Let’s begin with something that is painfully obvious: Life is hard, and nobody gets out of it without a measure of suffering.
We need only look at the crucifix to understand the truth of it—to see the very embodiment of innocence and goodness brought into a torture and torment most unjust, enduring his suffering unto death.
We need only look at the Woman, his mother, standing with him, never leaving his side, but instead consenting to suffer her own agonies as her baby, her adored little boy, is shredded, drained of his lifeblood before her eyes, defiled unto death and even beyond.
The Woman—the Theotokos, the God-bearer—and her son, the God-man, consented to endure their trials because their sufferings were meant both to effect something and teach something to all of humanity.
First, that the God of creation and salvation and sanctification is The God Who Knows. The pains and sorrows, betrayals and injustices, outsized retributions and appalling imbalances that constitute huge parts of all of our lives are not the untouched realities of a distant deity; they are known to him as they are known to us—as they are known to his Mother—on the intimate level of marrow and sinew, of spirit, of tormented mental anguish.
The sense of ringing helplessness that accompanies our miseries are known to them as well. Mary, who could do nothing when Simeon’s prophecy pierced her new mother’s heart, who could do nothing, again, when her son’s eyes met hers as he stumbled and swayed and carried his cross, comprehends that feeling.
And curiously, so does Jesus, who—unlike Mary—could have done something to end his ordeal, but chose not to, because he understood his role, understood that he was a Lamb of sacrifice, meant to be drained, like the lambs of Passover, slain and then placed on wooden crossbars, so that their cleansing blood could wash over the altars, and down the very steps of the temple, in atonement.
We often (and quite reasonably) ask, “But what is the point? What is the point of the disbursal and endurance of excruciating pain, whether it is of body, or mind, or spirit? What possible good can come of it?”
In general, Catholicism doesn’t like that question—the ‘what use is it’ query—because it conveys an idea that everything and everyone must have a discernable usefulness in order to have a discernable value. Catholicism is rightly wary of a question that turns humans or created creatures or creation itself into utilitarian units. Because utilitarian things can be tossed away, taken apart, repurposed, or abandoned or forgotten—actions that we see time and again do not work within nature, cannot be permitted within the biosphere of earth, lest life itself become too imbalanced to proceed.
But when it comes to suffering, we permit and even encourage the question of utility, because the answer—as in the action itself—is profound, and inclusive, and a great secret of privilege: by our suffering, we are brought into the company of the King (and the Queen), and given an exalted place, right by their sides. We become joined to them; our pain, our crying out is joined to them until we become one voice, one grief, one misery, one powerful sorrow that echoes through time.
And yes, this is a useful thing, this is something the value of which is absolutely established by its utility:
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church. (Colossians 1:24)
This is the way; thus are we made holy and, in a sense, regal.
But neither holiness nor nobility—while certainly by-products of our willing embrace of all that is grim and face-in-the-dirt brutal—can truly define the great privilege that comes with our painful endurances; neither holiness nor nobility are the absolute ends toward which our sufferings are a means.
No, what raises us to the most regal and efficacious ranks of heaven is our willingness to accept what amounts to a most dreadful royal invitation:
Along with the Theotokos,
the Woman of the Fiat,
Jesus of Nazareth
a Son of David,
the Christ, the Messiah
the Strong One of Jacob,
King of Kings and Lord of Lords,
cordially invites you to join him
for an occasion of immense and exquisite suffering,
of indeterminate length
on the Via Dolorosa of his own travels
a path of isolation and loneliness
and the misunderstanding of others
concluding at Golgotha,
and with a shared experience
of his Cross
upon which room has been made ready
exclusively for you
for the sake of the life of the world.
Because of its exclusivity, this invitation is different for everyone, as is the measure of wretchedness each of us is permitted to endure.
Some get a dollop of it, suddenly and for a short but horrifically painful time.
Some endure it long-term, from the moment they are born, until they die.
For most of us, suffering comes incrementally, a bit at a time, and how we manage in between servings will generally impact how well we may receive and digest the next course.
As I write this, my family has received one of these Royal Invitations. An occasion of months-long suffering is about to find its culmination. It involves two people whose lives have been lived in giving, in supporting others, in saying ‘yes’ instead of ‘no,’ in walking two miles with those who have asked them to walk only one. They raised their sons to live in the same way, and to a man they are kind, merciful, selfless; rare good fruit unleashed upon a world famished for it.
We know that for these two extraordinary servants there is, indeed, an honored procession to come in this world, and believe in the rewards of the next.
Still, it is no easy invite to accept. Currently, we are gathering at the side of the Woman Who Knows, and who will faithfully accompany us, but we are doing it with tentative sighs; if we are resigned and obedient, our spines are nevertheless already bowed in anticipation of all that is before us. We understand that every step we take along with the Mother can lead us, only, to Golgotha and her son, on the cross.
And the cross seems very wide, today, and very high, showing plenty of room alongside the King; a place for all of us.
I pray that we might yet rejoice at being given access to the great and secret privilege that comes with this most utilitarian of human experiences.