One great thing about getting together with a group of enthusiastic Catholics is the possibility--nay, probability--of deep and spontaneous conversations on the most extraordinary of theological topics. Redemptive suffering, for example.
I was recently at a meeting that brought together Catholics of every variety and calling, and in the "down time" between convocations, redemptive suffering--the scandal of the cross--was the topic du jour. I had to smile inwardly. In part because there was such constancy of understanding both of the topic and its daily relevance to the Christian walk. I remember, shortly after being received, that I was astonished at the consistency of Catholic beliefs among the faithful: I knew unity was promised, but my make-it-up-as-I-go Protestant mindset was astounded, and delighted, when I kept hearing the same ideas, over and over, from all quarters.
And I remember to the instant the first time I encountered the concept of redemptive suffering, months before I began my journey to Rome. I remember the relief and joy I had when, in the course of my catechesis, I was able to put a name to it, and to realize the depth and centrality of the concept, how it was destined to change both my thinking and my living.
I was driving up the mountain in the rain, at the end of a long, dark day. One of my children was in the throes of a deep depression, the kind that divides the soul and poisons the life, and there was nothing I could do except experience the pain second hand, come running when terrors struck in the night and be rejected again and again when the black moods hit. This particular day, I had reached the end of my rope and there wasn't enough left even to tie a knot in to hang on. Through my tears and the physical pain in my gut, pain that never seemed to leave as long as I was worried about my child, I prayed more deeply than I have ever prayed before.
Please God, even if I never speak to my child again, even if I never see my child again, even if this bitterness against me never ebbs, please make my child well. Bring my child out of this terrible darkness, and into your light. Even if that means that I have to live with this pain in my heart forever, I just want my baby to be well again, and in Your arms.
It became my only prayer. Over and over, all day, every day. Eventually, God and the doctors, God through the doctors, healed: the depression vanished and I found my child back not only in disposition but in the circle of the family. Even the terrible agnostic-atheism of the college student began to fade away and the language of faith seeped back in. I held my breath and prayed again, in gratitude. I learned that it's possible to endure the most difficult things if there is a purpose, and Christ on the cross always provides us a purpose. His suffering redeems. His suffering on the cross, the cross which He occupied for us and ultimately, occupies with us.
Recently, my groom was in an ecumenical, predominantly Protestant, Bible study in which the leader made an eloquent description of the process of redemptive suffering...something not often heard in Protestant circles. In my admittedly narrow experience, it seems to me that the Protestant denominations have trouble dealing with suffering. It's most commonly configured as either punishment or trial, something either deserved or desired, and the affirmative will of God for particular persons in particular times. A lot of energy seems to be spent figuring out which it is, punishment, trial--the meaning of it all.....
I wrestled with this for years in my journey and finally decided that it was futile and probably counter-productive to try to sort of why bad things happen to good people. I decided a better use of my time was to ask God what He wanted me to do, given the situation. That started a journey that ultimately led up a mountain road in the rain, and--not coincidentally--right past the Catholic parish I would eventually join.
I suppose there are many reasons that redemptive suffering isn't well articulated in the Protestant world. In part, it may be there result of an intellectualization of the concepts of the faith. For a Catholic, being part of the body of Christ isn't just a metaphor, it is a mysterious reality. If I really am part of Christ's mystical body, then it makes perfect sense that my suffering is His as well. And His suffering redeems--His suffering, not just HIs reurrection. His suffering transforms my suffering. Suddenly, it doesn't matter so much why it is visited on me: the most perfect and innocent man in the world suffered unjustly; why should I expect to be different? It matters only that when I suffer, He is right beside me, suffering too.
But I think, really, the difficulty for my Protestant brothers and sisters all stems from those empty crosses in Protestant churches. We are an Easter people. The sacrifice is ended, the passion over. It's morbid to fix on the crucifixion. This notion of redemptive suffering means that the once-only sacrifice of Christ is somehow insufficient. Empty the cross--we are victorious over death!
Such a perspective tends to make the passion of Christ an historical event rather than an immediate and transcendent reality that is the experience of a God who stands outside time and for Whom there is no past and not future, only an eternal now. And the reality, both immediate and transcendent, is this: no Good Friday, no Easter.
St. Paul tells us I preach only Jesus Christ and Him crucified....the crucifixion is, was and will ever be central to the Christian experience, not an unpleasant detail that can be brushed aside in favor of the glorious news of the empty tomb. First there had to be a tomb.
Seeing a crucifix every Sunday (every day) meditating on the sorrowful mysteries, hearing over and over, throughout the year, readings that declare the inevitability of Christ's suffering--from Isaiah onward--makes it clear: this was the choice of God, as freely accepted as it was also the result of the decisions and actions of sinful mankind through all time. And it calls to mind: No servant is greater than his master....Where I am there will My servant be....and He is on a cross, not of His own making and not of His deserving, visited on Him by vengeful mankind as well as freely chosen by Him. The paradox, the scandal of the cross....
So the cross...If any man wishes to follow me, he must take up his cross and follow Me...
Take up the cross, indeed, but not in the sense of bearing a burden only. Follow Me...to Calvary, and there get up on that cross and suffer and die. Because only through that death can the day of Easter come. Only in the cross with Christ on it does the empty tomb make sense. Only when suffering is bound to Christ on the cross does it have any meaning, only then not the capricious result of uncaring fate or the sole actions of an uncommunicative God. Suffering with meaning can be endured--ask any mother. Empty the cross, and you lose sight of the path...the meaning of suffering, His and ours.
I haven't had to suffer as I suffered for my child since that terrible depression lifted. My life of late has been remarkably smooth and pleasant. No crosses of note...no suffering more than intermittent inconvenience and the usual slings and arrows of daily existence. Not that I am looking for them, mind you.....personal suffering is a fact of life, and it comes soon enough, often enough.
But lately, there has been a lot of suffering around me, in my immediate sphere. A friend with a complicated pregnancy. Another with a child wrestling with depression. Incest in the family of a friend. Cancer, heart disease, death, lost jobs, a home destroyed, emotional crises--the usual detritus of living long enough to see the burdens of life, the context that drives me, as Lent is wont to do, to the Sorrowful mysteries, where I pray that I might not fall asleep on my friends, that I might not add to their pain, that I might shoulder the cross.
It was in the course of such a meditation that it occurred to me that not all the crosses I am required as a Christian to carry are my own, personal ones. Sometimes the cross I am to carry belongs to another, and because membership in the Body of Christ is real and mystical, not just metaphorical, those crosses are mine too. If I take it seriously, I am meant to be Simon of Cyrene to others.
I've come to love the Cyrenian. I have a vivid image of him from Gibson's The Passion of the Christ: a passerby, curious about what's going on but not necessarily interested, pressed into reluctant service carrying the cross of condemned man, fearful for his own reputation, desirous that he not be tainted by proximity to a criminal on the way to ignominious death. It is not accidental, I think, that Simon leaves his son at the roadside, telling him to wait until he returns. Simon wants very much to protect his life from interruption by the passing of this battered man, this Jesus of Nazareth.
As Simon takes up the cross, the camera pans back to show him lifting the heavy weight, circling the long wooden beam, the arm of the exhausted Christ coming from the opposite direction, entwining with Simon's as they trudge forward. By the time Jesus falls again, Simon is a changed man, encouraging Christ with the words, "almost there..." with a gentleness in his demeanor that belies the horrible destination that lies ahead. At the end, Simon does not depart in haste to return to his son and continue on his journey; he lingers until he is chased away, not quite sure what he has seen and experienced but changed just by walking that distance with Christ.
Most of us are Simons, midway between the two thieves who also walked the road with Christ. Unlike Dismas, we do not see the reality of Christ in a flashing instant of understanding, repentance and acceptance. Unlike Gesmas, neither do we deny Him in the face of our own sin and tragedy. We stand, at the foot of the cross, wondering, and walk away to think a little more. Perhaps Simon didn't leave altogether, perhaps he waited in the crowd, watching Christ on the cross and sorting out in his own mind what was happening, what it all meant. Between Dismas and Gesmas is the path of Simon. Between Dismas and Gesmas is Christ.
I am following Simon this Lent. I am, like Simon, offering a shoulder to bear the crosses of others, because in shouldering them, I shoulder my own. Just as my suffering is linked to Christ's by the very fact that I am incorporated into His body so is the suffering of those around me linked to me for we are part of the same, the very same real and mystical body. A reality, not a figure of speech. Their suffering is mine. Their crosses are mine. Linked to Christ, there is redemption in the suffering, because Christ in His infinite wisdom and love permits it to be so. And if they cannot themselves join their suffering to Christ's, perhaps I can.
For we all stand at the foot of a cross, with Simon. And the cross is not empty.