A few years ago, my wife had her job downsized. It was quite a shock to both of us, as you can imagine. We began to worry about making our mortgage payments or if we had enough money for our utilities. We began to look at condominiums and smaller houses that we could afford on only my teacher’s salary. We cut back on all non-essential expenses for a while.
By the grace of God, things worked out well. My wife was able to secure another job and has been stably employed for a number of years. We have been able to manage our finances and we did not have to move. Many good friends, some of whom I hadn’t heard from in years, contacted me with words of advice and support. I was also incredibly humbled when we received some anonymous donations to see us through those rough early times.
Reflecting back, I often think about how God saw us through this time of incredible stress and anxiety. To this day, I am gun shy about any financial turbulence in our lives despite His generous care. But thinking about these events recently I look at what it was that I was truly afraid of: poverty.
As I have gotten older, I begin to think more and more about things like retirement. With life-spans getting longer, I worry about having enough money to live off of after I stop working. And should another unexpected job loss occur, we would be right back where we started. There is much I could write about putting trust in God, especially after His past help. But I was thinking about how living in poverty, living in want, makes me nervous.
But then I reflect on the great saints like Mother Teresa and St. Francis of Assisi. Both of these saints lived in great poverty. Mother Teresa would sleep in a small cell on a simple mattress. She would then spend an hour on her knees on a stone floor during Mass. Afterwards, she would live in service to the poorest of the poor, carrying them on her back when she could, to meet their needs. And while she went through issues of depression and the dark night of the soul, she had within her a real peace.
St. Francis of Assisi was so poor that he would beg for the garbage from the people of Assisi so he could eat. And when they gave it to him he expressed overwhelming gratitude and joy.
Both of these saints found peace and joy in something that caused me great fear and anxiety. Why is this the case? Why were they seemingly unbothered by the suffering that comes from poverty? I think that I may know part of that reason:
They chose to suffer voluntarily.
In his book Twilight of the Idols, the atheist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote “”He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” What he meant was that suffering is unendurable if it is viewed as purposeless. Human beings are constantly searching for meaning in their lives. It occurs when horrible things happen to us like sickness of financial catastrophe. We also look for meaning in the small sufferings of everyday life. When I run retreats, if students are asked to do an activity that they don’t enjoy, the question I hear more often than anything is, “What’s the point of this?” Because they see the activity as without a point, they find it difficult to endure.
Remember The Karate Kid from the 1980’s. Daniel is about to quit his tutelage under Mr. Miyagi because all of the exercises he has done seem pointless. It is only when he sees how they have been helping him that he re-commits himself to his studies. In the same way, when suffering enters into our lives, when we cannot see a point, it feels so difficult to endure.
I ask my students how they would feel if they were forced to wipe someone’s butt for them. Most are understandably horrified. Some say that there is no amount of money you could pay them to do something that disgusting. But I tell them that statistically speaking, most of them will be wiping butts for free… when they have babies. “Well, that’s different!” they say. And in a sense they are correct. Besides the fact that there is a clear parental connection to the person you are cleaning, the action is one that is done voluntarily, not forced.
When my grandmother was in the nursing home, I had to accompany my grandfather whenever he visited her. I was an immature junior high school student at the time. To my shame I found myself dreading the tedium and boredom of those long nightly visits. A few years ago when my mom went into the hospital, I again spent long hours in silence sitting by a sick bed. But I wanted to be there. I wanted to spend as much time as I could with her in the time we had left. And even though there were times that it took a toll on my stamina, there is a solemn joy in being there and, in the smallest of ways, suffering with someone you love.
We are going to suffer in this life. There is no way out of it.
But suffering does not have to mean desolation and devastation.
Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23). Sometimes Jesus asks us to take up some extraordinary task that will require great sacrifice. But He is also giving us a way to better endure the struggles of everyday life. If I voluntarily pick up my cross every day, it is not as heavy as when it involuntarily placed on my shoulders.
This is true in small things. If I know my spouse will ask me run an errand for them, what if instead of waiting to be asked I voluntarily do it on my own as a sign of my love. Instead grumbling because of some forced activity at work, what if I say to myself that I will freely use this as an opportunity to improve?
Thinking this way can help even in moments of extreme suffering. A few weeks ago I had a kidney stone. Those who’ve had this know the pain levels are extreme. As awful as this was, I tried as much as possible to office up my suffering in atonement for my sins and others. This was an immense psychological and spiritual help during that time. If I can find purpose in even this kind of pain, it can give me agency to voluntarily offer it up. This gives me more freedom to endure.
As we are in the first full week of Lent, we will begin to make our Lenten sacrifices. The Church in her wisdom has been encouraging this spiritual practice for centuries because of the great truths revealed to us. By voluntarily taking up the cross, we take ownership of it. It no longer becomes part of our burden but part of our becoming. We use it to become the people God wants us to be. In that way, there is greater freedom from the anxiety of pain. That is what Mother Teresa and St. Francis found.
That is the freedom of voluntary suffering.
Copyright 2020, WL Grayson