The unwelcome guest

Photo: M. Laughlin Photo: M. Laughlin
When suffering visits us

Suffering is like a stranger that arrives uninvited and settles in indefinitely. Why is he here? His presence considerably alters the way we live day to day and makes him an unwelcome guest.

We could say that suffering is caused because of a deficiency, a limitation or a distortion of a good we are not part of. Suffering can be physical, moral, spiritual, affective, intellectual or material. The illnesses that results from any of these kinds of suffering are only symptoms of the absence of the good, total or partial, of that which we have enjoyed or that which we fervently seek.

Besides the gift of life, all humans have received the incommensurable gift of personal liberty. Unlike animals, our awareness of the nearness or distance of good spurs the intensity of our suffering in every dimension of our humanity.

From the moment we leave the safety and comfort of the maternal womb, we start to discover the meaning of pain, hunger, cold, light, cleanliness, etc. Undergoing this kind of suffering is not an option; we are simply exposed to it.

Our spontaneous rejection of physical pain, evidence that our autonomy was not designed to accommodate the presence of this uncomfortable guest, is the reason we seek palliatives and analgesics that have immediate effect.

Our capacity for affection, memory and the search for what is supernatural and infinite also provokes sharp pangs that are intangible and which require the direct participation of our will.

Those interior senses, and our faith in Jesus Christ, are often major causes of our sufferings, and give the diverse and unlimited dimension that St. Paul explained so well in his missive to the believers of Colossae: "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)

Suffering establishes itself in our lives despite the fact that its presence is not pleasant because it brings forth the greatest potential of our minds, souls and bodies; its presence brings good to our existence.

The sorrow caused by the death or the physical separation of a loved one enables us to recognize the bond that is created by the sharing of our daily life. It brings to mind the things we used to do and share with that person and which are now no longer possible.

The malady we are afflicted with when we realize that we have acted wrongly and become fully aware of how our behavior has affected our lives and those around us (egotism, violence, racism, etc.) can be as painful as physical suffering.

Rejection, indifference and memories of humiliating incidents frequently leave scars or permanent handicaps in the most hidden recesses of our soul. These scars are invisible, yet they are painfully evident in our hearts.

The intensity and the sharpness of those internal pangs compelled Jesus to beg for his disciples' support: "My soul is sorrowful even to death. Remain here and keep watch with me." (Matthew 26:38) And, prostrating himself on the ground in prayer before his Father he implored from the depths of his soul, "My Father, if it is not possible that this cup pass without my drinking it, your will be done!" (Matthew 26:42)

Fully immersed in our humanity, Jesus teaches us how to transform suffering. He teaches us how to welcome the strange guest so that he becomes a positive part of our humanity, so that we can walk with him, willingly and in complete freedom, until we reach perfection.

This process can only be accomplished by a heart that is in love with Jesus, a heart that seeks to joyfully fulfill the will of his Father in order to redeem his creation.

And so the author of the Letter to the Hebrews teaches us the most intimate sentiments of a suffering heart in love with Jesus when he proclaims: "In the days when he was in the flesh, he offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered; and when he was made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, declared by God high priest according to the order of Melchizedek." (Hebrews 5:7-10)

The cross becomes salvation only when we embrace it with love!

Mary shows us the road that leads beyond Calvary.

Read the Spanish version of this column. 

Northwest Catholic - October 2017

Bishop Eusebio Elizondo

Eusebio Elizondo, M.Sp.S., is auxiliary bishop of Seattle and vicar for Hispanic ministry.