Jonah 3:1-5, 10
1 Corinthians 7:29-31
It’s nice to be home after a couple of weeks moving around, and especially after such an intense week as this last one has been. Last Sunday morning I departed from Baton Rouge as part of a bus group of over 450 people headed toward Washington, D.C. for the annual March for Life held there on January 22. It was a phenomenal trip with many graces and that is because the trip is a pilgrimage and not simply a nice vacation away from the worries of parish life. At the beginning of the trip, we pray a prayer with all of the youth on the buses that reminds us that we are pilgrims and not tourist. It includes such things as: when someone else grabs the last of the food I want, Lord help me remember that I’m a pilgrim, not a tourist. When someone takes the spot I wanted to sit… When someone is always late and I’m on time… When things don’t go according to schedule… etc. All of these various scenarios are mentioned to emphasize that pilgrims suffer through things and unite them with the Lord, where tourists might simply try to make things more comfortable and avoid the suffering.
With this little prayer completed, everyone realizes from the start that the pilgrimage is one that will involve suffering and self-denial in some way. To follow up that prayer, we include a short talk on ‘offering it up,’ the traditional Catholic practice of uniting our sufferings to those of Jesus Christ and knowing that He will make use of them for some good in our soul or the souls of others. As the bus youth minister I was in charge of both of these and had the joy of putting them into practice almost immediately as the DVD player on our bus wouldn’t play the DVD we intended to show and which was foundational to the rest of the trip and on top of that the AC quit working, leaving us in a nice extra warm bus on the way up north. We arrived in Hanceville, AL that afternoon for the celebration of Holy Mass and I had the privilege of offering it and preaching to half of the pilgrimage group. I spoke about the Divine Will and how sometimes despite our best efforts things don’t go as planned and we need to be open to God changing things on us during the trip and that we are invited to submit to that and joyfully follow where the Lord leads. A few minutes later we found ourselves in the parking lot preparing to head off to DC when we discover that at this point our DVD had broken, our AC had broken, and now the whole bus had broken! I sat there saying to the kids (and to myself!) ‘It’s okay. God has a plan here. Like I said in Mass, we’re not in control and we simply have to roll with what He unveils for us.’ And so the other 8 buses of our entourage rolled out and we stayed put waiting for our repairman.
The six hours that we waited gave us plenty of time to pray, play games, get to know each other and sing songs, including our own rendition of a familiar classic: “The wheels on the bus they stay, stay stay”, “The emergency lights glow red, red, red”, and so on. What struck me, though, was that in the midst of suffering the youth responded with an attitude of joy and holy resignation to what God was doing. The adults struggled a bit, but the young people went with the flow just as we had advised. At 11pm we found ourselves unloading and reloading onto a different bus. At 6am we found ourselves doing the same thing again as we reached our bus to be used the rest of the week. And in the end, that setback and suffering we enduring of having to change plans, buses, and everything in between became our glory. We rejoiced in it and became one of the most tight-nit and prayerful groups.
I know that’s a lot of story and not much homily, but I mention it because it was my lived experience that brought me to a well for reflection throughout the week on a single point: our response to suffering makes us who we are. Every one of us can name the many things that have happened in our lives that were a cross in some way, and chances are those same places are where radical growth or change happened. We can see it across the board in any type of suffering: physical suffering, emotional distress, loss of loved ones, spiritual struggles, temptations, mental trials, and much more. Every one of those things is a place where we encountered a cross and had a choice to pick it up and walk or to flee from it in search of comfort. Our choice changes things.
The end of the trip was the cap and summation of my reflections on suffering through the week as on the bus ride home we watched the movie The Giver. I don’t know if you’ve read the book or seen the movie, but it was fascinating to me. The premise of it is that a society saw the pain suffered by humanity and sought to be freed from it, so they created a special society in which they eliminated all that might cause pain. They minimized differences, inequality and injustices to make things uniform. This makes sense. But they also took away other things like art, music, and dance. They limited freedom and personal touch. They dulled emotion and the capacity to love. In the name of being freed from pain, they removed all that makes the human person truly human! In a very real sense we can say that to be human is to suffer because to be human is to love and to love is to suffer. This sounds like a big circle, but the truth is that God is love itself and love is self-giving. The Father sent the Son and permitted His death for us. The Son permits His humiliation and death. And the Spirit pains Himself by remaining in hearts that often desire to have nothing to do with Him. While we believe that God doesn’t suffer like humans do, there is a sort of self-sacrificial suffering that is present in the Blessed Trinity and if we are invited into the life of the Trinity by our baptism, then it makes sense that we are invited to a deeper suffering than most would have.
If I lost you there, let me attempt to clarify. God is love, total self-gift. The more we love, which entails suffering, the more we become who we are created to be. And so the invitation here is threefold:
First, we must recognize our suffering. Sometimes we experience pains or crosses in our life but fail to name them such. We see them as inconveniences and many other things, but they are crosses. So what is the cross you bear? More than likely it is several.
Second, find ways to respond to it. A book club I’m part of sends a book each month and each title addresses some specific topic but in the end they are all guide on suffering well. It might be depression, grief, anger, temptations to sin, lack of faith, problems in prayer, but they all provide means to working through a particular cross. So when you name your cross, look for proven ways to help walk with it.
And lastly, don’t walk with it alone. Unite your crosses to Christ Jesus, Who has power to make all things fruitful and can use your suffering to build up the kingdom. There’s no special formula. You just say, ‘Lord, I unite my sufferings to yours. Please make them fruitful.’ Or something to that effect. The genuineness of prayer is more important than the words.
Suffering makes us who we are. Suffering makes us human. Do not fear the crosses that come your way, but take them up and bear them with Christ, knowing that He is with you, shaping you and saving you by your ‘yes’ to His will.