Is your cross getting a little heavy?

A few words of encouragement from the spiritual masters

Karna Swanson

There is no aspect of the Christian life more difficult to understand (and to accept lovingly and with joy) than the role of the cross in our salvation.

On Sept. 14, we celebrate the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, which celebrates St. Helena’s discovery of the True Cross in 320, and the dedication of the basilica and shrine built on the site of the Crucifixion in 335.

But more than that, the feast highlights the intense suffering Christ endured out of love for us to obtain our redemption, a suffering that he first asked to be taken from him in the Garden of Gethsemane (“If it be possible, let this cup pass from me” Mt. 26:39).

As Saint John Paul II wrote in Salvifici Doloris (On the Christian meaning of human suffering), suffering “is the undergoing of evil before which man shudders.” It’s not easy for anyone, and it is a reality “almost inseparable from man’s earthly existence.”

But, the Pope continues, in the cross the Christian finds meaning in suffering because it is through the cross that Christ redeems our sins, and it is through our sharing in Christ’s cross that we gain eternal life.

“Human suffering has reached its culmination in the Passion of Christ. And at the same time it has entered into a completely new dimension and a new order: it has been linked to love … to that love which creates good, drawing it out by means of suffering, just as the supreme good of the Redemption of the world was drawn from the Cross of Christ.”

As we prepare to celebrate the great feast day of the Exultation of the Cross, let us look to some of the great spiritual masters for words of encouragement and insight into the mystery of human suffering and redemption.

Your cross is unique

“The everlasting God has in his wisdom foreseen from eternity the cross that He now presents to you as a gift from His Inmost Heart. This cross He now sends you He has considered with His all-knowing eyes, understood with His divine mind, tested with His wise justice, warmed with loving arms and weighed with His own hands to see that it be not one inch too large and not one ounce too heavy for you. He has blessed it with His Holy Name, anointed it with His consolation, taken one last glance at you and your courage, and then sent it to you from heaven, a special greeting from God to you, an alms of the All-Merciful Love of God.”
— Prayer of St. Francis de Sales (1567–1622)

Path to patience

“If you seek patience, you will find no better example than the cross. Great patience occurs in two ways: either when one patiently suffers much, or when one suffers things which one is able to avoid and yet does not avoid. Christ endured much on the cross, and did so patiently, because when he suffered he did not threaten; he was led like a sheep to the slaughter and he did not open his mouth.”
— St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)

There is no other route

“Would that men might come at last to see that it is quite impossible to reach the thicket of the riches and wisdom of God except by first entering the thicket of much suffering, in such a way that the soul finds there its consolation and desire. The soul that longs for divine wisdom chooses first, and in truth, to enter the thicket of the cross.”
— St. John of the Cross (1542–1591)

The path to holiness

“If God gives you an abundant harvest of trials, it is a sign of great holiness which He desires you to attain. Do you want to become a great saint? Ask God to send you many sufferings. The flame of Divine Love never rises higher than when fed with the wood of the Cross, which the infinite charity of the Savior used to finish His sacrifice. All the pleasures of the world are nothing compared with the sweetness found in the gall and vinegar offered to Jesus Christ. That is, hard and painful things endured for Jesus Christ and with Jesus Christ.”
— St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491–1556)

Help carry your neighbor’s cross

“I always want to see you behaving like a brave soldier who does not complain about his own suffering but takes his comrades’ wounds seriously and treats his own as nothing but scratches.”
— St. Thérèse of Lisieux (1873–1897)

How to celebrate the cross

“When you become true lovers of the Crucified, you will always celebrate the feast of the cross in the inner temple of the soul, bearing all in silence and not relying on any creature. Since festivals ought to be celebrated joyfully, those who love the Crucified should honor the feast of the cross by enduring in silence with a serene and joyful countenance, so that their suffering remains hidden from men and is observed by God alone. For in this feast there is always a solemn banquet, and the food presented is the will of God, exemplified by the love of our crucified Christ.”
— St. Paul of the Cross (1694–1775)

 

COMING UP: Six ways to transform your suffering with Stations of the Cross

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Holy Week is a perfect time to reflect on Jesus’ suffering and what his passion means to us in our own. We can’t ever escape suffering in this life, but because of his death, it has meaning.

The Stations of the Cross in particular is a really practical way to do this — we can re-live his experience and apply it to our lives. And if we’re in a season of suffering, there’s a lot we can learn from him on how to suffer well. In learning to suffer well, we become more intimate with him as we unite our experience to his — and they become one.

Here are six things we can learn about suffering from the Stations of the Cross.

1. Be honest about how you feel. (Agony in the Garden)

One of the most important things to do in your suffering, both spiritually and psychologically, is to first admit that you are suffering. Acknowledge your pain, and be honest with yourself about how it makes you feel. Fighting it, as opposed to accepting it, causes even more inner pain. And God can only work with us in as much as we are honest with him.

Jesus himself was honest about his emotional response to pain. In the Agony in the Garden, he prayed before the Father, “If it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will” (Matt 26:39). He prayed this twice. He was not emotionally excited to suffer and die. Yet, even as he acknowledged this, he still submitted to whatever the Father’s will was for him. But he didn’t say that first; first, he acknowledged his pain.

2. Accept your suffering. (Jesus Takes Up His Cross)

Even if we’re honest emotionally, accepting suffering is an entirely different matter. Most of us tend to fight it; we simply wish we weren’t suffering, that our lot in life was different. Or even with small sufferings, the daily annoyances like traffic, or irritations from coworkers or family members, are met with impatience.

It’s not easy to do, but accepting our suffering really does lighten it. It’s still there, but it’s no longer causing us more suffering. And when we offer whatever our suffering is to Christ for others, this is another way of accepting it. Somehow, mysteriously, it makes it sweeter, or at least bearable.

Jesus didn’t just say, “Okay, I guess I have no choice, so I’ll take up this cross.” He freely chose his passion with love; he embraced his cross. His example to us is a call to do the same.

We cannot change our suffering, but we can change the way we respond to it. We can embrace our suffering as coming from the heart of Jesus, an opportunity that he has allowed for us to come closer to him, to share in his suffering. And that’s when suffering can be a joy.

3. Reach out or accept help. (Simon of Cyrene Helps Jesus)

It’s not easy to be vulnerable with others about your suffering, to let them share in it with you. But doing so is not only a grace for you, but a grace for them, as it allows them the opportunity to love you. Reaching out for help, or accepting it when it is offered, is an act of charity, too.

When Simon was forced by Roman soldiers to help Jesus carry his cross, Jesus accepted that help. He accepted it from Veronica, who wiped his face, too. His vulnerability in his suffering was their chance to love him, and because of it, Veronica became a saint and Simon’s sons, Rufus and Alexander, became missionaries.

4. Embrace your littleness. (Jesus is Stripped)

When we’re suffering, we’re often stripped of our energy, going about everyday life as normal, or of our ability to pray as usual. Maybe we stop praying altogether. These are opportunities to embrace how “little” we really are; when our human weakness becomes more apparent, we can offer this to Jesus, too. This is what St. Therese of Lisieux’s “Little Way” is all about.

It’s also another opportunity to unite this to Jesus, too; a share in his being stripped of all dignity and humanity when the soldiers stripped his garments before nailing him to the cross.

5. Don’t fight your daily deaths. (Jesus Dies on the Cross)

Death is often not as apparent as the physical; we die little deaths every day. Our sufferings, especially when we allow them to mold us more into the people God is calling us to be, are small deaths, too. Embrace them. Step into them.

Reflecting on Jesus’ own death on the cross is consoling, knowing that our sufferings make sense when united to his. He suffered everything we could ever suffer and so we are understood by him. Whatever we are experiencing, he experienced it first.

I heard once that “Whatever you go through, it has already gone through his heart first.”

6. New life always comes from suffering. (Jesus Rises)

Suffering never feels good, but we can always trust that it can be redemptive, when offered to Jesus.

New life always comes from seasons of drought. It depends on our choice, though; we can let ourselves respond to suffering with bitterness, or we can respond with openness and let it be new growth in ourselves and others.

We can’t rid the world of suffering. And no matter how many times we suffer, we will still have moments where we cry out and wonder why it happens. But we can trust in the Father’s goodness, that whatever he allows, he allows for our greater good and for the greater good of others.