Immediately upon reading the title of this spiritual exercise, it is likely that a good portion of my audience and readers has misunderstandings. This is due to a very simple challenge that plagues all spiritual discourse and all wisdom. While wisdom has a universal quality to it, we need to understand sound teaching and proverbs in their proper context.
I have often taught that if the devil can quote scripture as he does when Jesus is lead into the desert, than he can quote the saints and he can quote Church teaching. The devil takes the wisdom that the Church has to offer us and he distorts and confuses the minds of believers. The hallmark of true integration of spiritual wisdom is that it leads to greater freedom.
Within this context, pain and suffering is the best teacher.
This teaching is difficult to understand, but if one freely embraces it, they soon find that the enemy is thwarted and that what appears to the world to be the occasion for despair is actually the highest moment of glory.
We know the scriptures that point to this truth. Our Lord clearly says, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me (Matthew 16:24-25).” I do not wish to go into detail about all the possible scriptural references that relate to my point, but I believe it suffices to say that our Lord clearly points to the great advantage that can be had from suffering. Traditionally, this is called redemptive suffering, and the saints have spoken of this at length.
So, back to my point. Your pain and your suffering is the greatest of teachers.
To carefully understand how suffering is a catalyst for growth, we must understand that not all suffering is the same, and there are some forms of suffering we should avoid. For example, there is a suffering that is the result of bad choices and immorality. St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that such suffering is in fact a just punishment due to sin. In fact, he argues that being punished for our sins in this life is a great act of mercy because it leads to repentance.
Needless to say, you should try and avoid committing sins and making bad decisions.
Then there is the suffering that arises due to circumstances beyond our control. Strictly speaking, such suffering is directly connected with the experience of evil. We experience evil in the world and this evil has its source in either our free will, as in the case of moral evil, or in terms of the effects of original sin, as with physical evil such as natural disasters and physical ailments.
In terms of this form of suffering, we can turn to the text of St. Paul where the Holy Spirit teaches the Apostle to proclaim, “We know that all things work for good for those who love God (Romans 8:28).” Aquinas explains this quite beautifully when he explains that there is a hierarchy of goods. The highest goods are those that relate to our spiritual life, most prominent being our salvation. In this regards, God never withholds what is needed for our salvation for those who seek him with sincerity of heart, but he does deprive us of lower goods for the sake of the higher goods.
Simply put, God may allow you to become sick with cancer in order to prepare you for greater goods than your physical well being. He may even allow you to suffer and die, as in fact did our Lord Jesus Christ, so that something greater might unfold in your family and in your own personal life.
Likewise, we can lose money, status, power, and suffer all manner of physical and emotional duress so that our love might be purified.
Think of the humble Job who in the midst of affliction cried out, “The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD (Job 1:21).” If you embrace such an attitude in the face of adversity, you will soon find that your name will be written among the greatest of saints in the book of life. Such a disposition is truly remarkable and the possession of so few.
With that being said, there is yet still a greater potential that lies just beyond the grasp of that which is ordinary. There is a suffering that we can actively desire and actively seek which leads us to greater glory than most people are capable of understanding. This suffering is a mysterious participation in the abandonment of the Cross, a sharing in the sufferings of Christ crucified.
Physically, this has been manifested in the stigmata given to saints such as Padre Pio and Francis of Assisi. However, as with most things in the spiritual life, that which is external is always inferior to that which is interior. While our Lord gives the grace of the external marks of his passion to some saints for the edification and sanctification of many, he gives the grace of such participation to all his saints interiorly for there are no other means by which we ascend to God’s glory.
This is essence of the science of the saints which was professed by St. John of the Cross and others. St. Ignatius gives a meditation in a similar vein on the three degrees of humility, and he accounts it the highest form of humility to desire to share in the sufferings of Christ.
St. Ignatius presents this as examination of conscience whereby we can discern, are we on the first degree of humility, the second, or the third.
So in conclusion, I ask you, do you wish to share in the sufferings of Christ? Would you be willing to lose everything to be counted among the greatest in the kingdom of God?