A huge part of priesthood is about suffering: What we do with our own suffering and how we accompany others in theirs. The harsh reality of Jesus’ suffering on the cross is central in this. Is God the Father present or absent in Jesus’ suffering, or in ours? Sometimes I can think of God as remote and incapable of suffering with me. Yet we know that vulnerability is part of genuine love.
The suffering of God is the suffering of love. God’s relationship to His Son’s suffering on cross is analogous to our human response to the suffering of others, especially in those we love. When we feel sorrow because someone is suffering and we try to alleviate it, we know what God is like. You see when power meets power, you get a power struggle. And when power meets vulnerability, you get alienation. But when vulnerability meets vulnerability you get intimacy. The paradox is that a priest’s weakness, vulnerability, suffering and pain can be his greatest asset.
I believe that suffering can be a privileged place of closeness to God. God desires to be with us in our suffering, and God is compassionately involved with the pain of the world. I believe with all my heart that God the Father weeps for you and me when we suffer, just as God was broken hearted at Jesus’ agony, torment and death at Golgotha.
We know that one of the most difficult challenges of friendship is to remain close to a friend when he or she is suffering or dying. What a grace it is, then, if we find friends who are willing to be with us in our pain and suffering even when they can do nothing to change the situation externally and even when they suffer almost as much as we do because of their empathy for us. God is such a friend to us.
But it is hard to be open to another’s suffering. We can feel powerless and we instinctively resist feeling powerless. It is hard to let in the pain of another person. So, we can get caught up in compulsive efforts to “solve the problems” of people in order to keep their pain and despair at bay. Acknowledging our own pain and the pain of others entails recognising our powerlessness to bring it to an end. Many of us have internalised the message that, if I have a problem, I should take care of it, work to change it. But what if you can’t solve the problem? Mary standing at the foot of the Cross could do nothing. All she could do was be there with her son in his suffering. Our world today is so focused on doing, but sometimes there is nothing we can do but be there.
Mary who stayed with her son as he suffered and died on the cross reveals a God who would not abandon Jesus to his tortures and who also could not take him down from the cross. Let us pray this morning for the grace to be like Mary — able to be with others in their suffering without trying to fix things up.
Let us conclude with a prayer to Mary standing at the foot of the cross. Hail Mary, full of grace…
Fr Michael Smith SJ