St Therese: the Mission of suffering

Sr Eileen Healy OLA shared on the 5th night of the SMA Novena in Blackrock Road, Cork. The following is an edited version of Sr Eileen’s presentation.

Our reflection this evening is on the Mission of suffering. We would all chose to live in a world free from sickness, accidents, conflict and crime, but that isn’t a reality. It never was and never will be. It wasn’t a reality in the life of Therese or in the life of Jesus both died at a young age in great suffering and pain. We are all part of the same natural world where accidents happen, illness physical and mental happens, disappointments, old age and death occur and life doesn’t always turn out the way we planned.

Suffering comes to us, not because we are bad or picked on by God or by life but because we are human and fragile. Suffering is said to be part of the job description of being human, something that nobody avoids no matter how clever or wealthy.

Talking of suffering being a mission may appear strange as we associate Mission with doing, giving of self or making a commitment. We all have a mission in life, a task, a vocation, something that gives meaning to our lives that answers the question “Why am I here?” Suffering is indeed a Mission a task, a job and a difficult one at that and it is so important, like any other mission in life to try to do it to the very best of our ability and to make it as life-giving as possible. We don’t put life on hold while we suffer and we need as much courage, faith and love as we can gather from self and others to transform it and not allow it to diminish us or crush us.

Victor Frankel wrote, “He who has a “Why “to live can bear almost any “How”. Some suffering and hardship we endure willingly for the sake of those we love e.g. children, family, country, faith or sport. Love gives meaning, makes burdens lighter, we forget ourselves for a greater good. There is nothing good about suffering in itself, so we must do all we can to prevent it, treat and cure what is treatable; healing illness was a big part of the mission and message of Jesus. Suffering comes to us in many guises some obvious some hidden, some we can admit some we are ashamed of and we suffer in silence. It can creep into our lives like an unwelcome guest and its size is unimportant, like gas it fills the whole of our being and we cannot explain it as the pain is emotional not rational. It hurts like a stone with jagged edges. We can feel powerless and not in control when suffering visits us but we do have a choice in how we react to it.

We all know people who have amazing courage in the face of suffering and loss and continue to love, to be warm and gracious and forgiving and who seem to have touched a depth only possible in suffering and maybe realised there was a part of them that was bigger and greater than them and that suffering could not touch. As the ancient poet said, “There is a glade in the forest that is only found by those who are lost”.

During our lives we weave the beautiful tapestry of our journey with its darkness and light its joys and its sorrows. We weave into our tapestry, not just the silvers and golds of our achievements but all the colours of our lives, the reds of anger, the purples of loss and pain, the blacks of despair and depression and the greens of envy, a living symbol of our lives, each colour adding to the beauty of the finished masterpiece. The Spirit lives equally powerfully in us, and God’s work continues to be done in us in suffering as well as in health, in the limitations of age as well as in youth and in the depressed, fearful and troubled parts as well as in the successes and joys. Every moment of our lives are precious and sacred because our bodies, minds and skills are the way that God reaches out to his people.

In all our lives we are privileged to touch and minister to Christ in the pain, loneliness and confusion that we meet every day. In our times of suffering God so often comes to us in the tender loving care of today’s Veronicas and Simeons to share our cross and ease our burden. Christ’s hands to hold us, Christ’s words to comfort us, his eyes to look compassionately on us and his feet to walk beside us. I have so often marvelled at the many parents who tenderly hold their child’s pain, struggle or emotional turmoil. Like Veronica who held out a towel to wipe the face of Jesus, we too can enrich our own and other’s lives by holding out the towel of acceptance, care and acceptance to each other. When we open our hearts to each other, when we let life touch us deeply, we lighten each other’s burdens, share the mystery of each other’s suffering and ease the loneliness and isolation of bad days.

This is our precious unique life, our one and only journey through God’s beautiful world. Often we find the going difficult, we struggle to hold the suffering of others and our own in some positive and life-giving way. Jesus didn’t come to explain suffering he came to be with us on our journey, in our joys and our sorrows, in our successes and failures and particularly in those parts of our lives when the mission of suffering is an uphill struggle.

We feel small and powerless in these times and like the small child who is lost and afraid we yearn for comfort, warmth, security and safety. Our loving compassionate God comes to us in our need often in the guise of a kind neighbour, friend or family or in quite moments of prayer where we rest in that place within where the Spirit lives. We spend so much of our lives looking outwards to achieve success, fame and acceptance that it is often only when we are stripped of many of the familiar mirrors through which we view our lives that we are gently led into the source of all life, the one part of us that cannot be diminished by suffering and that will outlast all we are asked to endure on our pilgrim journey.

On that journey let us be there for each other with the smile, the comforting word, the gentle touch or just our silent presence. As well as honouring Christ in the Eucharist here, let us also recognise Him in the Eucharist of suffering humanity and suffering earth.