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By Constance T. Hull, Catholic Exchange, Feb. 14, 2019
There is nothing in this life that has taught me more about human nature, myself, and the mystery of suffering than the Cross. It is through meditating on and enduring my own Crosses and the Crosses of those around me that God has broken into my life in the most profound ways. Broken in is the right way to describe it, because God has had to break me open and cut me deeply in order to begin transfiguring me into the person He is calling me to be.
This has been a life-long process of coming to accept and stand fast in my own Crosses, but also in learning to stand fast in the face of other people’s Crosses. The impulse of the Fallen human being is to flee from the Cross. It is not incidental that Our Lady and St. John, as well as St. Mary Magdalene and a few other disciples, were the only ones able to stay with Our Lord in His Passion. All but one Apostle, Our Lord’s closest friends, His priests, abandoned Him in His darkest hour.
This is not only something Apostles did in the distant past. It is just as true today as it was then. It is an aspect of our human experience and the fear we carry in our daily lives that drives us to turn from charity and flee from the people we love and our brothers and sisters in Christ. If you want to understand the current response to the sex abuse scandals plaguing the Church then look at the Passion narratives. We all flee from the Cross in one way or another, which is why our lives are a conversion process. A continual running from and returning to God.
If we look back over our lives, we will begin to see those times when we fled from the suffering God allowed to happen in our lives or the times we ran when someone we know went through a period of agony. How often when a serious medical diagnosis is given to a spouse does the other spouse flee? In fact, many of us know people who are divorced because of the illness of a spouse. How many of us fail to visit or help out sick family and friends because it makes us uncomfortable? How do we respond when a brother or sister in Christ tells us difficult news? How often do we think about how uncomfortable that news makes us rather than thinking about their suffering? We tell ourselves that our distance is for their own good and not to burden them, but this is a lie we tell ourselves to make ourselves feel better. It’s really about our desire to flee from their Cross.
More than anything we avoid our own Crosses that God gives to us. We try to dull the pain or ignore them all together. We attempt to drown out the deep existential fear that crops up when we realize Christ is asking us to go deeper, and to go deeper is to enter more fully into the Crucifixion. We have to learn to simply endure and be present in the Crosses we are given in this life. Every single one of us at some point must stand alone with Christ and endure our own crucifixion. No one else can walk with us in that moment except for Christ, even as we are united to the Mystical Body.
Like all mysteries, there comes a time when we must simply fall silent in the face of suffering. Words fail. Suffering is one of those mysteries that when we reach a certain point the only answer is to fall silent. The Cross is silence. It is an agonized silence, but it is the silence of all of Creation as the God of the Universe dies for us. He enters into the deepest and darkest places within us. He endures the terrible fear, suffering, pain, torment, and loneliness of the human condition. He endures it for our sake and falls silent.
When we are faced with a loved one dying from Stage 4 pancreatic cancer or standing in front of the father whose daughter was murdered by terrorists there is nothing we can say. There are no words that can be offered in those moments that can truly bring comfort or peace. This is deeply disconcerting and humbling at the same time. It’s why when we are struggling to find something to say, we must realize that there is nothing in reality we can say. I think this realization is the starting place for how we enter into and embrace both our Cross and the Crosses of others.
Much of the fear we carry in helping others who are suffering stems from our own pride, vanity, and selfishness. We focus too much on ourselves. How will I look? Will I say something stupid? Probably. We all do! Am I a burden to them? Do they really need me to visit them in the hospital or at home? In order to be present to those who are suffering whether it be illness, job loss, divorce, or any other pain that others carry, we have to learn to be quiet and simply be present. To listen rather than speak. We have to stop worrying about ourselves and focus on them. We must become acquainted with, and comfortable with silence.
Since we are verbal creatures, we rely primarily on language in order to communicate. Interestingly, the majority of how we communicate comes from our body language and our eye contact. In fact, we can say much more with those two forms of communication than we can in hours of conversation. The receptivity of a person or their openness to others is most often observed through body language and eye contact. Someone may be sitting in the room with us, but we can tell if they want to be there or not or if they are uncomfortable. Very few of us are able to completely control the messages that we send out with our bodies.
As someone whose husband is chronically ill with a dangerous disease, I think it’s important that we as the Mystical Body come to understand that being present to one another in our Crosses is not about what we do or get out of it. It is about the person we are being present to. None of us expects our family, friends, or priests to take away our suffering. That’s impossible. We don’t even expect people to have the right things to say. As I said before, there often are no words. Simply being present and willingly visiting or entering into that suffering is all that is required. All that is needed is love. Standing fast together at the foot of the Cross is what is being asked of all of us. It’s as easy and as difficult as that.
The reason Our Lady, St. John, and St. Mary Magdalene, as well as others, were able to endure the Passion of Our Lord is because of how much they loved. It is love that gives us the strength and fortitude we need to endure the great mystery of suffering in this life. If we are infused with the divine love and deep fraternal charity then we will be able to be present to others. That love radiates forth in our person, which means very little needs to be said. Sitting and watching TV with someone who is ill or lonely can be a tremendous act of charity. Simply looking into another person’s eyes can be all that is needed to pass on more than any words can say. Holding someone’s hand while they sleep in their hospital bed is often enough. It is about connection, not fixing the suffering.
In order to do this however we must rely fully on the love of Christ and the peace that love gives to us. It is from that place of peace where we can enter into the great silence of human suffering. No we can’t fix it or make it better. The more we try, the more often we make things worse or we distance ourselves from others. Resisting the urge to flee is accomplished through focusing on the love we have in Christ and for one another. Let us look to the examples of Our Lady and St. John as we learn to enter into the silence of the Cross animated by the love of the Most Holy Trinity.
“This is my commandment: love one another as I love you.”