Trust in Him

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Secret of Suffering

The thought of heavenly happiness not only doesn't cause me one bit of joy,
I even wonder sometimes how it will be possible to be happy without suffering.
No doubt Jesus will change my nature,
otherwise I will regret leaving suffering and this valley of tears behind me.

(St. Therese--'The Story of Love')

Not too long ago, while thinking of heaven, I realized that I could not see perfect happiness in a heaven where suffering is not a part of love. It is not because I enjoy suffering, quite the opposite, it is because suffering is the strongest declaration of love we know on earth. A Poor Clare Abbess told me once that only through suffering can we, in our sinful human nature, come to know love... but in heaven, we will no longer be sinful, and it will not be necessary. Although this answer to my problem may make sense to most, it did not satisfy me. Then I came across the above quote... it surprised and comforted me to see that dear St. Therese found the same problem with heaven as I did.

Therese, slowly being consumed by tuberculosis and in terrible agony, deeply in love with our Savior, says that she did not find joy in thinking of eternal happiness with Him. At this time in her life she was beset by terrible doubts and an overwhelming darkness... she even felt that there was no eternity. Her entire being relied on the purest faith in God, without support or consolation. I read somewhere that Therese once said that she would prefer blind faith to visions and mystical experience... just so she could believe without seeing. Why, if her spiritual and bodily suffering were so intense, would she prefer the suffering of earth to the supreme joy in heaven?

The answer to this question is found in Jesus Himself. The all perfect God, the wellspring of love, made His greatest declaration of love to His people through the greatest suffering. Jesus suffered an agony of soul and body greater than we could ever imagine, and He died utterly alone in His sufferings. He did this for people who hated and scorned Him, He did it for those who would never repay His love, He did this for the very people who put Him to death... Jesus set an example of perfect unconditional love through suffering. For this, He has made Himself infinitely lovable. We, modeled after God's own nature, love those who give to us, especially those who sacrifice their own comfort or riches for our sake. We love those who prove their love for us by submitting to our wishes at the expense of their pride or well being. Marriage itself is a complete sacrifice of oneself into the spouse's hands, and likewise the spouse's sacrifice into our hands. Jesus rightly said that there is no greater love than a man to give his life for a friend, for that is all he has. But by friend, Jesus did not only mean those who loved Him back, or appreciated His gifts...

Later in the letter, cited at the opening of this post, Therese insists that her desire is not to receive personal happiness or consolation... but only to give pleasure to Jesus. The more it cost her to give to Him, the better, for she desired to give everything. What do we give if we give of what we own, what we already are? Is it not far better to make a new gift through some action, some energy, some new exertion? Those who are not worldly minded appreciate the labor and time of a friend more than all the empty gifts of money he can give. Do you think that if we threw our bodies into a fire to sacrifice them for Jesus' sake, He would be pleased? We, and all we have, are already His if only He willed to take them. But He does not claim us, He wants us to be free, so that we, of our own accord, can give Him love through thought, word, and action. Only those who live can do.

Suffering is defined of the bearing of pain or distress. If we bear it, and we welcome it, for Christ's sake... what better declaration of love is there than this? Jesus does not desire, however, our suffering. In fact, Therese once said that He must "close His eyes" when we must be in pain, so as not to watch. If this is the case, why does He call us to take up the cross, to suffer? Jesus wants our love. He wants us to accept His proposal of espousal to us, so that He can flourish His love upon us. But if we genuinely accept so deep a commitment of love, and see the sacrifice Jesus endured for us, is there any way we will not be moved to return the declaration of love?

There is, also, another aspect of this suffering. Suffering is not really suffering unless it causes us pain and distress, therefore to desire suffering is to desire something we are extremely adverse to in order to show our love to Jesus. When we are in the midst of suffering, if we have offered it to Jesus, our love is the greatest. For at the moment that love tears are hearts to pieces, at the moment that the pain is the greatest, is the very moment when the divine-like passions of love rise within us. At the very moment that body and spirit are chopped down to nothing, it is that moment when the love is loosed from the bonds of selfishness and the restraints of fear and hesitation, and that is when love soars.

Those who have been humbled beyond recognition, those who have been broken of all icy dignity, those who have been ridiculed until they are reduced to children, those who have been reduced to utter poverty, those who have been beaten and have surrendered... it is these who are exposed to true virtue. It is these who can call upon God's mercy, it is these who are most grateful, for they know they deserve nothing and need everything. It is these who give everything without expecting, nay, without even desiring reward. They are no longer afraid, for they have nothing more to lose, therefore they boldly approach the divine mercy in their extreme neediness. When seen in this light, even our human imperfections, the sources of much of our suffering, are dear to us. Only through these imperfections can we begin to approach God!

Why do I call this post the "secret" of suffering? Our world is troubled, and our humanity is fearful. Our understanding of love is distorted and unclear. This love which I speak of is Divine and perfect... it is deeper than we can fathom, it is consuming, and it drives us to perfect and mutual surrender. It is a love for which all of us were created, therefore every one of us experiences it in some measure and form, but it is never truly understood until heaven. I say the "secret" of suffering... for what I have just described is how suffering brings such intense love. To those who have never experienced this love, or who do not understand this secret, I am a crazy fool who desires pain. I'm in the habit of describing heaven as "love greater than happiness," for I cannot describe love apart from suffering. I have often said that I would willingly spend eternity suffering for Christ, and I do not understand why Jesus would not desire this act of love. I solve this thing that baffles me in a few words "in heaven, happiness is love," but my heart will not feel this is the true answer until Jesus Himself has explained it to me.

"My vocation is love. To be the heart of the Church until the end of history. My work in Heaven begins with my death, for my mission is to make others love Jesus, as I love Him."
(St. Therese)


  1. Very true as a most realistic truth as it is in daily life. and secondarily through Jesus His Mother suffered as far as seeing her own Son suffer on the Cross and finding that Christ was at the Temple in which shows that we truly aren't the only ones that do suffer in the world Christ, Mary, and the Saints have gone through it beforehand. Now a days people look at suffering as a overbearing burden but as Sadie pointed out in this post is that it is that good can come from suffering. As Christ and Mary are called the "suffering servants" we too can look at that aspect and apply it to our lives to give back to Him who freely gives. You did a great job on the post Sadie!

  2. This post is the very thing that I needed to read. I have had some moments of intense despair and a complete lack of all hope, both supernatural and natural, since before Easter. I suppose I lost sight of what and Who is truly important. This post has helped me to refocus. I know that it will be a daily struggle (and I must daily pick up my cross), but I also know the misery of the alternative.

    Anyways, thank you so much for this post. I will pray for your vocation discernment. Although I am not actively discerning one right now, I have not completely disregarded the possibility.

  3. Thank you for your comments, Christina and Ericka. It has taken me years to develop this understanding enough to compose this post, because it is so difficult for us to grasp this secret that so often only shows itself in small ways.

    Ericka, thank you for your prayers! Know that you will be in my prayers also. Our entire lives are a journey of discernment of sorts, and I hope that whatever vocation you follow you come to know Christ's deep love for you. I too have been experiencing some depression, and I am glad that this post has helped you :).