Redemptive Suffering: “Offering it Up”
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Job 2:10 “… if we have received good things at the hand of God, why should we not receive evil?”
From papercuts and mosquito bites to the ravages of cancer and the death of a loved one, suffering is a fact of life that all religions try to make sense of.
In Hinduism, suffering is seen as the result of karmic debt owed from a prior incarnation; we suffer through, building up “good karma” to balance out what is, ultimately, our own personal fault.
To Buddhists, life is suffering because we desire; this desire must be extinguished by walking the Eightfold Noble Path of right belief, right aspiration, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right thought, and right meditation.
In Islam, suffering is seen as the result of Allah’s positive will (“Verily We have created man into toil and struggle” — Qu’ran 90:4).
In Rabbinical Judaism, suffering is seen as everything from senseless to positively willed by God to (for some self-described “Torah-true” Jews) a result of Jewish disobedience.
For some brands of Protestantism, suffering is always the result of personal sin (“You’re sick? You shouldn’t have been playing cards…”), and God wants only “health and wealth” for His people as long as they “believe” (and “plant seeds” by sending a “love gift” to some televangelist).
In orthodox Christianity, suffering has its ultimate origins in the human will, the abuse of which, through the sin of Adam, caused the rift between God and man that only Christ can reconcile. Suffering’s proximate causes are the effects of Natural Law stemming from our own actions or the actions of others (even going back through the generations), the work of demons, and God’s pulling back His mantle of protection, sometimes for obvious reasons, such as punishment, sometimes for inscrutable reasons. In any case, suffering is never positively willed by God, but is allowed for our benefit in the same way a father will allow a child to suffer the consequences of his own actions so that the child will grow and learn to listen to his father, or perhaps in the same way that father might allow his child to “suffer through” piano lessons so that, someday, he will be a great pianist. We may not understand God’s reasons for allowing our particular suffering, but we must always trust that we can endure with His grace, and that there is reason for it, whether it is for our correction, purification, penance, to help us realize how radically dependent we are on Him, or whether it is for His appeasement.
But how are we to react to our suffering? The answer is unique to Christianity.
We are members of the Royal Priesthood, together as one in the Mystical Body of Christ
Just as in the Old Testament, Israel of the New Covenant is made of priests:
I Peter 2:9-10
But you are a chosen generation, a kingly priesthood, a holy nation, a purchased people: that you may declare his virtues, who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light: Who in times past were not a people: but are now the people of God. Who had not obtained mercy: but now have obtained mercy.
Our being (non-ministerial) priests means that we make sacrifices, we offer something. The ordained Catholic priest offers, as a representative of Christ, Sacrifices at the Altar for those who say “yes” to Christ’s invitation to share the fruits of Calvary, just as the ministerial priests in the Old Testament offered sacrifices for the sins of the people. But what do we of the non-ministerial royal priesthood offer? We offer ourselves — our bodies, hearts, praise, gratitude, worship, joys, works, and our sufferings.
Why do we do this? Because we are exhorted to “put on Christ” and to imitate Him, our High Priest and Spotless Victim, so that we might partake of the divine nature. In order to redeem us, Our Lord took on flesh and gave all to the Father; in order to be Christ-like, we, too, must take up our cross, accept suffering, and strive to offer Him all:
Luke 14: 27
And whosoever doth not carry his cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.
II Corinthians 4:8-12
In all things we suffer tribulation: but are not distressed. We are straitened: but are not destitute. We suffer persecution: but are not forsaken. We are cast down: but we perish not. Always bearing about in our body the mortification of Jesus, that the life also of Jesus may be made manifest in our bodies. For we who live are always delivered unto death for Jesus’ sake: that the life also of Jesus may be made manifest in our mortal flesh. So then death worketh in us: but life in you.
Galatians 6: 14
But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ: by whom the world is crucified to me, and I to the world.
Furthermore, I count all things to be but loss for the excellent knowledge of Jesus Christ, my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things and count them but as dung, that I may gain Christ. And may be found in him, not having my justice, which is of the law, but that which is of the faith of Christ Jesus, which is of God: justice in faith. That I may know him and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings: being made conformable to his death, If by any means I may attain to the resurrection which is from the dead.
I Peter 2:19-22
For this is thankworthy: if, for conscience towards God, a man endure sorrows, suffering wrongfully. For what glory is it, if, committing sin and being buffeted for it, you endure? But if doing well you suffer patiently: this is thankworthy before God. For unto this are you called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving you an example that you should follow his steps.
Think of Christ in the Garden, under so much stress and agony that He literally sweated Blood. Think of Him being hounded and mocked by people who should have fallen to their knees and kissed His Feet, adoring Him and begging mercy. Think of the Creator of the sun, moon, and stars with a crown of thorns thrust onto His head, being spat upon, beaten, and nailed to a Cross. God Himself suffered in His human nature; why should we be spared?
…And now think of Him in Heaven, pouring out onto us the graces of His once and for all Sacrifice at Calvary during the unbloody re-presentation of that Sacrifice during the Mass. He is perfect, He suffered (His Sacred Heart is still wounded by our sins!), and He offers Himself yet up to the Father at each Mass — and to us for our redemption. We are called to offer ourselves up to the Father and for others, too.
Our imitation of Him and our gifts to Him, though they are nothing without His Sacrifice, build up the Body of Christ if they are joined to His sufferings:
I Corinthians 12:26
And if one member suffer any thing, all the members suffer with it: or if one member glory, all the members rejoice with it.
…whereof I Paul am made a minister. Who now rejoice in my sufferings for you and fill up those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ, in my flesh, for His body, which is the church:
Now, is Paul saying that Christ’s sufferings and Sacrifice weren’t enough? Is he “taking away from Christ” by saying that we are to “fill up” those things that are “wanting” in His sufferings? No, of course not. He is saying, though, that we are One Body, that we co-operate with God in profound ways ( I Corinthians 3:9 “For we are God’s coadjutors [co-workers, assistants]…”), and that, in an inscrutable way, our sufferings benefit one another. We actually help Jesus in His redemption of the world by giving to Him our sufferings to build up the Body of Christ.
Think of how we are moved by those who suffer for us. We are touched when we think of what our parents sacrificed to give us, when we think of stories of people who give kidneys to strangers or risk their lives to save someone else. Christ Himself said that “greater love than this no man hath, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Well, just as we are moved by sacrificial love when it is offered to us, the Father is moved by our offered-up sufferings when they are offered along with the Passion and Sacrifice of Jesus. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote (Summa Theologica, III, 49):
Now it is the proper effect of sacrifice to appease God: just as man likewise overlooks an offense committed against him on account of some pleasing act of homage shown him. Hence it is written (1 Kings. 26:19): “If the Lord stir thee up against me, let Him accept of sacrifice.” And in like fashion Christ’s voluntary suffering was such a good act that, because of its being found in human nature, God was appeased for every offense of the human race with regard to those who are made one with the crucified Christ…
Just as Moses, a type of Christ, suffered for his people to appease God —
And when I came down from the burning mount, and held the two tables of the covenant with both hands, And saw that you had sinned against the Lord your God, and had made to yourselves a molten calf, and had quickly forsaken his way, which he had shewn you: I cast the tables out of my hands, and broke them in your sight. And I fell down before the Lord as before, forty days and nights neither eating bread, nor drinking water, for all your sins, which you had committed against the Lord, and had provoked him to wrath: For I feared his indignation and anger, wherewith being moved against you, he would have destroyed you. And the Lord heard me this time also. And he was exceeding angry against Aaron also, and would have destroyed him, and I prayed in like manner for him.
— we, too, can offer our sufferings for others. When given to God along with the Perfect Oblation (Christ) offered to the Father at the Mass, our offerings and sufferings are sanctified and put to use.
Offering it Up (or “Making a Good Intention”)
So, how do Catholics “offer up” their sufferings and sacrifices? In both formal and informal ways.
Formally, many Catholics make the Morning Offering to give to Our Lord that day’s efforts, works, joys, sufferings, intentions, etc. (the form may vary). At the Mass, we excercise our lay priesthood by consciously, silently, privately offering ourselves up, along with the Son, to the Father during the Offertory.
Informally, we “offer it up” by simply asking God in our own words to use a suffering as it occurs; we often do this for specific intentions (ex., “Use this pain, Lord, for the salvation of my brother…”). We might follow the example of the young St. Thérèse of Lisieux and make use of Sacrifice Beads, or the extraordinary among us might make the Heroic Act of Charity for the souls in Purgatory. We may think of Christ during His Passion, or of His Mother and her Seven Sorrows, and offer our sufferings to her to give to her Son.
It’s quite a discipline to react to suffering this way! In mental or physical pain? Drop something on your toe? Putting up with a co-worker who is making your life a living Hell? Enduring the constant ache of arthritis? Standing in line at the grocery and hating every minute of it? Spill the milk? Accept these things in peace, and ask God to use them for the good of the Church or for a more specific intention close to your heart. This isn’t easy to do, but it does make the suffering more meaningful and less — well, less insufferable!
You’ll find that it is not uncommon to hear one Catholic tell another who is suffering to “offer it up” as a way of dealing with his suffering. It should be remembered, though, that while it is most definitely good to tell someone to “offer it up,” it is also easy — and that we are called, too, to comfort those who are suffering, to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to care for the sick, etc. Telling someone to offer it up without also helping him to deal with the temporal and emotional effects of whatever they are going through is not the fully Christian thing to do. Even Our Lord was helped while carrying His Cross: St. Veronica wiped the sweat and Blood from His Holy Face, and St. Simon of Cyrene helped Him bear the Cross itself.
And always help the suffering to retain (or regain) Hope that his suffering is not in vain. Assure him that he will partake of “the consolation”:
2 Corinthians 1:5-7
For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us: so also by Christ doth our comfort abound. Now whether we be in tribulation, it is for your exhortation and salvation: or whether we be comforted, it is for your consolation: or whether we be exhorted, it is for your exhortation and salvation, which worketh the enduring of the same sufferings which we also suffer. That our hope for you may be steadfast: knowing that as you are partakers of the sufferings, so shall you be also of the consolation.
Another verse for those who suffer:
For the Spirit Himself giveth testimony to our spirit that we are the sons of God. And if sons, heirs also; heirs indeed of God and joint heirs with Christ: yet so, if we suffer with Him, that we may be also glorified with Him. For I reckon that the sufferings of this time are not worthy to be compared with the glory to come that shall be revealed in us.
See also the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-10) and the page “Trusting in God.
Necessary and Voluntary Mortifications
“Mortification” is the act of dying to oneself by killing off the sinful desires of the flesh as taught by St. Paul:
For if you live according to the flesh, you shall die: but if by the Spirit you mortify the deeds of the flesh, you shall live. For whosoever are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God.
I Corinthians 9:25-27
And every one that striveth for the mastery refraineth himself from all things. And they indeed that they may receive a corruptible crown: but we an incorruptible one. I therefore so run, not as at an uncertainty: I so fight, not as one beating the air. But I chastise my body and bring it into subjection: lest perhaps, when I have preached to others, I myself should become a castaway.
But if you are led by the spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are manifest: which are fornication, uncleanness, immodesty, luxury, Idolatry, witchcrafts, enmities, contentions, emulations, wraths, quarrels, dissensions, sects, Envies, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like. Of the which I foretell you, as I have foretold to you, that they who do such things shall not obtain the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is, charity, joy, peace, patience, benignity, goodness, longanimity, mildness, faith, modesty, continency, chastity. Against such there is no law. And they that are Christ’s have crucified their flesh, with the vices and concupiscences. If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.
Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth: fornication, uncleanness, lust, evil concupiscence and covetousness, which is the service of idols.
Mortification is practiced by doing what all Christians must — fulfilling our duties, no matter how unpleasant; avoiding unnecessary near occasions of sin (those situations that tempt us to sin); denying ourselves that which is evil, etc.
It can also mean voluntarily taking on unpleasant things that aren’t a matter of duty or of directly fighting off evil habits, but which simply subject the flesh in order to increase humility, express contrition, develop fortitude and other virtues, avoid the vice of effeminacy, and build up the Body of Christ. These acts of mortification can include offering to God small acts, such as: fasting or practicing abstinence when not bound to; denying oneself an ordinary pleasure simply for the sake of God, such as giving up cream or sugar for your coffee for a time; taking on an unpleasant task one isn’t bound to take on; sitting on the hard chair rather than the soft one, etc. And they can include offering to God acts that appear (to wordly eyes) more extreme and apparently bizarre — the wearing of hairshirts, sleeping on a hard mattress or the floor, self-flagellation, etc.
These sorts of external voluntary mortifications that aren’t a matter of duty and which don’t fight an evil habit directly or develop virtue are beneficial insofar as they arise from the desire for humility, for penance, and to build up the Body of Christ, and insofar as they actually do lead to humility, virtue, and penance. More extreme forms of mortifications should only be practiced with the guidance of a good spiritual director.
Another Way to Suffer Gracefully
Another way to endure one’s sufferings with grace is to focus on the sufferings of Our Lady. When seen in the light of her sufferings, the Mother of God is known as Our Lady of Sorrows, Our Lady of Dolours, Mater Dolorosa, and other such titles. Depictions of her under these titles often include seven swords piercing her heart (depictions of her Immaculate Heart show her heart pierced by a single sword representing all of the sorrows).
The seven great sorrows she endured are:
- the prophecy of St. Simeon (Luke 2:35)
- the flight into Egypt (Matthew 2:13)
- losing Jesus at the Temple (Luke 2:46-48)
- meeting Jesus as He carried His Cross (Luke 23:27)
- standing at the foot of the Cross during the Crucifixion of her Son (John 19:25-27)
- the taking down of His Body from the Cross (John 19:38)
- the burial of Jesus (Luke 23:55-56)
Catholics especially meditate on these sufferings on two feast days of the year: The Feast of the Seven Sorrows, which falls two Fridays before Easter, and on September 15. But they are good to meditate on any time one is undergoing trials. The very Mother of God had her hardships, too, and uniting our sufferings with hers is a way to sanctify them and mentally order them in light of eternity. Asking her prayers for us, whom she loves so much, is a way to lighten our loads and receive the graces her Son wants to pour out on us. And, finally, it reminds us that we are never alone in our pain, no matter how seemingly lacking in human companionship we are. Read more about the devotion to Our Lady’s Sorrows on the page devoted to the Feast of the Seven Sorrows.
The Ultimate in “Offering it up”: Victim Souls
This page can’t be complete without mentioning “victim souls.” A victim soul is someone who’s been chosen by God to participate in Christ’s Passion in a very special way by manifesting the signs of His sufferings, often in their very bodies. Suffering for the sake of love is their vocation, and such suffering is willingly accepted for the benefit of the Church. The attitude and plea of the victim soul is summed up by this prayer of St. Catherine of Siena:
The only cause of my death is my zeal for the Church of God, which devours and consumes me. Accept, O Lord, the sacrifice of my life for the Mystical Body of Thy holy Church.
St. Lydwine of Schiedam, the Venerable Anne Catherine Emmerich, and St. Pio of Pietrelcina (Padre Pio) were three other such souls, and there have been many more. Often, but not necessarily, these souls receive the stigmata on their palms or feet, the wounds left by the crown of thorns, wounds in their sides as if made by a lance, stripes on their bodies as if caused by scourging, and other bodily phenomena that recall His Passion.