Suffering cuts across all boundaries; rich or poor, old or young, male or female, Christian or non-Christian. It is an experience that we all know of, we’ve all suffered. But it is only Christianity, and really only Catholicism, that can give meaning and purpose - and even a motive- to suffering.
In Hinduism, suffering is seen as the result of karmic debt owed from a prior incarnation.
To Buddhists, life is suffering because we desire. If we were to achieve non-desire, we would no longer suffer.
In Islam, suffering is seen as the result of Allah's positive will for his slaves.
In Rabbinical Judaism, suffering finds its reason in the order of justice, a result of Jewish disobedience.
For some brands of Evangelical Christianity, suffering is the result of personal sin, a "health and wealth" gospel.
Other Christians are unable to grasp the nature of suffering because of their abandonment of the doctrine of Original Sin and the reality of its effects.
We, as Catholics, believe suffering is never positively willed by God, but is allowed for our benefit in some way. We may not understand God's reasons for allowing our particular suffering, but we can still, by His grace, sanctify it.
In the Catholic view, suffering is to be sanctified. Not because it is by its nature a good or even necessarily part of God’s perfect will, but because it is, at minimum, part of God’s permissive will. Paul tells us in Romans, “We know that all things work for good for those who love God.”
So suffering that is sanctified is suffering that works for good. Every action that is permitted by God contains within it the seeds of our sanctification. Intense suffering is a powerful opportunity to grow in holiness because of the difficulty of practicing virtue while suffering.
This sanctification of suffering is called sacrifice. The ultimate sacrifice, the ultimate act of sanctifying suffering is Jesus’ death on the Christ, His laying down of His life for us. His love for us was made manifest by His suffering, but not just His suffering, the sanctification of His suffering. He climbed upon the cross out of obedience to His Father. He stayed there out of love for us. He sanctified His suffering through embracing and loving His cross. Love blooms were suffering is sanctified. How could it not?
The link between suffering and sanctity is love of God. Again, Saint Paul’s verse in Romans tells us “We know that all things work for good for those who love God.” For those who love God. Love God with all your heart, mind, soul, strength; seek to do His will no matter the cost and you will be guaranteed to suffer well.
St. Teresa of Avila repeatedly said, “Let me suffer or let me die.” She saw no use to live without suffering because she knew to suffer was to love and to love was to live in God. Saint Madeleine Sophia Barat said, “We must suffer to go to God. We forget this truth far too often.”
An important distinction needs to be made here. I’ll let Saint Vincent de Paul make it for me. He said, “We can only go to Heaven through suffering, but it is not all that suffer who find salvation. It is only those who suffer readily for the love of Jesus Christ, who first suffered for us.” It is the love of God which animates the suffering, sanctifies it and makes it acceptable to God.
In Part II, we will discuss further sanctification through suffering and the connection to love.