Christianity is the religion of the God who weeps, who struggles, who falls on the pavement, who cries out in agony, and who dies offering Himself to the heavenly Father. – Fr. Benedict Groeschel, CFR
I was once called in to talk to a gentleman who had been intensely suffering. He had lost his wife unexpectedly. He was unable to sleep. He was unable to do basic things and he had a family to take care of. I asked him was he falling into mortal sin. I asked this because it is often the case that when people have intense suffering, their go-to is things like drugs and alcohol, pornography. They find ways of numbing the pain of that intense suffering.
But he wasn’t doing those things. He hadn’t been falling into mortal sin and addictive patterns. What he said was, he was brought low and he said that when he hit the bottom, he found God. That it was like God was waiting for him in the depths of his despair and his suffering.
A friend in seminary—who had a brain tumor that we thought would take him within a year or two—told me a story of a time he met Fr. Benedict Groeschel, one of the founders of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. Fr. Groeschel, who is well-known among some subsets of Catholics as an author and spiritual teacher, explained to Fr. Philip that suffering serves as a catalyst for deepening and growing in the spiritual life. As we suffer, we move through the purgative, illuminative, and unitive stages of the spiritual life more quickly. There’s something about suffering, when embraced in the light of Jesus Christ, that allows it to become an important catalyst for growth. This is often seen when physical suffering or illness, are enlightened and deepened when we turn to the Lord. If we practice that ongoing conversion, it helps us to move more deeply into contemplative prayer.
Saint Thomas Aquinas would call this a movement from visible to invisible realities. In this movement, we learn to dwell in the heart. We learn to connect more immediately with grace. It’s not that we ever leave behind the sensible world or leave behind the sense that we’re incarnate beings; we recognize that we’re in a body, we’re in flesh. But we enter into contact with the work of the Holy Spirit in a more intuitive way. This isn’t simply a matter of technique; indeed, it’s not a technique at all. This intuitive movement comes from discerning on a consistent basis. It’s also the work of the Holy Spirit, since it is the Holy Spirit that begins to work in our hearts.
The transitions between the three ages of the spiritual life, as we’re moving into each successive age of contemplative prayer, can be particularly hard for people because a lot of times people are very attached to their old ways of praying. Early in this deepening practice, we may experience a lot of consolation with devotions, vocal prayers, and different practices. While we will keep doing vocal prayer, early on, we may experience a very sensible consolation. As we are led deeper into contemplative prayer, sometimes those older ways of praying can be a bit frustrated; we find that they don’t quite satisfy as they had in the past.
How does suffering fit into this deepened spiritual praxis? Suffering can lead into contemplative prayer because by our suffering, we learn to adapt and connect with the stillness of the Lord. We learn how to increase in faith, hope, and love in the midst of suffering. This draws us evermore into the refuge of the heart. That core of our being, that encounter with the Lord and the mystery of who we are, where we encounter the mystery of who God is. Suffering teaches us to seek the Lord with greater simplicity because as we suffer, we are not able to rest in those discursive ways. Our thinking can be chaotic. As a result, we have to learn to into the heart. This is why it can be such a powerful catalyst for spiritual growth.
The dark night of the soul, as Saint John of the Cross describes it, is not simply suffering and despair but rather a suffering that leads us to a deeper encounter. To encounter the Lord in the depths of our being, where all of our will, our intellect, our memory is completely surrendered to God’s presence and to the work of the Holy Spirit.
What I’ve come to realize in doing spiritual direction and hearing confessions, in talking with so many people who are going through these transitions is I can’t worry about diagnosing what stage they are in because I’ve found that the remedy is always the same: Greater prayer. Greater faith, hope, and love. Greater listening to the work of the Holy Spirit and greater intuiting how the Holy Spirit is teaching you through what you’re experiencing. The remedy is greater surrender, even surrendering beyond even our conscious brain. Allowing that surrender to penetrate even to the depths of our subconscious, to the very core of the self.
The good news for each of us is that we all have suffering. We all have moments where we struggle. But we have the opportunity to see those moments as a great gift, a gift that will allow us to grow in our relationship with Jesus Christ and to surrender to the work of the Holy Spirit.