by Thomas Merton
I pray that we may be found worthy to be cursed, censured, and ground down, and even put to death in the name of Jesus Christ, so long as Christ himself is not put to death in us. – Paulinus of Nola
The Christian must not only accept suffering: he must make it holy. Nothing so easily becomes unholy as suffering.
Merely accepted, suffering does nothing for our souls except, perhaps, to harden them. Endurance alone is no consecration. True asceticism is not a mere cult of fortitude. We can deny ourselves rigorously for the wrong reason and end up pleasing ourselves mightily with our self-denial.
Suffering is consecrated to God by faith—not by faith in suffering, but by faith in God. Some of us believe in the power and the value of suffering. But such a belief is an illusion. Suffering has no power and no value of its own.
It is valuable only as a test of faith. What if our faith fails the test? Is it good to suffer, then? What if we enter into suffering with a strong faith in suffering, and then discover that suffering destroys us?
To believe in suffering is pride: but to suffer, believing in God, is humility. For pride may tell us that we are strong enough to suffer, that suffering is good for us because we are good. Humility tells us that suffering is an evil which we must always expect to find in our lives because of the evil that is in ourselves. But faith also knows that the mercy of God is given to those who seek him in suffering, and that by his grace we can overcome evil with good. Suffering, then, becomes good by accident, by the good that it enables us to receive more abundantly from the mercy of God. It does not make us good by itself, but it enables us to make ourselves better than we are. Thus, what we consecrate to God in suffering is not our suffering but our selves.
Only the sufferings of Christ are valuable in the sight of God, who hates evil, and to him they are valuable chiefly as a sign. The death of Jesus on the cross has an infinite meaning and value not because it is a death, but because it is the death of the Son of God. The cross of Christ says nothing of the power of suffering or of death. It speaks only of the power of him who overcame both suffering and death by rising from the grave.
The wound that evil stamped upon the flesh of Christ are to be worshiped as holy no because they are wounds, but because they are his wounds. Nor would we worship them if he had merely died of them, without rising again. For Jesus is not merely someone who once loved us enough to die for us. His love for us is the infinite love of God, which is stronger than all evil and cannot be touched by death.
Suffering, therefore, can only be consecrated to God by one who believes that Jesus is not dead. And it is of the very essence of Christianity to face suffering and death not because they are good, not because they have meaning, but because the resurrection of Jesus has robbed them of their meaning.
To know the cross is not merely to know our own sufferings. For the cross is the sign of salvation, and no one is saved by his own sufferings. To know the cross is to know that we are saved by the sufferings of Christ; more, it is to know the love of Christ who underwent suffering and death in order to save us. It is, then, to know Christ. For to know his love is not merely to know the story of his love, but to experience in our spirit that we are loved by him, and that in his love the Father manifests his own love for us, through his Spirit poured forth into our hearts. . .
The effect of suffering upon us depends on what we love. If we love only ourselves, suffering is merely hateful. It has to be avoided at all costs. It brings out all the evil that is in us, so that the one who loves only himself will commit any sin and inflict any evil on others merely in order to avoid suffering himself.
Worse, if a person loves himself and learns that suffering is unavoidable, he may even come to take a perverse pleasure in suffering itself, showing that he loves and hates himself at the same time.
In any case, if we love ourselves, suffering inexorably brings out selfishness, and then, after making known what we are, drives us to make ourselves even worse than we are.
If we love others and suffer for them, even without a supernatural love for other people in God, suffering can give us a certain nobility and goodness. It brings out something fine in our natures, and gives glory to God who made us greater than suffering. But in the end a natural unselfishness cannot prevent suffering from destroying us along with all we love.
If we love God and love others in him, we will be glad to let suffering destroy anything in us that God is pleased to let it destroy, because we know that all it destroys is unimportant. We will prefer to let the accidental trash of life be consumed by suffering in order that his glory may come out clean in everything we do.
If we love God, suffering does not matter. Christ in us, his love, his Passion in us: that is what we care about. Pain does not cease to be pain, but we can be glad of it because it enables Christ to suffer in us and give glory to his Father by being greater, in our hearts, than suffering would ever be.
Editor’s Note: This essay comes from the devotional, Bread and Wind: Readings for Lent and Easter, published by Plough Publishing House in Walden, New York, in 2003. It’s found on pages 43-4
Image: By Drawn by Gustave Doré, engraved by J. Gauchard Brunier. Scanned by Michael Gäbler with Epson Perfection 4490 Photo. – Wood engraving drawn by Gustave Doré, engraved by J. Gauchard Brunier. Printed in: Heilige Schrift 1867 by Stuttgarter Druck- und Verlagshaus Eduard Hallberger. Reproduction by this reprint: Die Heilige Schrift des Neuen Testaments illustriert von Gustave Doré, Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt 2005., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18598259