Having spent a good amount of time on retreats the past 10 years, I always come back to the same experience. Inevitably, I reach a point on the retreat when my brain feels fried. Most of the times, it comes after spending several hours in meditation and on a day in which I pursued many different activities in the solitude that retreats offer. Furthermore, it often comes later at night somewhere around an hour or two before bedtime; a moment in the day when there is nothing more to do but wait for sleep.

At those moments, I suffer. Over the years, I have tried to think my way around the experience and solve the problem, but more and more I have come to realize that it is just plain suffering. In the past, when the feeling arose, my mind would run through a list of toxic and negative ruminations. I will spare you the details, but often it would lead me to question myself and my motives. In my research on prayer and meditation, I have come to realize that this is a typical response to suffering. For many people, suffering gets compounded and out of control precisely because these negative ruminations kick in.

The lightbulb finally went off in my life when I first put the word “suffering” to the problem. I have been able to gain greater freedom simply by saying to the Lord, “Jesus, I am suffering.” Of course, we know what Jesus has to say about suffering. We know how much value it can have in our lives, and yet we still hate the Cross. The first step to embracing the Cross is not a kind of egotistical, iron-clad will that acts as if pain and suffering do not hurt. Rather, the first step is to simply observe suffering in all its nakedness and accept what is going on.

As we learn to observe and accept our suffering, we begin to move beyond the labels and toxic thinking that accompany it. Instead of jumping to the conclusion that we and everything we stand for is wrong, we allow ourselves to rest in the fact that suffering does not mean that we are bad people or that we have done something wrong. Even when suffering is the result of poor decisions, the path to reconciliation, growth, and healing involves our ability to embrace the future that lies ahead. More often than not, toxic thinking prevents us from embracing true contrition and the new horizons that God wants to open in our lives.

So we need to truly understand what Jesus means when he says, “Take up your cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). In many ways, Jesus is calling us to a new way of looking at and accepting the suffering that we all must undergo. The key to embracing the cross is learning to observe our suffering without condemnation or judgment. As we are able to do this, we must also learn to present it to our Lord with complete surrender. In this way, suffering becomes a powerful catalyst for prayer and intimacy with Jesus Christ as we learn to say to him, “Jesus, I am suffering and that is okay