I have no doubts none of us here want pain or suffering in our lives. However, we also know that pain and suffering is also an inseparable reality of our human experiences. Today, as we celebrate the feast of the “Triumph of the Cross,” the wisdom of our Catholic Church wants us to reflect on the meaning of the pain and suffering in our lives in the context of our faith in Jesus, our Lord who offers us eternal life through the Triumph of His Suffering and Death on the Cross.
As Jesus embraced His Cross how are we who do not want pain and suffering in life, make sense of the Cross of our faith? Many years ago, there is a story of two brothers, Ryan and Chad Arnold from Denver, Colorado. Ryan aged 34 had decided to donate part of his healthy liver to his older brother Chad who was suffering from an incurable liver disease.
Ryan Arnold, left, and Chad Arnold at a family cabin
Ryan Arnold, in the doorway, visits his brother Chad lying in bed in his hospital room after the liver transplant surgery. Ryan and his family.
Before the operation, Ryan was cautioned by the doctors that the surgery he was going through was rare and risky. However, Ryan said, “I know the risk, but I love my brother more, so whatever happens to me is worth it.” After the liver transplant, Chad who was recovering asked for his brother Ryan. His father told him, “Chad, I have some bad news, Ryan’s gone; he died soon after the transplant.”
My brothers and sisters in Christ, Ryan not only donated his liver, but willingly gave up his life for his brother because of his deep love for him. Such selfless and unconditional love of Ryan for his brother gives us a glimpse of the meaning of the divine Suffering of Christ for our sake and Salvation. The Cross of Christ can only make sense to us if our love for God is deep enough. But, if our love for Christ is not deep then, our tendency would be for us to shun the pain and sufferings of our lives, instead of embracing the Cross of Christ.
When Moses lifted up the bronze serpent over the people in the desert for his followers to see and be saved, he foreshadowed the followers of Jesus who would gain eternal salvation if they were to believe that Jesus is their Saviour and Lord when He is lifted up on the Cross.
Thus, our Church today celebrates the Cross of Christ as the instrument of our redemption. And so, if we are to take up our crosses daily and be obedient to living the Father’s Will, we will gain eternal salvation. In order to live the Father’s Will daily, we could reflect on two essential qualities of the lives of holy people who followed Christ.
The first quality of these holy people is that they accept suffering; by this we mean that they are willing to pay the price of their faith in Jesus. There is a story of Brother Yun who in his book, The Heavenly Man described that after facing weeks of torture, including electrocution, starvation, beatings, and having needles pierced under his fingernails, he was thrown in a box that was four feet long, three feet wide, and four feet high, where he would stay indefinitely.
However, the day after he was put in this mini cell, he felt prompted to pray for a Bible. Clearly, this was a ridiculous idea because many people were in prison precisely for possessing a Bible. Yet he prayed anyway. . . . to his great surprise, the next morning, a guard threw a Bible into his cell. He writes:
I knelt down and wept, thanking the Lord for this great gift. I could scarcely believe my dream had come true! No prisoner was ever allowed to have a Bible or any Christian literature, yet, God made this possible for me. Through this experience the Lord showed me that regardless of the evils of the secular world, God will always be there for me and will provide and care for my needs. As such our crosses will never crush us, and we will emerge from our trials even stronger in our faith, hope and love for God.
The second quality of these holy people is that they are very conscious of and accept the inevitability of death. In other words, these followers lived their lives with the clear view that their ultimate destination in life is to get into heaven. Thus, every possession and position they have in this secular world are of secondary importance because they do not last for ever. Their goal in life is not to maximise their time on earth, but rather to live the Gospel of Christ as fully as they can.
And so, when holy people like St Thomas More had to choose between God’s Will through their obedience to the authority of the Church, the pope, instead of the gain of great rewards and honours in this secular world, and win much benefits of their families, they would willingly accept death. St Thomas knew that obedience to God’s Will must be ultimate, and our life on earth is meant to be a preparation for our heavenly home with God.
My sisters and brothers in Christ, let us remind ourselves that the unconditional love that Ryan had for his brother Chad transformed his pain for his brother’s illness into a meaningful sacrifice of his life for him. The excruciating torture that Brother Yun willingly accepted as a result of his deep faith and love for Jesus, transformed his suffering into experiences of his deep union with Christ’s Suffering on the Cross. The willingness of St Thomas More to accept death in obedience to God’s Will, in place of his family and instead of the gold and glories of this world, affirms the truth that with God’s graces and strength, no pain and suffering in this world is too great to bear and no attractions can be overcome.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, the Holy Spirit that empowered Brother Yun and St Thomas More is also the Spirit that is residing within our hearts, and will lead us in our daily living of our faith in God. The great difference between these holy people and us is that they are willing to allow God to empower them to embrace the crosses in their life regardless of the costs they have to pay. Thus, they experience the triumph of the Cross of Christ.
Such depth of faith, hope and love for Jesus is possible, if we truly desire them. And these have to be nurtured daily and painstakingly. The question you and I need to ask ourselves is, “Am I willing to carry and embrace the crosses of our daily life?” If we do, then let us reflect on the concrete ways in which we can grow in such intimate union with the Lord.
First, the most obvious quality we need is to develop a meaningful prayer life. We need to set aside time for personal prayer with the Lord; this is very basic and essential. Ideally, we need to pray the first thing in the morning and centre ourselves on Christ before tackling anything else the day may bring. In our prayer we need to listen and discern God’s Will at all times and to allow the Holy Spirit to guide.
Second, obvious quality is to keep our daily distractions of life to a minimum. This is because much of these distractions that are related to material possessions, power and positions in the secular world do not contribute to the peace and unity of our lives. As such, they distract us from our spiritual growth and relationship with the Lord.
Third, we need to live a more discerning life; and once we sense and have sufficient clarity of God’s Will, and experience God’s strength it is wise to obey and not try to give unnecessary excuses to procrastinate our decisions indefinitely. This is important because one of the obstacles of obeying God’s Will is our tendency to give preference to our own will and to our personal desires and needs.
As I conclude, let us remind ourselves that without a meaningful prayer life, our daily distractions will clearly draw us away from God and prevent us from living a discerning life of seeking God’s Will and Ways to become our ultimate goal and purpose in life. And when we are able to build such solid spiritual foundation in our life, God will surely give us the strength and the wisdom to embrace the crosses of Christ in our life, and experience its triumph in this world and for all eternity, as Brother Yun and St Thomas More has shown us that this is possible.
Msgr Philip Heng,S.J.
visitors since 15 September 2014