Susanna Spencer has a masters in theology from the Franciscan University of Steubenville. She is a writer and the theological editor for Blessed is She, and writes on her own blog Living With Lady Philosophy. She is a homeschooling mother of four and lives with her family in St. Paul, Minnesota.
After dealing with several chronic local infections this past summer, I was bit by a tick in late July and contracted Lyme disease. The Lyme targeted my right ankle and knee, making it impossible for me to walk without crutches and without extreme pain for nearly two weeks. The pain persisted even when I was lying down, and I insisted to my husband that this was more extreme pain than my four natural childbirths. It was the kind of pain where you would rather have the diseased limb cut off than wait for it to heal. I do not think I would have been able to bear the pain mentally, emotionally, or physically had I not taken my illnesses to prayer and offer them as sufferings united to Christ’s one sacrifice.
The initial shorter-term severe pains and the constant minor pains that have lingered on over many weeks have given me much opportunity to embrace redemptive suffering. I have heard much about “offering up” my sufferings throughout my life as a cradle Catholic, but it is something I did not really understand until I was given an opportunity to practice it.
Pope St. John Paul II talked about it in this way:
The Redeemer suffered in place of man and for man. Every man has his own share in the Redemption. Each one is also called to share in that suffering through which the Redemption was accomplished. He is called to share in that suffering through which all human suffering has also been redeemed. 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.” (Salvifici Doloris, 19)
This idea of our suffering being raised to the level of the Redemption is such a beautiful part of our Church’s tradition. I am focusing on physical suffering here, but it rings so true for other sufferings as well. There are several prayers and Scripture passages that I have found helpful to meditate with and rest in throughout my time of illness.
1. “I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His body, which is the Church.” (Colossians 1:24)
Saint Paul gives us a scriptural foundation for offering up our sufferings. It is a great gift that God invites us to share in the suffering of his Son, one that we can rejoice in because we has his adopted children are joined so closely to his own Son. I have found it a great comfort to offer my sufferings up for the Church during our current scandal, but also for the intentions of individuals in the Body of Christ.
2. “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now. Not only that, but we also who have the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body.” (Romans 8:18-23)
St. Paul reminds us that the long toil of this life and the great pain we experience is so little compared to the joys of Heaven. When we remember that we were made to be forever happy with God, our suffering now is easier to bear. The Resurrection is a spiritual reality, and we wait for our bodies, too, to be redeemed.
3. “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For while we live we are always being given up to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh. [...]
“So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, because we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:8-11, 16-18)
This passage has carried me through much of my physical and emotional sufferings. It is so physical. I learned what it was like to be carrying in the body the death of Jesus, when I felt betrayed by my body with each new diagnosis. The world would have me mourn over each new scar and loss my health, but Christ would have me embrace my physical weakness as something to offer with him on his cross. Lyme is a disease that really does make one feel that they are wasting away. The effects are very debilitating and the recovery is long. It is helpful for me to remember that by sharing in this suffering, the life of Jesus can be made manifest in my very flesh.
4. The Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick
When I was surrounded by my husband, children, and pastor in my living room, having my feet, hands, eyes, nose, ears, and mouth anointed and heard the prayers for me to be well so that I could serve the Church, I felt so loved by God and his Church. I felt that I, myself, as a small part of the Body of Christ, was an important part. The Church cared that I could not walk or serve my family and that I had been fighting chronic infections for months, and prayed for my healing.
But what struck me the most about receiving this sacrament for the first time was the solicitude for the physical health of the person receiving it. Yes, spiritual health is most important, but physical health is a good as well. We see this in the Gospels when Christ forgives the sins of the suffering person, but then heals the person’s body as well. Our physical suffering, while it can be redemptive, is a sorrowful thing.
5. The Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary
I have found great comfort meditating on the Sorrowful Mysteries individually and during a whole Rosary. During my weeks in bed, I would pray the Rosary out loud, and my children would often climb into bed and pray with me. The meditative nature of the Rosary helped me be present to Christ’s suffering in my own. When my Lyme was at its worst, my ankle pain would wake me up at night it would take what seemed like forever to fall back asleep. I found that praying with Christ’s Agony in the Garden and committing myself to the care of the Blessed Mother helped me rest peacefully while I waited for sleep.
6. The Stations of the Cross
My spiritual director first recommended the Stations of the Cross to me to pray with during a great emotional suffering I was dealing with. I had really only prayed them before during Lent on Fridays, but over this past summer they have become a regular part of my prayer life. Each one of the Stations has a particular importance to me, as I have found that all of my sufferings are parallel to those of Jesus and Our Lady. And their sufferings have made mine feel lighter.
I have been particularly drawn to the prayers by St. Alphonsus Liguori, especially the repetition of this prayer in each station: “I love Thee, my beloved Jesus; I love Thee more than myself; I repent with my whole heart of having offended Thee. Never permit me to separate myself from Thee again. Grant that I may love Thee always; and then do with me what Thou wilt.” It reminds me that I am not suffering alone, that my suffering has a purpose, that I am meant for God alone, and that loving him is greater than anything else.
I would love to hear about in the comments Scripture verses and prayers that have helped you in your sufferings. In your charity, please keep my complete healing in your prayers.