Struggling on the Way of the Cross

“Christ wishes to be united with every individual, and in a special way he is united with those who suffer.” —Pope St. John Paul II

Carl Bloch, “Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane,” 1873
Carl Bloch, “Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane,” 1873 (photo: Public Domain)

I’m reading Mother Angelica’s book, Suffering and Burnout, in part because I need to learn how to cope with the lurking stress that comes with the everyday of a loved one’s cancer. It’s not so much that I’m always stressed or always suffering, or that my husband is always stressed or always suffering — it’s that the cancer never leaves the room, even when we’re not thinking about it.

So I’m wrestling with my own weaknesses, with my desire to not have to struggle, with my desire for us to somehow go back to normal, but the new normal is cancer. The other part of the wrestling match within our family is how much we don’t want to be defined by the new reality, and how much the new reality defines so much of what must be done.

I liked Mother’s classification of suffering — it can be wasted, preventative, restorative, corrective or redemptive. She has more categories, but these stuck out for me. Wasted is when we suffer needlessly, when we suffer and allow ourselves to then justify our own behavior based on our pain. When our suffering neither brings about a good — like diet and exercise equaling better health (either preventative, restorative or corrective), or studying, knowledge. It's also wasted if no spiritual good like healing/health of others, spiritual healing/growth in us (restorative/redemptive) is manifested. Much of the early wrangling with cancer, I’ve probably wasted.

The Catholic Church teaches that all suffering can be united with the cross, the Via Dolorosa. While I know we can unite our pain with Our Lord’s passion, I forget. I chafe, and sometimes I feel — and know that’s the Holy Spirit telling me I’m doing it wrong — that it’s a silly act, like even if I do offer it up, nothing is changed. Feeling shouldn’t enter into it, because God does not work on a quid pro quo basis in prayer. God works on getting each soul to love more, not based on who we are, but who God is — loving each soul because God is love. Any feeling I get, I get — just like exercise benefits me, even if I hate it, even if the scale doesn’t reward me the next day.

Sometimes, I can offer as a form of prayer getting up at 5:30 a.m. for a person who is far from the faith. Sometimes, I just suffer. It's not a singular technique, nor is it habitual for me. It remains always (and I suspect for everyone save those with a very special charism), a laborious act of the will. Yet I know even the slightest act of selflessness — think Saint Thérèse of Lisieux — doing little things with great love, wins souls. I think of her and see how far I am from anything so gracious.

So we face the daily demands of this disease and its treatment. The Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary most closely connect, and it is there, in the midst of saying the Hail Mary’s of each decade, that I lodge my pain, wedging it into the prayers, hoping it stays. Right now, I’m struggling with being easily provoked, being easily stressed, easily strung out.

So I turn to the Agony in the Garden and recognize that even Christ stressed out. He wept blood. The great unknown that cancer thrust into the psyche of the family, and into my heart, overwhelms. The reality that others do not always recognize my stress is there too. The Apostles fell asleep in the garden while Jesus wept blood, even after he told them his fear, and asked them to “stay awake.” My children, being children, aren’t obligated to notice — and in my better moments, I recognize that I don’t want them taking on what they shouldn’t have to, and thus, this is my cross to shoulder. However, I struggle.

I spend a lot of time picking my cross back up, because I keep wanting to drop it and indulge in impatience, ill temper, or even just doing little things with great stress. I also keep asking, “Could you take this cup away please?” I know all of discipleship is learning to embrace the cross of our lives like a lover. I’m not there yet, but I know that’s the objective: to hold on to the nails and not the hurt, and to seek to be a source of healing and solace, comfort and light, hope and aid to all we encounter.