To suffer with Christ
Ours is a culture of pleasure and perfection. We are encouraged to pursue every appetite and desire that might help us keep sorrow and suffering out of our lives, or at the very least, constrain them to the smallest margins. And while there's nothing wrong with doing all we can to relieve suffering, there is something deeply dysfunctional about attempting to avoid it entirely.
Suffering does not disappear. We can live comfortable and even luxurious lives, but none of us is exempt from it. We can bury it under a veneer of accomplishments and wealth, but we cannot obliterate it. We can turn ourselves away from others who suffer, and keep our distance from poverty, illness, and death. We can medicate our pain or drown our struggles in productivity. But we know that even when we cannot see it, suffering remains. And it comes to all of us.
As Catholics, it is important for us to recognize that our world's futile quest to escape suffering stands in complete opposition to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Our savior is, as the Prophet Isaiah wrote, "a man of sorrows, acquainted with infirmity" (Is 53:3). God sent his Son not as a glorious king, but as a suffering servant.
But there was another servant at his side from the beginning: Mary, the self-identified "handmaid of the Lord." And she suffered, too. Mary does not show us how to avoid suffering. Instead, the Virgin of Nazareth teaches us that it is possible to suffer well. Even more, she shows us that suffering can have eternal value if we learn how to suffer with Christ. By grace, she was preserved from sin, but not sorrow. In fact, the grace that made her the Mother of God also made her the Mater Dolorosa, the Mother of Sorrows.
Our faith tradition dedicates the month of September to Our Lady of Sorrows and names seven events in the life Mary shared with her divine Son that are worth our attention: Simeon's Prophecy; The Flight into Egypt; The Loss of the Child Jesus for Three Days; Carrying the Cross; The Crucifixion; Taking Jesus Down from the Cross; and Laying Jesus in the Tomb. In these painful moments, Mary reveals that God is not only present when we suffer, but that he is at work in and through that suffering.
At the beginning of Jesus' life, Simeon's Prophecy fell as an unexpected shadow on an occasion that was otherwise full of joy. We recite the Presentation in the Temple as one of the rosary's joyful mysteries, and yet it is in that context that Mary's expectations are divinely redirected. If she was tempted to believe that life as the mother of the messiah would be all hearts and flowers, Simeon's word to her made clear that it would not be: "And you yourself a sword will pierce so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed." His words should remind us too that we cannot avoid suffering any more than Mary could.
At the end of Christ's life, in his Passion and Death, we see Mary standing beneath the cross. Instead of railing against injustice or collapsing in grief, she accompanies her son through it all. She may not know how God will make sense or use of this, but she stands with him in it. She allows the full force of the pain into her heart, trusting in God's goodness and his will no less than she did when the angel Gabriel first appeared to her. Even when we are able to accept our own suffering, we may struggle to accept what those we love must bear. Mary shows us that pain can be swallowed up by love; and that suffering can be an unexpected source of intimacy. When it is, we call it sorrow.
In this life, we will not see the end of pain and grief, suffering or sorrow. But like Mary, we can learn to find God in the midst of them. For he is present to us and with us and uses all things -- even those we would avoid if we could -- to save and sanctify us.
- Jaymie Stuart Wolfe is a Catholic convert, wife, and mother of eight. Inspired by the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales, she is an author, speaker, and musician, and provides freelance editorial services to numerous publishers and authors as the principal of One More Basket. Find Jaymie on Facebook or follow her on Twitter @YouFeedThem.