The experience of suffering – Part 1

When the hour came, Jesus and his apostles reclined at the table. And he said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God.” After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, “Take this and divide it among you. For I tell you I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you. (Luke 22:14-20)

Jesus says to his disciples, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.” The theme of this homily will be suffering and I will reflect on three points: (i) My experience of failure, suffering, shame and weakness; (ii) the grace of knowing that Jesus suffered and died for me, and (iii) the link between suffering and priesthood.

My experience of failure, suffering, shame and weakness

In September 2013, I led a group of 20 pilgrims on the 686 km pilgrim route taken by Saint Ignatius of Loyola in 1522 from his home in Spain’s Basque country to Manresa in Catalonia. For 29 days we walked much the same route that Ignatius did, passed through many of the towns that he did, prayed at churches where he prayed, and marvelled at the same natural wonders that he saw.

On the preparatory day at Loyola I tentatively suggested to the group of 20 that we begin each day by walking for an hour in silent prayer. One said, “No.” “Oh, oh,” I thought, “that idea has been shot down.” “Two hours!” Two hours it was.

Our days were structured. Each morning before we began our 8-10 hours of walking, we gathered outside the particular hotel at which we happened to be staying at 8.00am and I gave the pilgrims points from the Spiritual Exercises to pray on during the day. Then we walked the first two hours in silent prayer. In the evenings we had Mass and shared our experiences of the day over dinner.

The first eight days of the Camino, while physically very demanding, went well. On the ninth day we had a rest day in the city of Logroño. After the rest day we embarked upon a long, and as it turned out, disastrous stage of the Camino from Logroño to Alcanadre. As we silently walked through the city streets of Logrono I began to feel the sharp pain of shin splints in my lower right leg. I thought I could walk through the pain, but I couldn’t. As the day wore on the pain started in my left leg too. It was excruciating to walk. After 12 kilometres we arrived at a small town. I wanted to take a bus or a taxi or a train to our lodgings in Calahorra, but none was available. I had no option but to keep on walking. After 19 kilometres we arrived at another small town. Still there were no taxis, buses or trains. Again, I had to keep on walking. I walked the whole 30 kilometres in pain. We left Logrono at 8.20am and it was 6.10pm when we arrived. We were on the road for almost 10 hours. A long and painful day only made possible with liberal smearing of Voltaren creme on my legs, popping 600mg Ibuprofen tablets and very supportive fellow pilgrims.

I woke up the next morning feeling very sore. My lower right leg had blown up like a Sherrin football. It was difficult to even stand up after getting out of bed. I could only hobble. I had set myself to walk the entire Ignatian Camino but I knew I that I could do myself some serious and long-term physical damage if I continued to walk. So, I took a rest day in the hotel with ice packs on my right shin to bring down the swelling. When the others left on the walk I had a deep sense of loneliness. I also felt a failure. I could not walk the whole distance and the others could. The group carried on without me. I felt frustrated at not reaching my goal and ashamed of my weakness.

Fr Michael Smith SJ

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