In talking with some of my spiritual mentors over the past month or so, a topic that has come up is the degree to which people, myself included, understand what suffering is as a result of sin. There seems to be a disconnect in a lot of people’s minds today between suffering and sin—people fail to grasp a) what sin is, and b) that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). It seems to be completely lost on people that the more you sin, the more you truly suffer, because your conscience can never rest. The less you sin, the more at peace you are, and the more redemptive value your suffering has.
Sin starts with the conscience, in the depths of the soul that are seen only by you and God. We are told in Matthew 5:48, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The Father wants to make a saint out of each and every one of us, to make us like his Son. Cooperating with His will means crucifying our sinfulness and denying ourselves daily in striving for this perfection.
The question of sin ultimately leads to who Christ is, because “for our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21) Christ became sin on the Cross and of His own free will provided a flawless model for how we should bear suffering.
There is the intellectual understanding of suffering that is purely imagination, and then there is the experiential understanding that is grounded in one’s own pain. All of us, as weak-willed and petty as we are, need to know that someone “gets” our misfortune and that someone is being put through the same wringer that we are.
In more intense cases, like people dealing with terminal illnesses and handicaps, the pain becomes so great that the only satisfactory consolation is not found in the visible world. The pain, physical and psychological, forces one to focus on the transcendent, on spiritual and eternal things, because frankly, this present world doesn’t have the answers.
Part of the answer to pain goes all the way back to the first humans. Sin came into the world because, as Fr. Abbot Peter likes to say in response to the news of any horrific evil committed, “Wow. Adam and Eve really blew it.” There is scientific proof in our mitochondrial DNA that all homo sapiens descend directly from one common mother, Eve. She is the biological mother of all mankind, who was tricked by Satan into sinning. Because she put the Eve in evil, everyone has this concupiscence, that is a tendency to sin, and thus everyone knows suffering.
Everyone, by virtue of being human, is by nature a sinner. If Jesus became sin on the Cross, we are all therefore studiers of the scientia Crucis, the science of the Cross. Scientia comes from the Latin root scio, scire meaning “to know, to understand”. Though our tiny pains don’t deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence as Jesus’ sufferings, each person nonetheless understands in his unique way the torture of His crucifixion.
To those who say, “I don’t believe in God. I put my faith in science”— I am so glad that you like science, because you study the science of the Cross every day whether you like it or not!
“Here learn the science of the Saints: All is to be found in the Passion of Jesus.” —St. Paul of the Cross
Those who have terrible migraine headaches know His crown of thorns. Those with Parkinson’s disease know the indescribable pain that shot through His nervous system. Those who suffer from anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder know the Agony in the Garden in which He sweated blood. Those with cystic fibrosis know His slow suffocation as His upper body started to tire and the Crucified had to push upwards on His nailed feet for every breath. Abandoned, parentless children know His cry of “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46) The disfigured and deformed know the humiliation of being publicly mocked and rejected. The list could go on.
This is why Pope Francis shows such compassion and love for the maimed and misunderstood. He is showing the world as the Vicar of Christ that to know Christ is to know the despised, the outcasts, the sick, the lame, the forgotten. Isaiah 53:3 prophesied all of this about Christ:
“He was despised and rejected by men;
a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.”
Some of my most spiritually fruitful prayer is spent in adoration while meditating on the Cross. It is something that all of the saints did frequently. If you truly believe that Christ’s Passion was the most important event of all time, the most spiritually fruitful event ever, then I don’t know that there is a better topic or image to meditate on.
It is good to ask yourself every day: Do I actually, truthfully appreciate what He did for me on the Cross? Am I detached from everything that He was detached from on the Cross—things like wealth, power, honor, pleasure, and fame?
“We must kneel there at the foot of that Pulpit of Love and confess that when we stabbed His Heart it was our own we slew. But, oh, it is such a difficult thing to climb up the hill of Calvary. It is such a humiliating thing to be seen at the foot of the Cross. It is such a painful thing to be with one in pain and to be seen with one condemned by the world. It is such a hard thing to kneel at the foot of the Cross and admit that one is wrong. It is hard — but it is harder to hang there!” —Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, Divine Romance