When We Suffer, We Walk the Royal Road of the Cross
“When we have striven to alleviate or overcome suffering, when like Christ we have prayed that ‘the cup pass us by,’ and yet suffering remains, then we must walk the royal road of the Cross.” —Pope St. John Paul II
We have largely outsourced death to hospices and nursing homes. We have come to expect that all suffering be banished with high doses of medication. And like any cultural change, these decisions have an impact. Sometimes we don’t see that impact right away but the truth is that so many suffer and die alone, away from everyone else, and this allows many of us to forget that suffering and death are part of life.
Our banishment of the elderly and dying allows us to pretend that we will not, in fact, die — as its grim specter is no longer in our faces. So when something like COVID-19 comes along it is a terrible shock, a reminder that all we have built up around us is tenuous and temporary. And we do not like to be reminded of such things. We resist it. We cling to the hope that we will be saved from this temporary hiccup, this aberration, by some miracle drug or treatment. We close down everything because we believe surely this threat is temporary. We cannot even fathom continuing life in such a way. We are always just a drug away from bliss.
But death is part of this life. Pain too.
Our entire culture seems built around the idea that nobody should ever be in pain. I believe this expectation leads to the skyrocketing rates of opiate addiction that’s tearing up our country. All discomfort is an anomaly and must be remedied. With these recent months of COVID-19, people are upset. This is a little too much real life for them and many are looking for someone to blame for this unscheduled interruption. So then the finger pointing starts: You didn’t wear a mask. You went to a party. You went to Mass on Sunday. You did this to us! And this allows us to warm ourselves with contempt of others. It seems to help, but that furnace grows cold quickly. It needs to be fed. Constantly.
Christians have always understood that the way of the cross is suffering. We don’t seek it out necessarily, but we tie our suffering to Christ’s. And we do it with love in our hearts. At least that’s the goal. And right now, the world needs us to remind them that life isn’t worry-free or pain free.
When I was a kid my grandmother came to live with us. She was something else. She had, as they used to say, a sharp tongue. But she had seen a great deal and there wasn’t a person or thing that existed that didn’t require her opinion to be aired. Loudly.
But she was a great gift to us. Just hearing her stories and her world-wearied sarcastic take on just about everything was very different from how I saw the world. But she’d lived through wars, scandals and depression. She’d been told by a telegram that her son died in Vietnam. Someone who’s been through all that deserves a listen, don’t you think?
We loved her very much and found it difficult to watch her physical decline. My father carried his mother down to the dinner table every night for years. It’s impossible not to learn something from that too. That too was a great gift.
But I fear that many people today, especially young people, haven’t been given the gift of their grandparents. They didn’t get to listen to their wisdom. They didn’t get to witness their physical decline, their daily pains and their perseverance. They didn’t get the gift of watching their father carry his mother every night.
So, without wisdom and knowledge that suffering is part of life, many people today naturally demand that their entire lives be like their childhood. They want a return to a time when things weren’t hard, when money wasn’t a concern, and the specter of suffering wasn’t even a consideration.
I think about when Jesus warned about how hard it is for a rich man to get to Heaven. You remember the whole camel and the eye-of-the-needle thing, right? But Jesus wasn’t necessarily condemning working hard to gain wealth as much as he was warning us that comfort can make us apathetic. And if we are to follow Jesus, it is a way of suffering.
I think sometimes parents try to give their kids so much. We try to give our children the fulfillment of their every desire. We are heartbroken to see them heartbroken. I think that’s part of the “Everyone gets a trophy” mentality. But when we give them everything they want, we sometimes forget to give them what they need. Without wisdom or humility we send them out into the world. And when real life happens as it always does, they draw back in horror. The world is not fair, they say. People aren’t being nice! They’re not doing what I say! They expect too much!
The only way to remedy our broken world is admitting that we broke it. It. Is only by acknowledging our brokenness that we can hope to build on something. But what is it we’re building if we expect to create a world free of suffering? For Christ clearly taught us that to follow him is to pick up your cross.
So when we seek to create this new world, free from suffering, we must ask the question: What is it we’re building? I’m reminded of some words from C.S. Lewis:
“There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.”