Suffering and Resignation
Alongside Moments of Sweetness and Joy
Marian Therese Horvat, Ph.D.
This mother of a large family wrote to tell me that her son had died shortly after birth. In her note, she expressed a beautiful Catholic response to what is truly one of the tragedies of life, the loss of a child. “This has been a difficult time,” she wrote, “but along with the suffering, God had also given our family many blessings and made us stronger in the Faith. We also know that we have our little saint in Heaven who is there for us to pray to and who is loving and helping us every day.”
This is the way a Catholic deals with tragedy and suffering, a topic poorly understood today because of the general tendency of modern man to flee all suffering, to seek a life without the Cross. At the university when we discussed St. Augustine and the question of evil, I remember students who used to question the goodness of a God who allows bad things to happen. There was even a book written on the topic, and in the end the modern Catholic author came to a very bad conclusion: Despite everything, God is good, but sometimes He makes mistakes by letting bad things happen to good people. Many of the students – even the Catholic ones – thought this was a very reasonable answer.
What the Church teaches is different, and the Faith makes us able to see much deeper than what is merely reasonable. The Faith reveals to me that Adam and Eve sinned, and that I inherited the fruit of their sin. My first parents sinned; I also have sinned. It is just that I humbly and contritely make expiation for my sins. It is just, therefore, that I should suffer in this life. I can even experience some joy in suffering: The joy of realizing I am receiving a fair punishment for my sins, the happiness of following the precepts of Our Lord, and a contentment in being united to Him by following in His footsteps and taking up my cross as He took up His.
Providence allows sufferings and pains that are so assorted and so different, yet so appropriate for the life of each person. For this man, it is a disappointing career; for another, an unfulfilled vocation. For this lady, a disillusion in marriage; for another, a single life and sense of not belonging anywhere. For one, a debilitating sickness; for another, the duty to nurse a sick parent or child. The list is as endless as the multiple trials, disillusions, and tragedies known to strike in the lives of great and small, rich and poor, old and young.
The Cross of Christ in our lives cannot be reduced to a stroke of bad luck. No, it is an integral part of our lives and our sanctification. The cross is not something extraordinary, a curse or “mistake” of God, but the truly Catholic mentality understands it as something normal and even indispensable. It transforms us and gives us real moral stature.
The modern false creed preaches that the best course to happiness is to avoid the crosses God gives us. Instead of facing them head on and going ahead, there are those who try to fight against one misfortune or another. Imagine if the noble Catholic lady who wrote me the letter I mentioned had become angry with God for allowing her baby to die. Or she could have nursed a resentment against every happy mother with her healthy newborn baby with the thought: “Why was she allowed this happiness while I was deprived of my child?”
But this was not the attitude she took. She practiced the natural virtue of resignation. She faced the situation and made a decision: “I will not make myself and everyone around me miserable because of my sorrow. I am grateful for the sympathy and goodness of my friends and family who are helping me to bear this difficult cross. With their help and the grace of God, I will carry this cross and go ahead. This will demand an effort, it does not diminish my natural grief, but I will be happier than if I am not conformed to my cross, not conformed to the will of God.”
A suffering seen and lived in this way becomes supportable for the person who practices even the natural virtue of resignation.
What is the role of the supernatural in this whole drama? It is the supernatural that shows the reason for the existence of tragedy in our lives. This lady understands and finds a consolation in the fact that her family has a soul in heaven who will intercede for God in a special way for all of them. The supernatural lifts our spirit to a higher reality; it makes us understand that we have to face and live with suffering and tragedy in this life, but in the end we will have eternal life. The supernatural inspires our soul and lifts it so that we realize we were not born for this life, where we are pilgrims for a shorter or longer expanse of time. We were born for eternal life. And in face of this eternity, my life, no matter how long it may seem or how unbearable a moment might be, is short. It is nothing. No matter now much misfortune overwhelms me, it is insignificant. Yes, it is a difficult marriage, a horrible sickness, a lonely existence, a difficult job, etc. but we can bear with it and make the best of it because we were born for Heaven where we will be happy for all eternity.
All well and good, my reader might be thinking. But what does the picture on this page have to do with the topic of suffering and resignation? This is certainly no example of suffering: a lovely evening dining outdoors on a moonlit patio, where the diners are enjoying food and conversation at elegantly laid tables under the protective gaze of some patron saint, illuminated beneath a golden archway.
The Catholic spirit teaches us to enjoy the delights of moderate pleasures, such as a charming meal like this one at an outdoor restaurant in Italy
What the picture illustrates, from the perspective of the present discussion, is a very non-Calvinist way of living life. Despite their individual woes and troubles, the people seated at the tables are enjoying this pleasant Tuscan moonlit evening.
Let us imagine that one of the persons in the pictures is suffering from an incurable cancer; let us imagine another is the valiant lady who recently suffered the loss of a child. But even amid such difficulties, there are times – like this one – when Providence provides delights and joys. These consolations and pleasures – a charming meal like the one pictured here, a mellowed bottle of wine enjoyed with a spouse or friend, a beautiful view and fragrant air, a gesture of kindness of a loved one – are meant to be enjoyed and appreciated, even amid the storms that strike and fall on us.
God in His infinite goodness provides us with moments of sweetness – be they large or small – that are meant to be appreciated in their fullness. It is good for us to recognize these opportunities, to put aside our sorrows and relish such sweet pleasures that life provides. When we make the practice of seeing and appreciating the goodness of God in our lives, this invigorates and encourages us to bear nobly and with resignation the sufferings that also inevitably cross our pathways.
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