Sunday, August 30, 2020

Sometimes it’s wrong to try to shield people from suffering

(Twenty-second Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on August 30, 2020 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Jeremiah 20:7-9; Psalm 63:2-9; Romans 12:1-2; Matthew 16:21-27.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-second Sunday 2020]

One day a man was walking through the woods and he came upon a butterfly cocoon.  He watched it for a long time as the creature inside struggled to force its way through the very small opening at the bottom.  Well at one point it appeared that the butterfly had gotten stuck on its little journey, so the man decided to come to its rescue and offer a helping hand.  He took a pair of scissors and widened the hole of the cocoon ever so slightly.  The butterfly, of course, came out quite easily—but, much to the man’s surprise, it didn’t fly.  All it could do was crawl on the ground, since its wings were too small and its body swollen and much too heavy.  And sadly, that’s how this particular butterfly spent the remainder of its very brief earthly life.

What that man didn’t realize was that the butterfly needed to struggle.  In fact, EVERY butterfly needs to undergo this kind of difficult, challenging experience!  As I learned in preparation for this homily, by squirming and struggling to get out of its cocoon, a butterfly forces fluid out of its body and into its wings, a process which makes its body lighter and its wings stronger.  Thus, when it does finally manage to get out, it’s able to fly on its own.

UNLESS SOMEONE INTERFERES WITH THE PROCESS, LIKE THIS MAN DID!  He perceived that this butterfly was suffering in some way, and he tried to shield the creature from the experience.  But—as he very quickly found out—that was the wrong thing to do!

In our relationships with other people—especially our loved ones—we all have this very same tendency, do we not?  We want to shield them from suffering.  We want to protect them from trial and from pain.  Now in some cases, of course, that’s exactly what we should try to do.  But at other times it’s wrong to try to shield our loved ones in this way—as Simon Peter found out in today’s Gospel story from Matthew 16.  After Jesus tells him and the other apostles that he will soon suffer and die a horrible death, Peter says, “God forbid, Lord!  No such thing shall ever happen to you.”  Jesus then snaps back at Peter, “Get behind me, Satan. . . . You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”  In other words, “Peter, you are trying to shield me from a suffering which I must experience—for your good, for your sake, for your salvation.  If I don’t die, you won’t live with me forever in my kingdom!”

As much as we might hate to admit it, some sufferings are necessary, and for our own good—and it’s wrong for others to keep us from passing through them!  Imagine, for example, a young mother who is diagnosed with breast cancer.  The doctors have told her that she needs radical surgery and extensive chemotherapy or she will die.  The operation and the follow-up treatment will almost certainly cause her terrible suffering.  But it would be wrong for you or for me to try to shield her from that pain by foolishly trying to convince her to fight the disease on her own.  She needs to experience this suffering, and she needs to pass through it, in order to get well.  Without the suffering, there will be no healing for her (unless she’s blessed with a miracle).

Most of the young people here will be back in school within a few days, if they aren’t already.  (Hopefully most will be back physically, but all will be back at least virtually.)  Now some of you young people may hate school with a passion.  (I hope you don’t, but some of you might.)  For you, sitting in a classroom (either physical or virtual), reading books, and doing 3 hours of homework every night may be a suffering like no other.  But it would be wrong for your parents to shield you from that suffering by allowing you to stay in your room all day playing video games!  You need to pass through this suffering (which really isn’t that bad) for your own good.

After one of my parents’ friends from Barrington passed away a number of years ago, his family sent me a prayer-card from his funeral.  On the back of the card was a little meditation (supposedly recording the words of the deceased). The meditation had this line in it: “I’d like the tears of those who grieve, to dry before the sun of happy memories that I leave when life is done.”  In other words, “I want their sadness at my death to pass quickly.”  Here’s yet another suffering we often try to shield people from: the suffering from grief caused by the death of a loved one.  That’s wrong!  People need to grieve—and for much longer than a few short hours!  It’s psychologically unhealthy to short-circuit the grief process; any good psychologist will tell you that.

This, I would say, was one of the worst effects of the pandemic lockdown.  People were not able to grieve properly; they were not able to grieve in a healthy way; they were not able to grieve as they needed to grieve.  First or all, they couldn’t experience support and consolation from family and friends at the wake, because wakes were not allowed (in some places they still aren’t!). And, even more importantly, they couldn’t experience the Lord’s consolation and strength that comes through the Eucharist and the Mass, because public Masses were not allowed.  People were forced to deal with their loss in almost total isolation.

That’s not the way it’s supposed to be.

That’s why, if something like this ever happens again, churches should demand to be designated as providing an “essential service.”

Because they do! 

The bottom line is this, my brothers and sisters: Our response to the suffering of others should include compassion, encouragement, prayer, and active assistance.  But we must always beware, lest we make the same mistake Peter made in today’s Gospel, and try to shield someone from a suffering which they need to experience.

And here’s one closing, sobering thought: In heaven, there will probably be many people who will look back on their earthly lives and say that their worst sufferings were actually their greatest blessings—because passing through those sufferings brought them to conversion.  And their conversion happily brought them to God’s eternal kingdom.