Return of the Prodigal Son by Pompeo Batoni - 1773

Evolution for the Catholic Student

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Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Sacrifice and Suffering

Sacrifice and Suffering

          One of my favorite quotes of all time is by St. Josemaria Escriva: “The world admires only spectacular sacrifice because it does not see the value of sacrifice that is hidden and silent.”
          This statement exposes one of the defining characteristics of our culture, and one that has been instrumental in its decline.
          It’s true, isn’t it?  We say that “sacrifice” is laudable, but when we do, we are almost always talking about “spectacular” sacrifices.  We honor (rightly so) those fallen heroes who have procured for us our freedoms and defended them over the years.  They made the “supreme sacrifice,” and of course they should be honored.
          We admire the sacrifices of athletes who put in countless hours perfecting their craft to bring home a championship.  People were duly impressed with Adrian Peterson’s work ethic rehabbing from a torn ACL and MCL, suffered in December, 2011, to come back and win the NFL’s MVP award in 2012.  If the sacrifice wasn’t spectacular, the fruits it bore were.
          It’s good that we honor and appreciate those sacrifices.  Of course, we tend most to appreciate the sacrifices of others from which we benefit.  But what about when we are called to sacrifice, in ways that will not be noticed or garner parades?  Then, we tend to take a much dimmer view.
          How about the sacrifice, for example, of a young person struggling to stay chaste while dealing with same-sex attraction?  That person should “be who they really are,” says our culture.  How about the mother who wants to work through her husband’s infidelities, for the sake of her children and her sacred wedding vows?  She’s choosing to be a “victim,” who should “honor herself” or “actualize her full potential.”
          How about teenagers who sacrifice so much in the eyes of their peers to be people of virtue?  We’ll give them birth control (without the knowledge or consent of their parents), but we will not support them in their quest for purity (at least not in our public schools).
          We could go on and on.  An unwillingness to honor hidden but heroic sacrifice has led to the exaltation of evils ranging from abortion, to broken homes, to same-sex “marriage,” promiscuity, and a lack of religious vocations.
          As Catholics, sacrifice should be in our blood.  At every Mass, we participate in the supreme Sacrifice, and are called to join our daily sacrifices to His for the salvation of the world.  And yet, we seem to understand the concept as poorly as everyone else.
          Beyond sacrifice, what about suffering?  This is something in which our culture sees no value whatsoever.  And yet, it is one of the most powerful weapons we have, and we will never get to Heaven without it.
          Don’t get me wrong, I don’t seek out suffering, and I avoid it when I reasonably can.  I’ll admit that.  But suffering is part of our human experience and only our understanding as Catholics can give true meaning to it.
          Pope St. John Paul II once received a priest who had suffered a broken arm while skiing.  The priest, knowing that the holy father was an avid skier, decided to ask the pope’s blessing over his injured arm.  The pope obliged, but admonished the priest: “Don’t waste your suffering.”
          When we are suffering, Jesus is drawing us to Himself at one of His most intimate moments, on the cross, as He gives His Life for the salvation of the world.  He asks us, in a supreme act of humility, to offer our sufferings, with His, that our pain might be exalted to heights we can not imagine. 
And yet, so often, we waste our suffering.  I know I often do.  I complain, in self-pity, instead of offering my pain to Jesus, on the cross, for the salvation of souls.
St. Paul says in Colossians 1:24: “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…”  He recognizes that his suffering is a prayer, and that prayer has power.  Why?  Because Christ’s suffering was somehow insufficient in itself?  Of course not.  It’s because Our Lord, much like a mother who lets her young daughter help bake a cake, allows us to contribute something, not because He needs it, but because we do.  And yet, that something that we contribute, is something of value.  Just as every ingredient the young girl pours into the recipe really does go to making the cake, every suffering we offer with Christ really does go to building up the Kingdom.
It is so powerful, so beautiful, and yet our culture misses it.  Worse than that, it fights against it.  Right now in California, we are fighting against SB 128, a bill which would legalize assisted suicide in the state.  Now there are many things wrong with this bill.  It abandons our most vulnerable populations when what they need is support.  It lends itself to horrible abuses, and it sends a terrible message to our youth.
But spiritually, it is even worse.  It operates under the principle that suffering is the worst possible evil (a lie which has destroyed societies greater than our own).  Instead of tapping into powerful spiritual riches, it destroys them.  We should also remember how suffering of the body often leads to conversion and the salvation of souls.  (Not to mention the serious nature of the sin of suicide.)  I am quite confident that the suffering of my father’s cancer was instrumental in his salvation.  How grateful I am that his doctor could not have prescribed him a deadly medication!  The little suffering it might have spared him on earth might have caused an eternity of suffering.
Rebuilding our culture is a tall order.  And there is no doubt that we will have no real renewal in our country or in the Church until we again recognize the value of sacrifice that is hidden and silent, and of suffering.  All we can do is try to recognize that value ourselves, and share it with those within our sphere of influence: at home, at work, in our parishes.  That may add up to quite a few mustard seeds, and we know what Jesus can do with those.