My thoughts and reflections on my Catholic Faith, Fulton Sheen, the problem of suffering, and books

Friday, March 23, 2012

Compassion

I feel like a broken record player, but I am returning to a theme that has been haunting me for at least two years: the theme of suffering.  This reflection is prompted by yesterday's Fulton Sheen quote on the Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/FultonJSheen/posts/10150654982871785):
If a man is ever to enjoy communion with Christ, so as to have the blood of God running in his veins and the spirit of God throbbing in his soul, he must die to the lower life of the flesh.  He must be born again.  And hence the law of Calvary is the law of every Christian: unless there is a Cross there will never be the resurrection, unless there is the defeat of Calvary there will never be the victory of Easter, unless there are the nails there will never be the glorious wounds, unless there is the garment of scorn, there will never be the robes blazing like the sun, unless there is the crown of thorns there will never be the halo of light for the law laid down at the beginning of time which shall be effective until time shall be no more, is that no one shall be crowned unless he has struggled and overcome--Archbishop Fulton Sheen (The Moral Universe).
Specifically, I'm thinking about the latter part of that quote, which Sheen condenses and revises in his Life of Christ: "Unless there is a Good Friday in our lives there will never be an Easter Sunday.  The Cross is the condition of the empty tomb, and the crown of thorns is the preface to the halo of light."

That quote's been with me for a while: last spring, it shaped my prayers for our beloved History Professor even as I wrestled with it; it haunted me as I wrote my Thesis; and it's bugging me today now that I've seen it.  I see my friends suffering; I see my professors suffering; and their suffering is bugging me, because I love them.  I want to help them.  Today, right now, I am writing this post because I see my friends and my professors suffering and I want to help them, and I do not know what to do.

I know Sheen is right: I know suffering is necessary, that it is a prerequisite to eternal joy, heaven, the Beatific Vision.  I know suffering has value, and yet I forget that in my own life (which is why I feel hypocritical writing about it): I forget that there is meaning and purpose to the tests, the papers, the people who frustrate me by jabbering at 1 a.m. in the morning, the stress of friendships, family problems, the nervous tension that makes me feel like I'm on the verge of spontaneous combustion (which is different from internal combustion...thank-you to to one of my professors for that tidbit of practical knowledge!).

My immediate response...when I am able to come out of my nonchalant attitude toward my own and others' suffering, my attitude of "O, I'm sure it'll all be fine" (towards others' suffering) and my attitude of "Suffering? What suffering?  I've lived with such-and-such a situation all my life; I'm not suffering" (toward my own suffering)...is sometimes no response at all, at least not on an emotional level.  I am not the most empathetic person on the planet, because I'm so laid-back and phlegmatic.  I find it very hard to sympathize with--in the sense of feeling someone else's pain as my own--or to get emotionally involved in, my friends' problems.  It is very rare for me to feel a burst of emotion in regard to others' problems. I can comfort them; I can say "I'm sorry" and try to encourage them, and I will really mean every word of encouragement that I say; but my tricky emotions will remain all laid-back and phlegmatic and blah.  And that probably comes across in my dealings with them: I probably don't seem very sympathetic, because my emotions aren't showing.  I am not pitying them, I'm not saying "O, I'm so sorry; you poor thing; you must feel terrible; I'm sorry you're going through this."

Because of that nonchalant attitude, I feel helpless.  On the rare occasions when my weak will actually wants to help, I don't know what to do.  Words sometimes seem empty; some people don't like hugs; and I have to fight in order to listen with a modicum of understanding, of compassion.  I know...intellectually... that I can help my friends by "offering up" that feeling of helplessness, that feeling I have of "I know you're suffering and I want to help because I love you, but I don't know what-the-heck to do!"  I know that feeling of helplessness is prompted by my stupid pride: I want to help, but I want to know that I am helping, that my weak efforts are actually appreciated.

Sometimes listening involves a lot of effort, because I'm human, and I'm selfish, and sometimes I resent my time being taken up by a friend who needs to talk.  But ultimately that's all I can do: listen, and be there for them.

Yet "being there" for someone is blissfully vague.  And I'm trying to avoid the (despised) "Christendom" mentality of "Love is an act of the will, and right now, sitting next to you on this rock, I am willing your good, so I am loving you--even though you sure-as-heck can't tell that because you're not just a soul, you're also a body and you need a physical manifestation of that fact"?

Love is an act of the will, but it has to be expressed in a tangible way, because we are body-soul composites: we are physical beings, and we need tangible proofs, physical manifestations, of love.  In order to show love, I can't just say, "O, I hope everything's all right," or, "I'm sure it'll all be okay."  [I'm reminded of the passage in the Epistle of James: "And if a brother or sister be naked, and want daily food: And one of you say to them: Go in peace, be ye warmed and filled; yet give them not those things that are necessary for the body, what shall it profit?" (James 2:15-16, Douay Rheims version, http://drbo.org/chapter/66002.htm).]

* * *
Then there are our professors. I love them dearly...they've been very good to me...and because I love them, I cannot stand to see them suffer.  Yet I have to be very careful to keep my blasted emotions in check, because there are some professors in regards to whom my emotions instantly lean in the direction of pity.  For example, it hurts to see our History Professor who fought cancer last year limping around campus, and struggling up and down the stairs: that really bothers me, and I want to help him.  And yet no one likes to be pitied, to feel as if another is looking down upon him.

So, what am I going to do with that instinctive reaction of pity?  A good friend told me last spring (anyone who has read this blog knows why the problem of suffering was on my mind last spring): "Offer the sorrow.  Don't waste the sorrow and don't let it turn to bitterness (or, if you feel bitter, offer that).  Just say, 'I offer this,' and keep going."  That is how I should deal with my own end of others' suffering, with that feeling of helplessness.  I'm not saying I'm good at it, I'm not saying I'll do this every time, but I need to take those inconvenient emotions of helplessness and of pity and "offer them" in union with His Cross.  And in some mysterious plan of His Providence, Our Lord will use my feelings of helplessness--if I offer them and unite them to His sufferings--to ease my friends' sufferings, and to help me deal with their sufferings and accept my own helplessness.

According to Sheen, the Cross of Christ transforms all our sufferings because there on the Cross is not just pain qua pain, pain for its own sake.  On the Cross, God Incarnate, Love Incarnate, united Himself to the Cross--the symbol of suffering--and elevates that suffering by uniting it with love.  Love transforms pain, as Sheen writes in The Eternal Galilean: "[O]n the cross Our Lord shows that love can take no other form, when it is brought into contact with evil, than the form of pain.  To overcome evil with good, one must suffer unjustly.  The lesson of the Crucifix, then, is that pain is never to be isolated or separated from love.  The Crucifix does not mean pain; it means sacrifice."[1]

           [1]Fulton J. Sheen, The Eternal Galilean, in The Fulton J. Sheen Treasury, (New York: Popular Library, n.d.), 256.

Compassion.  Compati: to suffer with.  That's what Our Lady did at the foot of the Cross: she suffered with her Divine Son.  According to Sheen, (http://fiatsemper.blogspot.com/2012/02/bishop-fulton-sheen.html), "Compassion is a sympathy, a pity, an avidity to be wounded when others are wounded."  Ultimately, that should be my response to the suffering of my friends and my professors.  Ultimately, I will show love to my roommates, my friends, the people that need to vent at 1 in the morning, by being compassionate, by suffering with them, by listening and thus taking their burdens upon myself and trying to empathize with them, trying to understand that they are suffering, that XYZ is a big deal to them and that I should not trivialize it with my usual nonchalant response of "O, I'm sure everything'll be okay."  Instead, I should try to understand where they're coming from, why this is such a big deal to them.

And now that I've written all of the above, I'm realizing that is the grace I need to pray for: the grace of compassion, of being able to suffer with my friends, with my professors.  I've spent several hours looking up Sheen quotes and looking at the online dictionary, to try to write this post, because I'm trying to make sense of it myself.  And yet I still feel like a hypocrite.  What will be my response the next time a friend needs to talk?  O, yes, I'll still feel that internal aversion, that selfishness, that "I don't have time for this"; but, please God, I will be able to overcome that (natural?) aversion, to be compassion, to take time to listen to my friend, to understand her, to realize that XYZ is a big deal to her and that she needs an understanding ear.  And when I see my professors suffering, please God, I'll grit my teeth and say, "Okay, Lord, I know such-and-such-a-professor is suffering, and that's really bothering me today: I'm feeling helpless because I don't know how to help him.  But I'm gonna try to take that helplessness and give it to You, and let You nail it to Your Cross and elevate it by uniting it with Your infinite redemptive love."

O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
--Saint Francis' Prayer
http://www.catholic.org/prayers/prayer.php?p=134

3 comments:

  1. How do you know when you are suffering correctly? I don't think I'm doing this thing right. Some of the things that I have been through are completely ridiculous and painful, but I bitch about them so much that I don't think it counts. It still hurts, though.

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    1. I don't know, Caroline...I really don't know. I'm the last person who's "doing this thing right," and I know I'll feel like a hypocrite with every single word I write, but this is what I've learned from Fulton Sheen and from Mr. Janaro's book (not that I put it into practice in my day-to-day life).

      "Suffering correctly"...I wish I could make this more practical-sounding, because I *hate* abstract theories...but ultimately you take the pain and the suffering, with all its ridiculous aspects and its painfulness, and you offer all that mess to Him, and you try to unite it to His suffering and let Him take it and sanctify it with His Precious Blood. On a previous post of mine, someone reminded me of the value of the Morning Offering (something I need to be more faithful about), because in the Morning Offering you *do* offer everything to Him, and hopefully He'll cover the bitching and complaining and make that suffering worth something anyway because it's united to His infinite merits.

      Yes, it is still gonna hurt. Do you have Mr. Janaro's book "Never Give Up"? I've been reading it for Lent (because it's *practical*) (Yay!!!) and something he says kind of touches upon that point:

      **Quote from Mr. Janaro's book**:
      "Offering our sufferings in union with Jesus *does not make them go away.* If I have pain, and I offer it to Jesus, *it still hurts.* And I still wish it would go away. Does this mean that I am not really offering it to God? Am I not doing it right?

      "This is not the point. If I say to God, 'Thy will be done'--even if I say it with gritted teeth because I can't get it out any other way--then He begins to transform my suffering and to manifest His glory in and through me."
      **End of quote**

      Something else Mr. Janaro's taught me: it's not so much a matter of "knowing" if you're suffering correctly, as it is of just *trying.*

      God Bless you and hold you close!

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  2. I'm glad I'm not the only one who struggles with the question of suffering! :) It is truly difficult to see others suffer and feel either insensitive or completely helpless. But as we strive to be compassionate towards others, we must also be careful not to let other people's sufferings take over our lives. While we would love to be the Simon of Cyrene in the lives of all those who are dear to us, ultimately we cannot carry the world's problems and sorrows in our own heart. Only Christ can do that.

    Also I would posit that if an individual is concerned enough to seriously consider the problem of suffering and how to be compassionate to others, they are already a much more compassionate, caring and loving person than they may realize.

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