No doubt from reading certain spanish mystics one may get the impression that the correct response to suffering is to say “Yes, God! MORE PAIN NOW!!!”, and this is certainly the response that a variety of exceptionally holy people have had to trials. But it’s not the ordinary path. Suffering is evil. We shouldn’t seek it, and it’s perverse to be indifferent to it.
There are different kinds of suffering, some elective and others necessary. Purely elective suffering includes perverse things like self-mutilation and masochism, where suffering is sought as an end freely chosen. Of necessary suffering, some is relatively necessary, as the pain of carrying laundry downstairs is necessary to get clean clothes. Other suffering is totally un-elected: such as a disease or external misfortune. We’ll call the first kind of necessary suffering “instrumental” and the second kind “extrinsic”.
Now, the Christian life is always modeled on Christ’s life. When Christ suffered, he never did so in the purely elective way. To say otherwise would be blasphemy. Rather, Christ’s suffering is always instrumental, and the character of his life is such that he made even extrinsic suffering instrumental. By the violence done to him on the cross he merited our salvation.
The next point to consider is how the Christian can use suffering to achieve his goal. What is the Christian’s goal? Eternal beatitude, understood as a loving vision of God. Now, in this life suffering comes from the deprivation of a good. Unfortunately we do not have a prefect vision of God as yet, or nothing would disturb us whatsoever. We would simply know through the divine essence what was good and what was evil and choose the former without any difficulty. But here below there are distractions, and pain is among the chief distractions. Thus when I see something good which would take me away from the path to God, I experience a kind of pain (assuming I’m not virtuous, which I, at least, am not). This pain arises from an inner delusion about the relative goodness of the thing desired. If my mind is particularly weak (i.e., if my knowledge of God is so unclear and unstable), I may even be tempted to turn aside from God and choose the worldly good over Him. This is sin, and given the right conditions it is mortal sin. If I dwell excessively on the pain of deprivation, as frequently happens when the good I miss is either not intrinsically disordered or is the sort of thing I cannot simply act to attain, then I achieve the same effect as the gluttonous or unchaste person who simply overindulges. In fact, the consequences here are potentially worse than in those cases, since the resulting disorder of the intellect can easily conceal itself in an examination of conscience. An error is more dangerous to the extent that it is closer to the truth. Desire for genuine goods which are not intrinsically disordered is, in fact, legitimate. Sorrow over their absence is not.
So, what do we do? The pain we experience over foregone goods, whether licit or illicit, is a chance to grow in grace. We think of Christ and his love for us, and the fact that he is with us. We think of the saints who, like Christ, “for the joy set before [them], endured the Cross”. This joyful crowd of witnesses surrounds us day and night, interceding on our behalf. We recognize that we are helpless and weak, but that we are not alone. The cross of deprivation and sadness is a cross that Christ bears with us. It is a cross that, because we cannot carry it, is born only through his strength. So we pray to God that he, without whom we would have no strength whatsoever, would give us strength to endure.
But what form does this strength take? We normally think of strength as stamina or power or ability. By this logic the prayer would run, “Lord make me endure all this awfulness; give me the power to take this beating the world is giving me.” In some cases, this is indeed the proper prayer. But again, normally, for those of us who aren’t carmelite saints or desert fathers, the prayer is much humbler and more basic. “Lord, give me the the grace of seeing You, and knowing You. Help me to recognize your love moment by moment. Thank you for giving me everything I am and I have, and help me to render it all up to you in love. Draw me close to you, bury me in your sacred heart, so that in my knowledge of you I will not sorrow over the things of this world, but only over my own sinfulness and weakness. Help me to be with you in eternity.”
Instrumental suffering helps us to escape the bondage of the flesh (in the pauline sense) and draw closer to God. The usefulness of trials is to confirm the theological virtues in us. Every virtue, as St. Catherine says, is proved on its opposite. So Faith must be proved on confusion, and Hope on the threat of desperation, and Charity on the vain enticements of the world. Sharing in the cross is, for us, not a genuine sacrifice, but a gift we are given. It is our joy. If we were to endure the cross without knowing Christ, without seeing his love and friendship, we would be mad. Nothing could be more wretched. Instead we are joined with Him. For us, being buried with Christ is finding ourselves buried in the love of the Father. This is how suffering is made possible. In this light, it starts to become clear how the Carmelites can ask for more suffering, but for myself I’d rather stick with St. Thomas, who, when asked by our Lord what reward he wanted for his labors replied, “Non nisi te, Domine.”