20 Jul The Kiss of Christ by Miriam Stulberg
Catherine’s expression “Pain is the kiss of Christ,” was never one I wanted to linger on. For much of my life, I was terrified of suffering.
It took me a long time to realize that, in our modern Western world, a large part of the way we view suffering is cultural. No one likes pain, and God did not create us to suffer, but for much of the world, suffering is simply a part of life.
In the West, we grow up believing in a “right to happiness,” a concept incomprehensible to people in many other countries. Ours is a “fix-it” society, and we place great value on success, health and opportunity.
Pain is something to be alleviated, sickness—to be healed, and unhappiness—to be treated. We have numerous resources upon which to draw. But while it is right and good that we do our best to relieve suffering, when we cannot fix, treat or heal it, we tend to feel that something is wrong with us. We are often left with an underlying sense of shame.
What we have done is to strip suffering of its meaning, and this rejection has had dire consequences. In a society that values production, those who can’t produce have limited worth, and we make judgments about their “quality of life.” Since we value autonomy, choice and control, people who lose their independence feel they are a burden.
God does not will suffering, but he uses it, for ourselves and for others. The only way suffering can be accepted is in a context of love. Christ’s suffering was an act of love by which he transformed all human suffering, giving it meaning and redemptive power.
The choice that always remains for us is that of accepting, in faith, what we call his “permissive will,” and this can open the door to life.
As St. Paul tells us, every human being who suffers, through his union with Christ, participates in His redemptive suffering. Love is a choice, and though we may not feel it, we can will it. Because our suffering has transcendent value, it is part of the journey to spiritual maturity and fulfillment of our human potential.
My own understanding of suffering was transformed through the experience of living in our Madonna House foundation in Russia.
It was there that I saw in people who had come through great difficulties, especially the labour camp survivors, a capacity to love that was far greater than my own.
I was miserably conscious of my own self-centeredness and despaired of overcoming it. My spiritual director said, “You can’t make yourself love, but you can let yourself feel pain. Pain opens the heart.”
This was a beginning, and it prepared me for my diagnosis of multiple sclerosis several years later.
These are some of the things I’ve since learned:
1) Suffering brings us the intimacy with Jesus that we long for. Haven’t some of us felt closest to God in times of difficulty, when there was an intimacy and sweetness that we found ourselves missing, later, when things got better?
This intimacy comes as we cling to Christ. We can’t do it by ourselves, but as St. Paul writes, I can do all things in him who strengthens me (Phil 4:13).
Christ works in our helplessness, giving us the graces we need to endure and to love in the midst of our pain, and this becomes a source of spiritual power. This is the dignity we can find in suffering.
2) What St. Paul calls making up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions (Col 1:24) comes through offering our sufferings, a concept we often misunderstand. It doesn’t mean “grin and bear it,” but rather, accepting to sacrifice for the sake of others, making a gift of oneself for others.
It is a letting go of my good and what I want for the sake of someone else. It means letting go of the “Why me?” and asking, “Why not me?”
It is letting our suffering become a prayer for others. It is our very acceptance that makes it a prayer, and this brings us into union with others and is a victory over isolation.
What kind of suffering are we speaking of? Again, we should heal whatever can be healed, but none of us will ever experience complete healing on every level.
Most of us bear childhood wounds, some more serious than others. Emotional pain can be the most difficult to carry, because it is invisible and often a source of shame. There is nothing worse than feeling that my pain is worthless and that it shouldn’t even exist. But Christ died for all our pain.
We do what we can; we work out what we can. Then we accept and offer the rest to Christ and he will use it in the economy of salvation.
3) Suffering teaches us to love, to transcend ourselves. Pain can be excruciatingly isolating, in that no one else can feel what we feel. It can also make us self-centered and it then becomes a prison.
We cease to be the “center of the universe” when, through the power of the Spirit, we reach beyond our discomfort towards other people.
4) Suffering reveals us to ourselves and purifies us.
5) Suffering teaches us compassion for others who suffer.
A very simple formula was once suggested to me: “Feel the pain … accept it … offer it.”
Often we push pain away as much as we can, trying to ignore it or suppress it. It is important to stop and experience its reality: “This hurts. I am suffering.”
The next step is to let go of the resistance, of the “why me?” Another word for this is “to embrace it,” saying, “Yes, this is the Cross….”
To offer our pain is to move in the opposite direction from self-pity. Self-pity leads to self and ends with self, while offering brings us into union with God and others.
As Pope Benedict wrote in his encyclical Saved by Hope:
“We must do all we can to overcome suffering, but to banish it from the world altogether is not in our power … only God is able to do this: only a God who personally enters history by making himself man and suffering within history …
“It is when we attempt to avoid suffering by withdrawing from anything that might involve hurt that we drift into a life of emptiness, in which there may be almost no pain, but the dark sensation of meaninglessness and abandonment is all the greater.
“It is not by sidestepping or fleeing from suffering that we are healed, but rather by our capacity for accepting it, maturing through it and finding meaning through union with Christ, who suffered with infinite love.” (Spe Salvi, 36, 37)
This is the Kiss of Christ.
From Friends of Madonna House, April 2019, our monthly newsletter, which consists of a short inspirational reflection based on our Nazareth spirituality. Visit https://www.madonnahouse.org/fomh for your free digital subscription.