This is an anniversary week. Six years ago I was in the hospital and newly diagnosed with chronic pain, Trigeminal Neuralgia. I’ve been having twinging reminders of jaw pain as I nervously wait for a dental crown that won’t be happening until next month. It’s understandable to contemplate both suffering and healing this week.
Yesterday was the feast day of Our Lady of Lourdes. In 1858, Mary, the mother of Jesus, appeared in France to a young girl named Bernadette. She was a sickly girl who had breathing problems and suffered greatly. Bernadette was directed by Mary to dig in one area of a grotto and water appeared. The water from Lourdes has had miraculous healing properties for many people. But it didn’t heal Bernadette, who was told by the apparition that Bernadette’s “happiness would not be in this world but in the next.”
There is a mystery in suffering. Bernadette’s suffering was not because of anything she did wrong, God used it for her sanctification and for the healing of others. That can be hard to understand if you don’t have a Christian faith (or even if you do). Bernadette’s suffering for the sake of others has happened to other Christians … Saint Apollonia (whose feast day is celebrated today) is considered the patron saint of dentists … her teeth were knocked out by an angry anti-Christian mob. Did you know saints are only recognized officially as saints when there are documented scientifically unexplainable healings and miracles attributed to them?
Why does God allow healing from someone else’s suffering? I guess that’s the mystery of the cross. Christ suffered (and conquered death) to help heal humanity’s relationship with God. Christ didn’t take away suffering in this life (as ample evidence around us proves), we are still called to take up our own cross … but Jesus showed us that following God’s will, even unto suffering and death, can lead to sanctification.
We all suffer in different ways and some people I’ve worked with will have lifelong suffering … with the pain from spastic muscles in cerebral palsy, with the inability to ever walk again after a tragic car accident, with autoimmune disease, with the slow loss of a spouse to dementia, with the draining fight of cancer. Chronic suffering affects your ability to work and give back to society and I’m afraid I’ve noticed how the world doesn’t see much value in people who are in a state of chronic suffering.
But Christianity views all human beings in whatever stage of health as valuable. And Christianity shows suffering can have spiritual value … St. Paul writes, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” We, God’s people, are the church and one of the things lacking in Christ’s afflictions is our willingness, our freely given “yes” to participate in suffering when we are faced with it. Besides St. Paul, other saints have written similar advice for this type of suffering and it’s worth considering their words as well.
No one wants to suffer, we all want health and healing, and some of you are experiencing various types of ongoing suffering, for me it was years of chronic pain after the Trigeminal Neuralgia diagnosis. I didn’t want to suffer, I didn’t want to carry the cross of chronic pain, I worked hard and spent lots of money trying to find ways not to suffer, but I also accepted what was happening in each moment, offering up those moments of both suffering and healing to God.
Now I apply what I’ve learned to help others with their suffering. The Christian view that suffering can have some value or merit helped me handle the resentfulness at life’s seeming unfairness. Who needs resentfulness stealing the moment by moment joys of fresh air wafting by or the feel of a warm fireplace or the sweet sounds of birds singing or the view of a sunset or the aroma of freshly baked bread.
There can still be joy for those who are suffering. There can still be living while suffering. And there can be healing while suffering. And perhaps some of that healing is spiritual and will not be comprehensible until after we die and meet God in the eternity of time that follows this short life on earth.