In what he calls utter “foolishness,” St. Paul complains about his unbearable life in today's Epistle. He runs through the same litany of conceit and complaint that so often runs through our heads. Poor me, we say: I try so hard, I’m not a bad person, but look at all the bad things that happen to me! We shake our heads, playing the martyr: “no good deed unpunished!”
I labor day and night, Paul complains to the Corinthians. Through many sleepless nights, I suffer for the Gospel more than all of them put together. I’ve been scourged five times, beaten with rods three times, stoned, shipwrecked three times, clinging to a piece of wood in the open sea for a day and a night. No man has ever suffered like me in spreading the Gospel. And he is right, of course. But then he points out that his greatest “suffering” was mystical—an out-of-body experience to the third heaven, hearing verba arcana, “unutterable words,” and then a “thorn in the flesh,” an “angel of Satan to beat me.” That was his reward for bringing the Gospel at such personal cost! Perhaps this “thorn in the flesh” was an infirmity of his feet or knees, particularly difficult for one who spent his life walking around the Mediterranean region. Maybe it was relentless carnal temptations, or his bad eyes, or a temperamental weakness, like a quick temper or depression or self-doubt. Maybe it was a tumor, or psoriasis, or insomnia, or alcoholism, or migraines, or the emotional paralysis that comes with the death of a loved one.
“Three times” Paul asked God to heal him—in Biblical language, countless times-- for relief. But the Lord did not relieve him. And so what did the great St. Paul do? He stopped complaining. He embraced his weaknesses, for the love of Christ. “God’s grace is enough for me.” Mother Teresa, like St. Paul, received visions and locutions, beginning in September 1946. Within 8 months she began suffering an acute despondency, terrifying feelings of abandonment, loss of faith, and emptiness. It took her eleven years before she realized this was God’s gift to her, not his curse. “I have come to love the darkness,” she wrote to her spiritual director. She stopped complaining and said, with the Apostle, “your grace is sufficient for me.”
Graces that come only through suffering
Bad anthropology and greedy pharmaceutical companies have teamed up to promote the fantasy of human life without pain. With enough technology or psychology, we are told, we can eliminate any kind of suffering. Yes, we have to try to reduce pain in our lives within reasonable means. We should take ibuprofen, or undergo surgery, or talk with a trustworthy counselor, if those things can help us better fulfil our obligations of state. But if we find ourselves obsessed with avoiding pain, when we can’t bear any suffering, then we deny God’s saving grace at work in us. How many souls, beginning with mine, may God want to save through my affliction? “When you suffer,” said Padre Pio, “do not ask why. Ask what for?” Some beautiful things come only through suffering, self-denial, and humble submission to what we cannot control. We were made to suffer, wrote St. Therese. We were made for the passio, to receive, the deep graces that come only through magnanimous suffering.
“I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships and constraints,” Paul writes, “for the sake of Christ. For when I am weak, then am I strong.” No one denies that we often panic when feeling hemmed in by life. It is difficult to receive an insult peacefully, and to smile on our worst days. But we will gain the strength to give thanks in all circumstances when we know that God’s grace is sufficient. Lent is the time to embrace unavoidable sufferings, and to include a few avoidable sufferings, for the love of God. We cannot love Him very much if we do not suffer for Him and with Him. We cannot contain our pride unless we discipline our bodies. “Gladly will I boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may dwell within me.”
Finally: Keep your Good Humor
The priest prepares for Mass by reading through the Latin texts ahead of time. Often he sees a word or phrase in Latin that cannot be fully translated by one or two English words. In the Gospel today Our Lord describes seed that falls on rocky ground. Et natum áruit, quia non habébat humórem. “And sprouting, it withered for lack of humor.” The Latin word humor means “moisture,” but over two thousand years it came to mean “good” humor, the joyful energy, the lightness of spirit, that sees all things as part of God’s perfect will. As we suffer the inevitable indignities and outrages of life, let’s try to keep our good humor, a sunny outlook on all that the good God permits. “Take what He gives,” Mother Teresa said, “and give what He takes, with a big smile.” Or as Our Lady said, “Be it done unto me according to your word,” and I think she said it with a radiant smile.