Friday, March 25, 2016

The Connection between Love and Suffering

Anna Beam (Kylie Rogers) and her mother Christy (Jennifer Garner) in 'Miracles from Heaven'

(Good Friday 2016: This homily was given on March 25, 2016 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, RI, by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Isaiah 52:13-53:12; also read the Passion Narrative of St. John.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Good Friday 2016]

The cross of Jesus Christ reminds us that there is often a very close connection in this life between love and suffering.  Our Lord, of course, made that clear during the Last Supper when he said those famous words, “Greater love no one has, than to lay down his life for his friends.”

Laying down one’s life obviously involves some suffering—in most cases a great deal of suffering!

St. Bernadette—to whom the Blessed Mother appeared in Lourdes, France, in 1858—said something similar once.  She said, “Why must we suffer?  Because here below pure love cannot exist without suffering.”

Jennifer Garner witnesses to this truth in a very powerful way in the new movie, “Miracles from Heaven”—a film that I highly recommend.  I saw the other day it over in Stonington.  Garner plays Christy Beam, a young mother of 3 from Texas, whose 10-year-old daughter Anna is diagnosed with a rare and incurable digestive disease—a disease that puts her in constant pain and threatens to take her life.  I won’t be a spoiler here and reveal all the details of the story, but I will say that one of the things that becomes crystal clear in the movie (which is based on real events) is how much Christy Beam loves her daughter, and how much she is suffering with her daughter.  You can literally “feel” this woman’s emotional pain as you watch the film and see her frantically trying to get Anna the help she needs.  She suffers much, because she loves much.

To the extent that we love another human person, we suffer when they do.  We also suffer when they reject us or betray us or attack us in some way.

This, incidentally, is one reason why the sufferings that Jesus endured during his passion were far greater than any sufferings we may endure during our lives.  Christy Beam suffered a lot, because she loved her daughter a lot—but she didn’t love her daughter perfectly.  None of us loves in that way on this side of the grave—because we’re all sinners who are prone to selfishness.

But Jesus DID love us with a perfect love!  He loved EVERYONE with a perfect love!  Which means that when he was rejected by the scribes and Pharisees, and betrayed by Judas, and abandoned by his friends, and attacked by the Romans, his suffering was far, far greater than ours would be in similar circumstances.

He suffered the most, because he loved the most.

If we understand this connection between suffering and love, my brothers and sisters, we can gain a new and far better perspective on the crosses we’re forced to deal with every day.

Let’s be honest, most people see their crosses in purely negative terms.  They see their trials and sufferings as liabilities, and as liabilities only.  Saints, on the other hand, also see their crosses in a positive way: as OPPORTUNITIES—as opportunities to love.  And isn’t that precisely how the Blessed Trinity looked at the cross of Jesus?  To God, the cross of Christ was not only the instrument chosen to bring salvation to the world.  To God the cross was also an opportunity: an opportunity for him to demonstrate his PERFECT LOVE to his imperfect creatures.

I mentioned St. Bernadette at the beginning of my homily; I’ll mention her again now at the end. 

Bernadette, I believe, had this positive perspective on her sufferings, which were many.  She grew up in poverty; she had a number of physical ailments; the civil authorities mistreated her; her parish priest didn’t believe her at first when she told him she had seen the Blessed Mother; she even suffered later on in the convent after she became a religious sister.  And yet, she still managed to be grateful to God in the midst of it all.

To a great extent, that’s because she looked at her sufferings in the right way!  It’s because she knew that all her crosses, as bad as they were, were only temporary, and that if she could love others in the midst of those trials, she would someday experience an eternal reward—the reward Mary had promised Bernadette in one of her apparitions.

This all can be seen clearly in something the saint wrote before she died, a writing that’s come to be known as Bernadette’s “testament of gratitude”.  It reads as follows:

§  “For the poverty in which my mother and father lived, for the fact that everything failed for us, for the collapse of the mill, for the fact that I had to look after the children whom I was feeding too much and for the dirty noses of the children, for the fact that I had to guard the sheep, for the constant tiredness, thank you, my God!”
§  “Thank you, my God, for the prosecutor and the police commissioner, for the policemen, and for the harsh words of Father Peyramale!”
§  “For the days in which you came, Mary, for the ones in which you did not come, I will never be able to thank you…only in Paradise.”
§  “For the slaps in the face, for the ridicule, the insults, for those who thought I was crazy, those who suspect me of lying, those who suspected me of wanting to gain something from it, thank you, my Lady.”
§  “For my spelling, which I never learned, for the memory that I never had, for my ignorance and for my stupidity, thank you.”
§  “For the fact that my mother died so far away, for the pain I felt when my father, instead of hugging his little Bernadette, called me, “Sister Marie-Bernard”, I thank you, Jesus.”
§  “I thank you for the heart you gave me, so delicate and sensitive, which you filled with bitterness.”
§  “For the fact that Mother Josephine proclaimed that I was good for nothing, thank you. For the sarcasm of the Mother Superior: her harsh voice, her injustices, her irony and for the bread of humiliation, thank you.”
§  “Thank you that I was the privileged one when it came to be reprimanded, so that my sisters said, ‘How lucky it is not to be Bernadette.’”
§  “Thank you that I was the Bernadette threatened with imprisonment because she had seen you, Holy Virgin.”
§  “Thank you that I was that Bernadette who was so frail and worthless that when people saw her, they said to themselves, ‘That must be her,’ the Bernadette that people looked at as if she were an unusual animal.”
§  “For this miserable body that you gave me, for this illness that burns like fire and smoke, for my decaying bones, for my perspiration and fever, for my dull and acute pain, thank you, my God.”
§  “And for this soul which you have given me, for the desert of inner dryness, for your nights and your flashes of lightening, for your silence and your thunders, for everything. For you—when you were present and when you were not—thank you, Jesus.”

Those are the words of a very strong—and a very loving—woman of God.

St. Bernadette, pray for us on this Good Friday, that we will come to see our sufferings as you saw yours—as opportunities to love—and someday experience the reward of that love with you and all the saints in God’s eternal kingdom.  Amen.