As we approach Palm Sunday this weekend and the start of Holy Week, Christians are called to remember the sufferings of Jesus, culminating in His Crucifixion on Good Friday. If you are among those who are, for the most part, doing well, it may be difficult to try to reflect on what Christ went through on your behalf. However if you are among those who are indeed experiencing physical pain or emotional anguish, that does not automatically mean that you are in a position to empathize with Him unless you make a concerted effort.
This Sunday at mass we will be hearing and participating in the reading of The Passion from the Gospel of St. Mark, where the Evangelist describes the following incident involving an attempt to give a 1st century equivalent of a painkiller to Jesus:
At noon darkness came over the whole land
until three in the afternoon.
And at three o’clock Jesus cried out in a loud voice,
“Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?”
which is translated,
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Some of the bystanders who heard it said,
“Look, He is calling Elijah.”
One of them ran, soaked a sponge with wine, put it on a reed
and gave it to Him to drink saying,
“Wait, let us see if Elijah comes to take Him down.”
Of course as we all know, Elijah did not come to take Him down: His suffering continued until He died.
One of the several Lenten activities I have taken on is reading more about the life of the great spiritual writer and Doctor of the Church St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622). His “Introduction to the Devout Life” is one of my favorite books, not only for its content and sound counsel, but also for its style. St. Francis, who as it happens is one of the patron saints of writers, is someone who writes for those of us who are living in the secular world, with all of its opportunities and temptations. And naturally, when I went to look up some of his thoughts on suffering, he pretty much hit the nail on the head.
While St. Francis de Sales was a priest who eventually become bishop, he was also someone who had spent a significant period of time moving about in high society. Having been born in his family’s ancestral château in French Savoy, and having received all of the usual instruction of his class in gentlemanly pursuits such as riding, dancing, and social pleasantries, he spent the first part of his life being educated at some of the finest schools in Europe, and meeting other young scions of noble or well-to-do families. In fact, being the oldest son and heir, his father had arranged for him to marry an heiress and begin a political career, but by the time he was in his mid-twenties and had completed his studies, St. Francis had already decided to renounce everything and become a priest.
I have come to particularly appreciate St. Francis’ writing over the years because of his recognition that what might be practical in the convent cell may be impractical in the drawing room. He knows that the person reading his work may be deeply religious, but that they are not necessarily called to consecrated life, as he himself was. They may be a person of temporal importance such as a wealthy philanthropist, an elected official, an armed forces officer, or the like, who bears a degree of responsibility for keeping society going in some way, but also wants to be a good Christian, recognizing the passing nature of this life and the fundamental importance of focusing on the life to come.
In much of his writing, St. Francis takes Jesus’ observation that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God, and turns to the practicalities of the situation. He himself knew and experienced how difficult it was to live in the material world, with all of the conflicting messages that we receive in it. Thus in Part III, Chapter 3 of his “Introduction to the Devout Life”, St. Francis provides both sensible advice and spiritual counseling with respect to how to deal with what C.S. Lewis called “The Problem of Pain”, in his eponymous book on the subject.
Interestingly, St. Francis views the problem of pain as arising not so much from selfishness, but rather from a need to develop the virtue of patience – and indeed, he titles this particular chapter, “Patience”. He notes that we have to walk a fine line between complaining too much, and not complaining at all, when we are suffering from a malady of some kind, whether professional, financial, physical, etc. If we whinge and wail too much, then we are looking to draw attention to ourselves; if we do not admit that we are in distress, then we deny others the opportunity to act in charity towards us, and also lose the opportunity for personal reflection to make our suffering meaningful.
Thus while St. Francis counsels against people wallowing in their sorrow, he also believes that there is no real virtue in maintaining the stiff upper lip and pretending that everything is fine. And because we are in Lent, it was interesting to note an allusion which St. Francis made in this chapter to the suffering of Christ on the Cross, as described in the preceding passage from St. Mark, and how it can be compared to following what today we would call “doctor’s orders”:
When you are sick, offer all your pains and weakness to our Dear Lord, and ask Him to unite them to the sufferings which He bore for you. Obey your physician, and take all medicines, remedies and nourishment, for the Love of God, remembering the vinegar and gall He tasted for love of us; desire your recovery that you may serve Him; do not shrink from languor and weakness out of obedience to Him, and be ready to die if He wills it, to His Glory, and that you may enter into His Presence…Gaze often inwardly upon Jesus Christ crucified, naked, blasphemed, falsely accused, forsaken, overwhelmed with every possible grief and sorrow, and remember that none of your sufferings can ever be compared to His, either in kind or degree, and that you can never suffer anything for Him worthy to be weighed against what He has borne for you.
Note that St. Francis, writing centuries before the advent of modern medicine and pharmaceuticals, points out that we are not to “shrink from langour and weakness”. In other words, writes the Bishop of Geneva, if you are feeling sick then for pity’s sake take your medicine, go to bed, and stop pretending that everything is fine, when it is not. While he does not want people to be flailing themselves about in public complaining of every bad thing that might befall them, he also does not want people to avoid getting the recuperative rest that they need. This is not only because it is impractical to make themselves worse, but also because he wants them to learn the virtue of patience, by taking at least part of their recuperation time to reflect on Jesus, and the suffering He went through on our behalf.
No doubt avoiding both the pity party and unflinching stoicism can be very difficult for many of us to achieve, myself included. However for those of us who need to work on our patience, combining both a practical, reasoned response to our suffering, whatever its cause, with a willingness to sit back and allow things to repair themselves, if it is God’s Will, will ultimately be of tremendous benefit to our spiritual well-being, which after all is more important than anything else which we possess temporarily in this life, be it health, wealth, intelligence, appearance, position, or what have you. Using that time of enforced detachment from the world to reflect on Christ’s suffering on our behalf, particularly as we enter Holy Week, may very well prove to be the most beneficial action of all.
“Angel Holding the Sponge and Hyssop” by Antonio Giorgetti (1668-1669)
Ponte Sant’Angelo, Rome