One of the common features we see in the lives of the Saints is the presence of suffering – often physical in nature, but also taking the form of opposition or of moral suffering of one kind or another. But while the world proposes to us that all suffering is evil – indeed, sometimes using the very presence of suffering to question the existence of God or of His love for us – still our Faith shows suffering in a quite different light.
For the Saints, suffering was not an end in itself, something that is ultimately dead and worthless; rather, suffering was a means to an end, an opportunity of sorts. It was a means of uniting to the Crucified, so that this personal suffering could become redemptive in and with Him.
At Lourdes, the Immaculate Virgin told Her little protégè, Bernadette –
“I cannot promise you happiness in this world, only in the next”.
Later, St Bernadette, in the convent at Nevers, offered her physical sufferings, particularly from a tubercular tumour on her knee. She also suffered the disbelief of many, together with being sought out constantly as something of a curiosity. St John Macias slept only three hours each night, wore a hair shirt and an iron chain bound tightly around his waist. Venerable Matt Talbot wore a similar chain around his waist, discovered only on the day of his death, although it had been there for many years. The lives of so many other Saints reveals a similar attitude toward mortification and the embrace of suffering.
For these great Saints, there was no doubt a particular grace given to them to approach suffering in this way, and to bear it heroically and without it presenting any danger to their spiritual advancement. For most of us, that is a grace we might not be given and we may not be called to suffer in quite the same way or to the same degree.
Be that as it may, every single one of us will encounter suffering in one way or another. And so, when suffering comes our way, what are we to do with it?
The answer is that we are asked to do precisely what the Saints did with it – to bear it well, with patience and fortitude, for as long as it lasts. Not so many years ago, there was an expression which encapsulated the thinking perfectly – we are to “offer it up”.
Looking at the message of Fatima, this sense of ‘offering it up’ is clearly present throughout – from the appearances of the Angel in 1916, to the deaths of Saint Francisco and then Saint Jacinta. When the Angel visited the children the year before the appearances of the Mother of God, he told them –
“Offer prayers and sacrifices constantly to the Most High. Make of everything you can a sacrifice, and offer it to God as an act of reparation for the sins by which He is offended, and in supplication for the conversion of sinners”
Responding to this appeal, the children began to pray for long hours and to practice charity towards others – they would give away their food to poor children, leaving themselves hungry and without water for the whole day, despite the burning heat of the Portugese sun.
The following year, the Blessed Virgin would echo this call of the Angel, telling the children in July 1917 –
“Sacrifice yourselves for sinners and say many times, especially whenever you make some sacrifice, ‘O Jesus, it is for love of You, for the conversion of sinners, and in reparation for the sins committed against the Immaculate Heart of Mary’”.
A month later, She added detail to the reason why they were being asked to suffer so –
“Pray, pray very much and make sacrifices for sinners; for many souls go to Hell because there are none to sacrifice themselves and pray for them.”
The children – aged 7, 9 and 10 – were already wearing a piece of knotted rope bound tightly around their waists, both day and night; this rope caused them to suffer so much that they were unable to sleep. And so in September, the beautiful Lady from Heaven told them –
“God is pleased with your sacrifices. He does not want you to sleep with the rope on, but only to wear it during the daytime.”
Clearly, then, this suffering was acceptable to God and had some meritorious value in His eyes and it achieved something worthwhile – grace for the conversion of sinners.
We tend to focus on the present moment, as though it were all that mattered and as if nothing existed beyond or outwith this moment. We often go out of our way to avoid suffering in any form – a human and very understandable response, certainly. But the lives of these children suggest there is another way.
For us who walk the common path of humanity, we are perhaps not called to undertake freely-chosen mortifications of the sort described here – but we are very clearly called to embrace suffering patiently and to offer it in union with Christ Crucified, so that in our own personal way (whether small or large), we can join Him in the work of Redemption. We do something of the sort each Lent – our little personal mortifications (avoiding chocolate or biscuits, for example) have the very same intention as that of the Saints mentioned here.
If you find the idea of embracing suffering to be repugnant – that is good. Mortification should always be contrary to our will, or else it becomes like salt that has lost its flavour – and worse, it risks leading us into spiritual pride, which is deadly. Rather, our mortifications should increase our humility and our love of God, never our love of self.
For this reason, it is generally best to avoid actively choosing the greater mortifications, those involving chains and ropes and so forth, unless the Lord has made His divine will in this matter very clear – and even then, we should always be guided by prudence, by obedience and by a holy spiritual director.
A better option is to joyfully and willingly embrace those sufferings which life presents to us without our having to actively choose them. We can freely choose the lesser mortifications which are available to us on a daily basis and which can go entirely unnoticed by the world. There will be plenty of these, regardless of our state in life.
The most obvious is the willing acceptance of our place in life and our daily duty with all it entails. Another is obedience to those in lawful authority over us. Yet another are the little choices we are able to make, each one an opportunity to thwart our passions, our ego and our self-love. For someone with a sweet tooth, this might take the form of avoiding sugar in coffee; or it might consist of washing the dishes for a spouse when we really would prefer to watch television. Perhaps this sort of common and very ordinary mortification is what the Angel of Fatima was referring to when he said “make of everything you can a sacrifice”.
But remember – for it to have value before the Lord, it needs to be hidden from the eyes of the world and undertaken purely out of love for the Lord and for souls. Jacinta and Francisco told not a soul about that rope belt – indeed, little Francisco was desperate to keep it hidden, to the extent that the day before his death, he gave it to his cousin Lucia and asked her to burn it before anyone saw it.
These little acts of mortification of the will and the senses, done consistently every day in a humble and hidden manner, can become like little stepping stones along the path of true sanctity.
Perhaps our parents and grandparents had an inkling of some of this on those occasions when suffering came our way and they suggested to us that we ‘offer it up’.