suffering, as in “If God is good, why does he allow suffering?”
This is a tough question, but not because it is intellectually difficult. It is easy to demonstrate that suffering often leads to a greater good: why else would so many people willingly undergo, for instance, the sometimes severe discomfort of chemotherapy in order to treat their cancer, or even risk their own lives for others, as soldiers have done for millennia? It is also pretty clear that we may not know the good that comes of it, such as a small child who doesn’t understand why he’s being punished for running out into the road, or a sick pet that couldn’t possibly comprehend why she’s being stuck with a hypodermic needle. It’s simply hard to accept, emotionally, that a loving God would allow such horrific suffering as some people experience, particularly suffering at the hands of evil and sadistic fellow men (I suspect that some of my students have been disturbed by events in the news lately).
Herein lies the Mystery of Suffering: even when it makes sense, it feels so wrong. The key lies in that word “mystery”, from the Greek μυστήριον, which is not something unknowable, but rather something known only through experience. So it is with suffering: it makes sense when we experience it, and experience it in the light of faith. As it happens, I heard Gary Zimak talking about this same topic on the radio this morning, and picked up this great quote: “God doesn’t give us the Grace to handle imaginary problems.” He does offer us the Grace to handle problems we are actually experiencing, as St. Paul tells us (1 Corinthian 10:13), as long as we turn to him in faith.
The Christian answer, then, is that God is not indifferent to suffering, but his concern is not expressed by giving us a world without suffering, which could well be a world without the possibility of real love, but by suffering with us. That’s why our preeminent image is Christ on the Cross. And not only does he suffer for and with us, but we can join our suffering to his: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, on behalf of his body, which is the Church” (Colossians 1:24). By joining Christ in his suffering, we share in his redemptive mission. So, not only does Christ console us in our suffering, but we can use our own suffering to help others.
Which brings us to Our Lady of Sorrows. It struck me just today how some of the joyful mysteries of the Rosary are tied in to Mary’s Seven Sorrows: the Presentation, the Fourth Joyful Mystery, is also the occasion of the First of Mary’s Seven Sorrows, when Simeon prophecies that a sword shall pierce Mary’s heart; the Loss of the Child Jesus in the Temple (the Third Sorrow) leads to the Finding of Jesus (the Fifth Joyful Mystery). How interesting that we have devotions centered on the suffering of the Woman whom all generations will call Blessed. Clearly, blessedness does not mean freedom from pain and sorrow, And yet she is the First Disciple and our Model in the Faith. If her sorrows and suffering can help bring about the eternal Joy of the Resurrection, ours will not be in vain.
The Seven Sorrows of Mary
1. The Prophecy of Simeon
2. The Flight into Egypt
3. The loss of the Child Jesus in the Temple
4. Mary meets Jesus on the way to Calvary
5. Jesus dies on the Cross
6. Mary receives the Body of Jesus
7. The burial of Jesus