This Lent, Try Offering Your Sufferings to God
“Richard, offer it up!”
I can still hear my grandmother’s high-pitched response every time I complained about something. She was a saint, so there was something deeper to her words than what might meet the eye.
Offering up our sufferings to God is a great mystery, while at the same time being a great avenue to grow closer to our Creator.
You may have been caught by surprise last month by the story in The Northern Cross about Pope John Paul the Great practicing self-mortification. Violence to oneself through self-mortification in the name of our relationship with Christ sounds like a very unhealthy practice that was around during the Middle Ages. How could it be that this beloved, dynamic pope whipped himself with a chain? And how could that have brought him any closer to God?
According to Msgr. Slawomir Oder, the postulator of John Paul’s sainthood cause, the pope practiced self-mortification “to affirm the primacy of God and as an instrument for perfecting himself.”
For 99.99 percent of the population, this sort of action and behavior would not be a good thing. But could it be that there are some people who already have such a deep spirituality that this sort of self-mortification is beneficial?
John Paul the Great went to confession once a week not because he was such a great sinner, but because he was so close to God that he saw the gravity of even the smallest of sins, so it was a great benefit to his spirituality, as was, I am sure, his mortification.
The subject of self-mortification is appropriate as we begin the season of Lent, since many of us will “give something up,” like sweets, television, beer and the like. Of course, those are all forms of self-mortification as well—not to the degree that John Paul practiced it, but self-mortification nonetheless. So why do we do it? And why did John Paul do it in such an extreme manner? Not to mention the thousands of saints that did it before him?
Suffering is not good in and of itself, but it can be. This seems incredibly unreasonable to our modern society, since in our day and age there is a pill for every kind of ache and pain you will ever have. It seems as though pain is the greatest evil that needs to be avoided at any and every cost, but that is not the message of Jesus Christ.
In fact the message of Christ is as opposite as one could possibly get from “avoiding pain at all cost.”
Jesus implies that in order to be his disciple you must have pain; it’s a prerequisite. “Then he said to all, ‘If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me’” (Luke 9:23). We are so familiar with that line from the Gospel that its significance tends to get lost on us. If Christians are those who follow and imitate Christ, then by nature we must live lives with suffering present, since he died on the cross after he carried it.
It would be good for us to tape those words of Christ on our mirrors to help us remember what it takes to follow Jesus, not only carrying our crosses but also denying ourselves as well so as to rely more on God.
Now, we are not called to be masochists. Some might say what John Paul did was masochism, but it was far from it. Masochists inflict pain on themselves because they love to feel the pain. We do not give up beer during Lent because we love pain; we give up the things we love so as to better and more fully rely on God. John Paul did not practice mortification because he liked the pain. Mortification is the process in which we kill sinful desires and practices so as to get closer to God.
The word mortification implies death—death to temptations. St. Francis of Assisi once took off his clothing and threw his naked body into a thorn bush after he had an impure thought. What might sound crazy to most of us was an illustration of how much Francis loved God and how much he wanted to avoid sinning against God even just a little. Like St. Dominic Savio, whose motto was “Death Before Sin,” Francis, who loved God so much, wanted to do anything to avoid offending God. The more we love, the less we want to hurt our beloved.
Offering our sufferings up to God is a good and holy practice. It helps make our sufferings a little bit more bearable because it gives our sufferings meaning. Archbishop Fulton Sheen used to say that his least favorite place to visit was hospitals, not because of the suffering but because of the wasted suffering.
Before we cast stones at very holy people for heroic levels of mortification, we should take a quick look at our own cultural practices. People starve themselves to fit a smaller size of dress or pants, people sit perfectly still for hours in a casket-like box to get a tan, people torture themselves by running 26.2 miles so as to have a nice T-shirt.
Now doesn’t it seem a little nobler to endure some suffering so as to get closer to God?
Offer it up.