One day some months ago and before my retirement, I was sitting in the hospital Chapel during the Hour of Mercy. It is a very simple room, with a small Altar tucked away in the corner and a plain wooden Crucifix on the main wall. Other than this – and some Bibles and religious books on a shelf – it looks like a medium sized empty room. It was also empty of people. And so I sat there alone, quietly praying my Chaplet.
As it is within a large and very busy hospital, I wondered why it was empty, and what role faith had in the lives of the people being cared for there, as well as wondering the same things about the people who work there in caring for the sick, in whatever way.
My experience tells me that people who are seriously ill often turn to their faith for what people often refer to euphemistically as ‘comfort’; and while that may be part of the role of faith in the life of a person, it is certainly only a part – and by no means the most important part. Serious illness can have the effect of focussing a person; priorities shift, certain things become less important or more important, at least at that point.
One of the more important parts of faith in the context of suffering and illness, is that it gives it meaning. It reminds us of our mortality, that all things pass, including us. It also reminds us of those words in the Gospel where the Lord tells us that we must take up our own crosses and follow Him, if we wish to be like Him. But faith also does something beyond this; it allows our little sufferings to become redemptive. Not only do we more closely resemble the Lord, but we have the opportunity to unite our sufferings to His, “to make up what is lacking for the sake of His Body, which is the Church” (cf. Col.1:24), as Saint Paul puts it, for the glory of God, the good of souls, and for our own sanctity.
All of this was expressed in that simple wooden Crucifix in front of me on the wall. The Crucifix was enough; it said – and it explained – everything.
We live in a strange society. The idea of suffering in any form is considered anathema. No-one wants to suffer, regardless of what form that suffering might take for us. Of course, most of us will indeed suffer in one way or another in the course of our lives; and there are few who will not be touched by suffering in some form, in others close to us even if not directly.
And yet suffering truly can be redemptive – for ourselves and for others – if only we would learn to put it to good use.
Further to this, caring for the sick can also be redemptive; the maxims applying to the sick often apply also to those caring for them. For carers, their priorities, too, are shifted. Caring generally requires a degree, whether large or small, of self-forgetfulness. It makes us think of others, rather of self. Our needs, our wishes, become secondary. For some, ordinary life has to be put on hold in order to care for a loved one. Being forgetful of self also gets a mention in the Gospel. This point was not lost on the many congregations of Sisters who, over many centuries, cared for the sick as part of their charism. The same can be said of families who care for and love a sick member. It is odd, in fact, how this caring can be transformative for families, for individuals – it can bring out the best in people. It can offer an opportunity for qualities to come forth and shine, and which might never have shown themselves otherwise, a bit like a diamond after polishing.
In his speech for the World Day of the Sick in 2017, Pope Francis touched on this –
“The gaze of Mary, Comfort of the Afflicted, brightens the face of the Church in her daily commitment to the suffering and those in need. The precious fruits of this solicitude for the world of suffering and sickness are a reason for gratitude to the Lord Jesus, who out of obedience to the will of the Father became one of us, even enduring death on the cross for the redemption of humanity. The solidarity shown by Christ, the Son of God born of Mary, is the expression of God’s merciful omnipotence, which is made manifest in our life – above all when that life is frail, pain-filled, humbled, marginalized and suffering – and fills it with the power of hope that can sustain us and enable us to get up again.”
One of the greatest Popes of our times, St John Paul II, taught us a great deal in all his writings and exhortations to the faithful and to the world at large. Interestingly, one of his most powerful messages came not through what he said or wrote, but in the way that he bore illness and suffering as they removed his abilities and, eventually, his voice. Even now, this is one of the things most commented about in his regard. Clearly, that very visible witness of sanctity in suffering made a deep and lasting impression on many.
Perhaps, when He told us to take up our crosses, the good Lord knew just what He was talking about.