Don’t worry. I’m not especially proficient at this particular mode of self-denial, which seems, as far as I can tell, to preclude complaining or fretting. The first time it was ever offered to me as advice (I wasn’t raised by a Catholic mother), I had arrived at Mass and it was absolutely freezing. I said as much to the friend I’d just joined, and he whispered back, ‘offer it up.’ Say what? I thought. But I’m cold. (Also, I’m in England, where griping about the weather is something of a national pastime. So how can I just bear it without comment?)
I’ve chewed on that phrase, though, in the intervening years. Along the way, I have noticed instantiations of the practice that are inspiring. I mentioned three in class the other day that somehow have worked their way into my consciousness and stuck fast. The first, not surprisingly, is Mother Teresa‘s saying ‘give what he takes, and take what he gives.’ I’d never heard it before I listened to the collection of her ‘private’ letters. (The audible app reads me books while I am picking things up off the floor, ironing, etc.) It struck me with particular force as I reflected on the spiritual richness Mother Teresa
enjoyed very early on, which left her so soon and never returned. Although I don’t recall her saying so explicitly, it seems clear that she regarded even that spiritual barrenness as something ‘taken’ and so she chose to offer it up, to give it willingly rather than resent the loss of it. Not that it wasn’t incredibly painful and exhausting; but it did not destroy her faith, however tempting it is to believe that she ‘lost’ her faith. Jean Danielou, in a beautiful passage from his book on prayer, says that going to Mass when you feel nothing (as Mother Teresa did daily) isn’t hypocrisy; it is an act of faith.
The second example I gave to the class was Josephine Bakhita. Despite her suffering–from childhood through adolescence, in her life as a slave–Josephine Bakhita did not become bitter. While she was still a slave, she became a Christian; after she was freed, she became a nun. Toward the end of her life, she often was in a great deal of pain, and confined to a wheelchair. Nonetheless, when asked how she was, she always gave the same reply: ‘as the Master wishes’. With that phrase, I think she offered up not only her present physical pain, but all that she endured in her life. I can’t imagine how she did it, how she maintained her composure, and remained cheerful. Surely having suffered so much should count for something; God ought to have taken that into account and spared her the pain of her illness later in life. Obviously that’s not how St Josephine regarded the matter. I guess that’s why she’s a saint, and I am not.
My third example comes from an entirely different walk of life: Pope St John XXIII. I confess to having got a bit bogged down in his Journal of a Soul, though I find the narrative of his early life fascinating. His piety reflects the era in which he grew up, and I find it almost alien. But then, he was the Pope who called the Second Vatican Council, and I am a thoroughly Vatican II Catholic. It’s not surprising that his Christian upbringing in Italy at
the turn of the century should seem so different to someone who grew up at the end of the 20th century in California. All that aside, though, one sentence he spoke in confidence, near the end of his life, reveals (to me, at least) the character of his faith: ‘Now I understand what contribution to the Council the Lord requires from me: my suffering’ (Journal of a Soul, xxviii). Although he opened the Council, he became very ill; he died in June 1963, having seen only one of the sessions through.
Pope St John XXIII’s observation says something, though, about this business of offering it up, something that I don’t find in either Mother Teresa (or, I should say, St Teresa of Calcutta) or St Josephine Bakhita–something about the mystery of undeserved suffering. If we read resignation into the words of Mother Teresa or Josephine Bakhita, we read something more like ‘rationalisation’ in the words of John XXIII. But I don’t think it is as formulaic as that. Because there is no way that suffering from an excruciating and terminal illness can contribute, in human terms, to the work of an ecumenical council. All human eyes can see is John XXIII’s absence from the council. But his words are an act of hope. In his agony, he cries out to the Lord–whether audibly or not–like the psalmist, like the Son of God.
And in the suffering willingly accepted, two things happen. In one sense, the sufferer joins his or her pains to those of Christ, as St Paul describes in Colossians 1. What is suffered with Christ and in Christ is suffered on behalf of the whole body of Christ. In another, related sense, the sufferer stands in the place of the one who cries out to the Lord in the day of trouble. This is, in Psalm 49 (50) exactly what God requires of God’s people: ‘call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall honor me.’ Not a sacrifice of money or pigeons, but a sacrifice of thanksgiving. ‘Offer it up’ with thanksgiving, yes. But I think this maybe doesn’t preclude complaining after all. Offering it up means taking all the agony–and mere annoyance–to God. Isn’t that what Jesus did in the garden? ‘Father, all things are possible for you; remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.’
So I can still gripe, and hurt, and grieve; I can, and should, call upon the Lord in my day of trouble. The tough part is believing in the rescue, even though it may not come until the end of time. That’s hope–what Danielou, in that same wonderful book calls the most difficult of the theological virtues. That’s what Mother Teresa, Josephine Bakhita, and John XXIII all had. Hope. Not hope that things would be better tomorrow, but hope in the One who is making all things new. Even me.