Offering it up

The Readings for the Memorial of St Peter Claver
Monday in the 23rd Week of Ordinary Time, C1

Qui nunc gaudeo in passionibus pro vobis, et adimpleo ea quae desunt passionem Christi, in carne mea pro corpore ejus, quod est Ecclesia
I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his Body, which is the Church.

We don’t usually rejoice in sufferings anymore. Complaining is normal, followed by meds if possible, and/or self-medication quickly follows. I’ve also noticed that the more we medicate, the easier it becomes to find another reason to do more of the same. Anything, God, to take away this cross!

Paul implies there is a reason for suffering, that somehow suffering is part of God’s plan. Or is that only what he seems to say? Some folks read it to mean God intends him to suffer and (the logic follows) God intends for you and me to suffer as well. That doesn’t sound like the God I know – nor does it sound like the God who, in today’s Gospel, asks, “Interrogo vos si licet sabbatis benefacere, an male : animam salvam facere, an perdere? Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath rather than to do evil, to save life rather than to destroy it?” So what is St Paul hinting at?

The world is filled with suffering. Theologically, we say this is the result of human sin. That doesn’t help a lot of folks, but it is a story use to explain it. Theologically, it is a complete story as well: the world was made to grow to perfection, but some folks messed it up, now even the physical world itself struggles under the crippling effects of that failure. The more we try to fix it ourselves, in fact, the worse it gets. That doesn’t answer any of our questions that usually begin “but why? I’ve never done anything bad, so why…”

Paul is “doing good” and he suffers. In fact, Paul is suffering because of the good he is doing. Paul is spreading a revolutionary Gospel through the Roman Empire: one that teaches that all men and women are radically equal before a God who is deeply in love with them. The world is not filled with powerful forces that have to be appeased, they have been destroyed: even death has no power. Yet this message overturns the structures of the Roman Empire – even as it uses the culture created by those structures to spread. Because of that revolution, Paul is persecuted by the state. You’d think that an all-powerful God whose work Paul was doing would take better care of his workers, no?

Yet the two people Catholics consider most holy, Jesus and Mary, both endured terrible sufferings despite their holiness and even despite their sinlessness. Coming into this world seems to result in suffering. Is there any reason?

St Peter Claver was sent by his religious order to the New World in 1610. He discovered the great open wounds of human suffering known as the slave trade and spent the rest of his life arguing (even preaching in the Public Square) for the humanity of these people against a wealthy, Catholic populace that saw them as property. Peter ministered to slaves, served them, nursed them, taught them, and did everything one man alone in the population could do. Near the end of his life he became ill. His religious superiors quietly put him in a room and breathed a sigh of relief, together with the city fathers of Cartagena. They hired an ex slave to care for him – who began to abuse him – and everyone forgot about this thorn in their flesh until his death four years later. Word of his death spread quickly and the poor and slaves of the city rushed to his deathbed to reverence the man who meant so much to them. The city fathers (out of guilt?) made a state funeral. In all of his works and suffering, even at the hands of the Church, St Peter never complained.

St Paul and St Peter Claver – together with Jesus and Mary – offered their sufferings to God. Not in a prayer that they may be relieved, but rather a prayer that they may be made into something else, something glorious.

The Jesus Psalter, a 16th Century prayer popular among Catholics in England who were being persecuted by the English Queen, includes the prayer: Jesu, Jesu, Jesu, send me here my purgatory. Quite literally asking God to “send me here the pains and crosses you know I need to purify my life of all attachment to sin, to this world and its illusory goods, to anything that would distract me from you, my God and my only good.” We seek to turn everything in this world to God’s greater glory, and to our own salvation. Our suffering which can be little or great, really (it is rather subjective, admittedly) but it can all be offered to God. It can become a chance for moving closer to God. The suffereing of others becomes a chance for us to minister to God in their persons which are his image and likeness.

This is not an answer for the what or why of human suffering, but it is an answer for what now?

It’s a very different answer from complaining or running away or using substances to not feel pain. We medicate ourselves out of our person. Suddenly we’re not even real anymore. And anything that draws us away from our irreality becomes a threat. We are physical beings and that means we feel pain. We avoid our purgatory if we avoid the pain. Where can we go from there?

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