Sunday, October 10, 2010

Suffering, Catholic style! Part Two of the suffering posts.

A few days ago, I presented a secular view of suffering. I posited that, for the secular left, suffering is seen as worse than sin or death. Suffering has no meaning, and the goal becomes maximizing pleasure and avoiding pain.

There is a very different view of suffering on the Catholic side o' town.

The late, great John Cardinal O'Connor of New York once told a suffering woman, "Christ could have saved the world by His miracles, but He chose to save the world by His suffering."

This great truth is the basis of our understanding of redemptive suffering.

Let me back up a bit...

When Adam and Eve sinned and fell from grace, suffering and death entered the world. Because of this Original Sin, we are separated from God and stuck in a disordered, fallen world. Nothing comes easy for us, and suffering is our lot. Anyone who says this world is not a vale of tears is smoking something funny, or is actually a pod person. (While most Americans are bred to believe that life should be mostly joyful with moments of difficulty, life is actually mostly difficult, with moments of incredible joy.)

So Adam and Eve blew it, and for generations (long before Jesus came), God's people tried to "make it right" with God by offering animal sacrifices to the Lord. But none of those sacrifices were good enough. Then one day Jesus came to meet us in this vale of tears. Jesus (the God-Man) bridged the chasm between God and man, and by His great suffering and death on the Cross, He offered Himself as a perfect sacrifice to the Father. Jesus' sacrifice of love was so pleasing to the Father that it merited grace in abundance, enough to redeem all the world! The gates of Heaven were now open again, to all men of good will.

Jesus' suffering was redemptive.

What does that have to do with our suffering? Well, when we were baptized, we were baptized into the Body of Christ. We are the Body of Christ. When we "offer up" our sufferings in union with Christ's suffering on the Cross, we, as His Body, are participating in His atoning work! When God the Father looks upon our offering, He sees His Son's offering, and He is pleased... and graces come flowing down in abundance!

Do you get how amazing this is??

When we unite our suffering with Christ's suffering, we participate in the redemption of the world! 

It is as dramatic as it sounds! 

When offered to God, no suffering is meaningless. No suffering is wasted. No suffering is worse than death. Suffering offered in union with Christ's Cross has explosive power, including the power to sanctify not only our own souls, but to call down grace upon others as well. The saints knew this. The saints had an abundance of grace in their own souls already, but yet the suffering they endured was profound. What was it for? What was it worth? It was offered for souls. The saints offered their sufferings for the sins of the world, for the souls of others, and it was redemptive, because it was offered in union with Christ's suffering. This is how the Body of Christ works!

Now, this doesn't mean we go looking for suffering (suffering will find us without us having to look for it), and it doesn't mean that we stand by while others suffer (we are called to ease the sufferings of others). But when suffering comes, it is not meaningless; it is of great value to ourselves and to the world.

Many Protestants object to the concept of redemptive suffering, saying, "But Jesus didn't need our help in redeeming the world. His sacrifice was sufficient. We can add nothing to it!"

They are certainly right that Jesus did not need our help. In fact, God doesn't need us at all; He is God! But if you think God wouldn't receive and use our offering, read this reflection by Jewish convert Rosiland Moss*, as she struggled with the idea of redemptive suffering when she was leaving evangelicalism for Catholicism:
I thought immediately of a mother baking a cake, and her little child in the kitchen with her. The mother has everything there sufficient for the cake; but here comes the daughter and says, 'Mommy, I want to help.' So the mother receives the daughter because that love receives. She lets the daughter put the eggs in. Is the mother sufficient? Yes. Does she need the daughter? No. Does she allow the daughter to add? Yes. The daughter's addition is not needed, but it's received and it's a true addition. And I thought, 'That's love.'
Let's look to Scripture and see what St. Paul says on the subject:
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church...  -- Colossians 1:24
What?! Something was "lacking" in Christ's afflictions? Something that St. Paul "completed" in his very flesh, rejoicing in his sufferings? What was lacking? What is lacking? Our part is lacking. Our part, where we offer our own sufferings for the sake of the Body of Christ, the Church.

Redemptive suffering. Praise God, it's a beautiful thing.


*Edited in 2019 to add that Moss is now known as Mother Miriam! A holy and wonderful woman.


  1. Beautifully said! I've been up for the past 2 hours with a feverish toddler and a baby who has forgotten how to sleep, and I've been offering it up for a friend who miscarried recently. I think that the Catholic perspective helps us turn outward as we suffer, and recognize the needs of others.

  2. Very good, Leila. It is sad that so many don't know about this. Thanks for spreading the word.

  3. Yes, and the best book I've ever read on suffering is He Leadeth Me, by Father Walter Ciszek. It is amazing....go read it if you have not already!

  4. Whoa. Let me repeat myself. Whoa.

  5. The heart of being Catholic....This makes life so meaningful! I love this post! I love this teaching, the heart of it all...!

  6. I really like the Rosalind Moss example!

  7. Amen! Amen! Love the image of mother and daughter baking a cake. His call for our participation is so humbling, and at the same time so comforting, that I can't imagine now living any other way. The intimacy of relationship we're invited to--WITH THE GOD OF THE UNIVERSE--is just downright breathtaking...even amidst the many sufferings. Thank God he knew what he was doing, even when we didn't and still don't.

  8. Sew, you are right... I believe that John Paul II said that that Bible verse is the crux of it all.

  9. I honestly think life would be unbearable at times if there were no belief in redemptive suffering. As miserable as you can be sometimes, there is pure beauty if taking all that pain, uniting it with Christ’s suffering, and offering it up for others.

  10. Love is perfected in suffering....I can see that in my own marriage and in my relationship with Christ!

  11. This is an amazing post, Leila! You have explained this so beautifully! I am going to send this to my parents because I failed at being able to explain this concept to them when I was going through our miscarriage. When I told them that I was offering up my suffering, they thought that I was just dwelling on something I couldn't change. They couldn't quite get their heads around the fact that knowing my suffering had a redemptive nature brought me so much peace.

  12. Oh, how I used to grit my teeth when I would whine and complain as a kid and my mom would simply say, "Offer it up!" To me, she may as well has been saying, "Put a sock in it!" I didn't get it at all.

    Until very recently.

  13. When our 2nd reading was that passage from Colossians a few months ago, I was trying to find an explanation. I stumbled upon Salvifici Doloris, written by JP II in 1984. It knocked my socks off. I had the Church print it for me (30 pages!) and highlighted up a storm! He said exactly what you did, Leila:

    "In bringing about the Redemption through suffering, Christ has also raised human suffering to the level of the Redemption. Thus each man, in his suffering, can also become a sharer in the redemptive suffering of Christ." (#19) WOW.


    [Suffering] "is above all a call. It is a vocation. Christ does not explain in the abstract the reasons for suffering, but before all else he says: 'Follow me!'. Come! Take part through your suffering in this work of saving the world, a salvation achieved through my suffering! Through my Cross. Gradually, as the individual takes up his cross, spiritually uniting himself to the Cross of Christ, the salvific meaning of suffering is revealted before him. HE DOES NOT DISCOVER THIS MEANING AT HIS OWN HUMAN LEVEL, BUT AT THE LEVEL OF THE SUFFERING OF CHRIST. At the same time, however, from this level of Christ the salvific meaning of suffering DESCENDS TO MAN'S LEVEL and becomes, in a sens, the individual's personal response. IT IS THEN THAT MAN FINDS IN HIS SUFFERING INTERIOR PEACE AND EVEN SPIRITUAL JOY." (#26, emp mine)

  14. Your last quote (from Colossians) took the words right out of my mouth or, should I say, my heart. Thank you for this beautiful post! : )

  15. Just what I needed to read this morning. Was suffering from my husband's insensitivity when I needed his I can actually offer that in union with Christ as a redemption for the souls of my children...I am so excited!!

  16. Here's my own simplified explanation of redemptive suffering from a couple years ago.

    I love being able to "offer it up." It's one of my favorite forms of prayer.

  17. Oh, I love that "baking a cake" analogy from Sr. Moss.

  18. A question about redemptive suffering- I'm not sure how clearly I'll be able to express my questiton, so bear with me...

    Is all suffering redemptive in nature, or does the person suffering have to "offer it up" or choose for it to be redemptive?

    Also, when we "offer up" suffering for a particular cause or person, is this a symbolic gesture, or does our does God actually do some special funds work here and use the suffering for the specified purpose? (Obviously we can't really know how God does things, I'm just curious if the Church has an idea of how this works)

  19. Good question Monica! That is something I've wondered about a lot. Here's MY answer, my understanding of it. Someone feel free to correct me if I'm wrong!

    All suffering has the POTENTIAL to be redemptive, but we must do our part to make it so. We can't simply complain our way through the pain and expect it to have some sort of redemptive power. I think it generally involves a spirit of acceptance (maybe even gratitude for the opportunity to suffer) and an acknowledgement in prayer that you're unititing your suffering to Christ (or "offering it up")

    I think that "offering it up" for other people and their intentions is just as much a prayer as actually saying a Hail Mary for them-not just a symbolic gesture. Obviously God is not ruled by our request, but if I offer up my suffering and pray "Lord, please give Monica strength during her conversion" I believe that God will give you that strength. Perhapps adding the extra "weight" of my suffering (rather than just a simple prayer)makes it a little louder? A little stronger?

    PS-I'm not in any immediate pain right now-but if I wake up sick again tomorrow like I did this morning-I'll be sure to offer it up for you and strength for your conversion :)

  20. Kaitlin- that is so nice of you. Thank you so much! (Though I do hope you don't wake up in pain!)

  21. Well I can assure you I see absolutely no meaning in suffering-for the baby girl (7-9 months) next door on behalf of whom I called the police and CYFD this morning. Her parents, who have already allowed questionable things to happen in her presence, decided to take a walk and left her alone in the house parked in front of the TV.

    Nor do I see anything meaningful in my own suffering trying to get my health insurance through the university confirmed. A mere nuisance you say? well, with only 10 days left of thyroid medication and no birth control prescription to re-fill I call it uncertainty and stress. It's not meaningful, I don't want to 'offer it up' for the sins of the world and I see this whole concept of God letting his son die painfully for other peoples' bad doings, as completely sadistic.

    To each their own, I guess. happy redemptive suffering to you all!

  22. Miss G! It's good to see you on here! You have been sorely missed on your blog!
    I wanted to touch on a couple of things. You mentioned that "the whole concept of God letting his Son die painfully for other people's bad doings, as completely sadistic."
    I can absolutely see how you would think this, but you really have to understand the historical context first. Since the fall of man in the Garden of Eden, animal sacrifices have been offered in atonement for our sins. The animals sacrificed had to be of a certain quality to be considered a good sacrifice.
    In the book of Exodus, the Hebrews are instructed to slaughter an unblemished lamb and put the blood on the door post so that they would be distinguished from the Egyptians and the Angel of Death would pass over their houses. This was the beginning of the Jewish feast of Passover.
    So since we believe that Jesus was sinless because He is the Son of God, Jesus became the unblemished lamb sacrificed for us so that the Angel of Death will pass over us, and we can have eternal life with God in Heaven. He actually died on the day that the lambs are slaughtered during the Passover feast.
    So when it is viewed in that light, it doesn't seem so sadistic, right? Also, Christ has completely God and completely human at the same time. His humanity could have easily chosen not to die for us. He could have easily taken Himself down off the cross, but He didn't because He knew that His sacrifice was necessary for the salvation of mankind. HE LOVES US THAT MUCH! Even secular culture would admire a man who lays his own life down to protect his children. That is EXACTLY what Christ did for us! It really is truly astounding, and I am unbelievably grateful.

  23. Miss G,
    Also, I'm sorry to hear you are having difficulty with your insurance. No one here is going to diminish that frustration. However, one of the benefits of redemptive suffering is that it is so comforting to know that all of our discomforts tiny or huge are not for nothing! We are doing good for the souls of others by our pain.
    Also, that is very sad to hear about your neighbor. However, I think that no matter what sufferings a person encounters there is always hope for a better outcome. You took action, and perhaps, as a result, this little girl will be better cared for. The world is better because she is in it, and her life has value even if her parents are irresponsible.
    We live in a fallen and sinful world, but there is always hope!

  24. Miss G, we are all sorry for your suffering. But isn't it better for suffering to be meaningful and even redemptive, rather than meaningless and wasted?

    As for Jesus, can't you see at least some beauty in a God who loves us so much that he deigned to become one of us? And suffered with us? And then willingly gave his life to save us? All while we were still in our sin?

    When a Christian looks at a crucifix, he sees the horror of sin and the depth of God's love for us.

    "No greater love hath man than this, to lay down his life for his friends."

  25. I was once in one of those "Word of Faith" churches, and suffering was far, far, far, far off of their preaching compass. It was quite opposite of what they preach. I am a recent revert, so I am still working on wrapping my mind around this suffering concept. I am starting to feel it, though, and just in a time in my life when I am feeling lead to put it into practice. Thanks so much for the clearly written blog! Love it!!

  26. Gwen, I just want to say that your revulsion to suffering is completely appropriate and normal. We were not made to suffer. We were made for paradise and eternal happiness through union with the author of all things good.

    "Why the cross" and "why suffering" is another post. I don't want to clog the comments, but I wanted you to be assured that the sweet baby you spoke of was never created to suffer- nor were you. And one day, God willing, we will fully understand the big picture as we rejoice with the Lord.

  27. OK, I've been pondering this post. It is a very clear explanation for me. I asked some other friends about it (all Protestant), and one replied with the explanation that the word "afflictions" is never used of the suffering of Jesus on the cross. Do you know if this is true? His point was that the "affliction" was describing what Jesus endured in ministry. These afflictions are not yet complete and in this sense Jesus still suffers as He ministers through His people.

    I am soooooo curious what you would have to say about that one. I know what my gut tells me, but I always have a hard time putting it into words.

  28. Affliction: a state of pain, distress, or grief; misery

    Hi Kristy! I am going to ask my Bible expert about that, but in the meantime, it sounds like your friend might be trying really hard to make the passage not mean what it's always meant.

    Think of the times that Jesus said to "take up your cross and follow me".... that certainly has a deep theological meaning.

    I'll be back with Gayle's response...

  29. Kristy, stay tuned for my next post, where I will give Gayle's response! :)

  30. i get confused w this understanding of suffering from adam and eve when Catholics understand adam and eve not as a literal story.

  31. Hi may! The details of the story are not literal, but there was a man and a woman (Adam and Eve) and they were real, and they sinned (some speculate that the sin was a sexual sin) and fell from grace.

  32. One of the Franciscan Friars at the chapel we attend Mass at every Sunday told us a couple of Sundays ago that if we pray the rosary and daily offering every day of our lives, we will be headed in the right direction - Heaven! I have been doing this for years and praying the Fatima reparation prayer. I have a lot of sufferings - endometriosis, infertility, severe asthma, sebborheic dermatitis on my scalp, some members of the family not getting along, ect. I try my best to offer it all up. It is not easy sometimes, but hopefully I'm helping the unborn, mothers choose life, the souls in purgatory, the sick, the dying, and helping sinners. I will continue to do what I can. My reward will be Heaven hopefully.:)

    May God Bless you and your beautiful family!

    Maria IN Mass (Maria T. Newcomer on Facebook)

  33. Hi Leila! I'm one of your blog's lurkers, reading along and trying to pick up some knowledge as a Catholic severely lacking in catechesis. I've been wanting to ask about essentially what May B was asking. If we don't believe the Adam & Eve story as literal, how do we know they were real people and the cause of all of humanity's death and disease? How do we know which parts of the Bible we are supposed to take literally? Is it just the New Testament? Thanks in advance!

  34. Hi Amy! I asked my wonderful Bible scholar friend Gayle Somers to answer your question and this is what she said:

    I had to look up the context of this question from Amy—the discussion about original grace and original sin and whether the story of Adam and Eve is “literal.” This often becomes confusing to Catholics, because when we hear of the poetic nature of the first chapters of Genesis, we think that means they are a made-up story that makes a point. That’s not exactly what the Church teaches, although it is understandable how this misconception arises. The Church says that we have “poetic truth” in these chapters—in other words, it’s a true story of something that truly happened, told in poetic form. So, we believe there really was an Adam and Eve, that all of us are descendants of that primordial couple. And we believe they really were created in a state of original grace, from which they fell through their real disobedience. And there really was a temptation from our real enemy and God’s, Satan. The drama of this real story is given to us through poetry, language that transcends time and place to teach a universal lesson in symbolic imagery (always more powerful and lasting than didactic teaching).

    It is essential for us to believe in a real first man and woman, because we believe that original sin was passed on to all humanity through procreation from them (the story of Cain and Abel makes this abundantly clear). God ordained that the choice to obey or rebel made by them would be the choice of all of us who were from their loins long before we came into being. Some charge, “Not fair! I want my own chance at making the right choice.” This seems sensible at first, but upon reflection, not so much. If we refuse to let another’s choice stand in for our own, we would also have to refuse the choice Jesus made to obey as being our own, too. This gets tricky! Would we really want to take the chance that, given our own time and place to make that choice, we’d make the right decision? After all, Adam and Eve looked like prime candidates to make the right decision, in a world untouched yet by sin and its consequences. What if we make the same mistake they made? If we reject the notion that someone else can stand in for us, then if we fall, we would never be able to receive the redemption Jesus won for us. His “yes” stands in for our “no.”

    As for the question about how we know what’s literal and not—that’s why I became a Catholic! The Church was given the charism of truth by Jesus; her teachings enable us to see how to interpret Scripture’s meaning. What a gift! For the Old Testament, the books that present themselves as historical accounts are true history. There are others that are clearly poetic in nature (i.e., the Song of Solomon), and others that are wisdom literature (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes). All of Scripture has God as its author, writing through human beings, so if a book appears to be giving us the truth about a historical situation or person, it is.

  35. If you have any other questions or need clarification, let me know! :)

  36. How do you know so much! I could listen to you talk or read your writing all day!


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