Blog Template Theology of the Body: The Fellowship of His Suffering

Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Fellowship of His Suffering

"I want to know Christ, and the fellowship of His sufferings." Philippians 3

There is a whole Catholic lingo surrounding the problem of suffering. As often happens, this lingo refers to a whole, deep, profound theology about the nature of things. But to me in my charmed life it has been a lingo merely- a friend's lighthearted statement of intention "to offer it up" when her children are unruly, for instance. It sounds so economical. And while it has been deeply consoling to believe that there is some meaning, even some redemption behind the experience of my stubbed toe or my hurt feelings- or more profoundly, the hunger of my neighbor's children- I think it has never before fully sunk in that suffering can be a gift. That is to say, I've given this proposal the assent of faith. Really, though, I never believed it; I've felt closest to the Lord in a cool, clean swimming pool. But suffering, I think I am learning, is just as St. Paul puts it, the grace of fellowship with Christ- near, intimate fellowship, the kind that is costly and messy and hugely inconvenient and out of the way.

It's true that there is also a lovely, robust fellowship in joy, and our Lord is a laughing, risen Lord. When we sing "thine is the glory, risen conquering son," the undercurrent of our sympathy is a hurrah indeed- truly, ours in Him is the glory, the strut of a risen and conquering people. And it's all true- about Him, and about us- He is risen, we are risen with Him in baptism, we wait in hope. And everyone wants to be friends with the winner.

On the other hand, there is no natural fellowship in suffering. Maybe that's the hardest thing about it. Pain hurts, but it's the disconcerting perplexity and exhaustion that hurts most. Pain tends to disarm and alienate the person from his own thoughts and his own feelings, to the extent that "lovers and friends stand afar off" because the man of sorrows himself is put out of himself by his sorrow. Bewildered and confused by the nerves or the brain chemistry that bid us fight or fly from our pain, we are left with nothing to say, no conversation, nothing to offer. The time when things hurt the most is the time when we must be left alone. For the mother in the labor of childbirth, for the friend with a broken bone, for the daughter mourning a loss...there is no sharing of the deeply, uniquely personal experience of a personal agony.

This, I think must be the grace of suffering. In His human condition, Christ suffered alone. The ancient fathers insisted that in His purity and perfection, His loneliness and pain became the maximal instances of both. And it is in our own lonely suffering that we touch something of that which He endured alone, and hence, in our own experience, we get to share with Him that which no one else has ever shared. When we rejoice with Him, we stand with the whole joyous throng that He has won; but when I suffer with Him, it is my unique and unrepeatable and lonely pain that I know, and that He as God knows, as no one else can. It is precisely because I must suffer alone that in my suffering I enjoy the richest fellowship with my God, the man of sorrows. He alone is the friend who is nearer than the brother.

There is a precedent for this. The mother of the One who would suffer was quite closely united to Him already- by the affinity of supernatural grace, by proximity, by physiology. And yet the prophecy goes that even for her there was something more to be shared with Him, the otherwise isolated experience of suffering, which is otherwise impossible to share. The prophecy of Simeon proclaims a novelty, a new thing of intimacy in the human experience, an aspect of the Incarnation: "a sword will pierce your heart also." Here, for Mary, as for all times and all people, the merely human heart is to be united to that of the Trinity, in the shared experience of utter isolation.

"Your heart also." Catholic culture portrays the immaculate heart of Mary having been pierced with little spiky symbols, peeping through her flowers. We recall that she is alone at the Cross, and yet not alone, in the way that it is Christ alone who gives Himself for us, and yet He is not alone either. He is joined by all those who "make up in their bodies that which is lacking in the sufferings of Christ," who thereby live nearer to Him, in the ontological nearness that is requisite for our redemption.

Yes, I "add" my little sufferings to His. If my salvation and that of the whole world is accomplished by union with the Savior, then the union that is realized in my lonely suffering brings about my healing and, by extension, that of the composite brokenness of the world. The cross is not the site of a lonely death; it is the Tree of Life. It is, in the mind of the ancients, a fecund marriage bed. Having been invited into the place where none can otherwise go, in the fellowship of His suffering my suffering becomes the irreplaceable site where I meet Jesus, just the two of us. I am made new by that nearness. And here I maintain and renew fellowship with others through forgiveness, removing a just burden from them, and losing it in that abyss of mercy that was the suffering of God.

I want to know Him, in the fellowship of His suffering.