If your only hope is in this fragile, fraught life, then suffering of any sort is an affront. Atheist understanding of life is so narrowed by its limited focus on physical, quantifiable existence that suffering seems a scandal which, all by itself, cancels out the possibility of a god who is both loving and just.
Believers whose understanding of reality is shaped by the atheist paradigm in which only quantifiable, physical existence is “real,” are almost as helpless when suffering enters their lives as atheists. They do not have the tools or the vision to understand and comprehend suffering on any level deeper than the messy, agonized appearance of it.
Even Catholics who have not drunk deeply of their faith can flounder and drown emotionally in the heavy seas of human suffering. This is especially true when children are the ones who suffer. The innocence of children makes suffering seem both meaningless and cruel.
“What did they do to deserve this?” people ask, and then they make the next connection, which is that a suffering child is a rebuke to the candy-faced god-of-their-own-devising on which they have posited their faith.
People who experience the helpless pain of watching a child suffer, and who do not have the faith to see into the suffering to its redemptive core, can lose their faith. They can give themselves, and the child, over to lost bitterness.
Contemporary faux Christianity, which regards the cross as a get-out-of-death-free card to be celebrated with an annual Easter pageant followed by a festive dinner, is, to paraphrase Yeats, a center that does not hold when things get tough. The crucifixion of Christ, the murder of God, is a scandal to people whose Christianity is based on a Hallmark card version of the Gospels. If this is Christianity at all, it is weak and, when the times get tough, it can fail.
Suffering is, alongside the joy and pleasures that life gives us, a core part of the reality of being alive. This life is not fair. Evildoers prosper, rich men strut past Lazarus, then blame Lazarus for dirtying their street. All that lives, dies. And death is not easy. It is hard; often painful, and many times physically degrading.
When suffering and death hit children, it seems a waste and an evil. What did they do? What did any child, anywhere, do to deserve to suffer this way?
It’s a fair question. But, for a Christian, it is also the wrong question. If God Himself can suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. If He can be poor and labor for His daily bread, if He can be drug into court on false charges, beaten, tortured, mocked, reviled and murdered in a disgraceful manner that was reserved for the lowest criminals; if all that can happen to Him, then why should we be surprised that it happens to us?
He was more innocent than the most innocent child. He was innocence. His death scandalizes people precisely because it is the ultimate expression of all that is wrong with a world that is separated from God. The Cross affronts us because it exposes us, in a raw and glaring light, for what we are. We are, all of us, every single one of us, condemned by the Cross.
The blessed irony is that the same Cross that exposes us for what we are and condemns us to what we deserve, is the only thing, the only Way, that leads us out of the mire and hopelessness of our condition. The Cross that was our worst becomes, through the miracle of substitutionary sacrifice, our salvation.
Jesus was our Passover Lamb, the Lamb of God Who is God, and His blood on the lintel posts of our lives seals and protects us when the Angel of Death passes by. The Cross is our Passover, Jesus is the sacrifice, offered up for us. By His blood, His suffering, we are saved.
This simple fact is the source of all meaning in life. Without it, nothing, and especially not the suffering of a child, makes sense. The Cross redeems not just us, but everything about us, including our suffering.
St Paul told us that we complete the work of the Cross with our suffering. What did he mean by that? After all, wasn’t Jesus’ death the perfect sacrifice, made once and for all time?
Yes, it was.
It was also our elevation from the mire of physicality. It lifted us and what we do onto a spiritual, eternal plane. The Cross is our first taste of Transcendence. We are finite. He is infinite. The Cross is our Way from one place to the other.
Human suffering, when it is united to the Cross, is ennobled. The Cross lifts human suffering out of the narrow meaninglessness of eating and breathing, waking and sleeping, getting and spending, living and dying. It reveals the eternal dimension to what we do, including what we suffer.
We are not just animals with big brains. We are eternal souls. What we do in this life dies here with us if it is selfish and grasping. St Paul tells us quite plainly that only faith, hope and love abide. They go with us when we leave. Everything else falls back to the dust with our bodies.
Suffering, when we unite it with the sufferings of Our Lord, becomes a gift of love, and that love transforms our pain and sorrow. It becomes an act of redemption, which can ennoble and uplift others, leading them to their own salvation.
Children who suffer are far closer to Christ than anyone else can be. I’ve seen this myself. Their innocence is not a burden. It is rather, an open doorway to the transcendent reality of eternal value.
Austin Ruse Wrote a fine book about this entitled Littlest Suffering Souls. He accurately names the suffering of children as a scandal that challenges the faith of believers and deepens the lack of faith of unbelievers.
Catholics are blessed because we have a theology of suffering that can lead us through the trough of suffering if we let it. I’ve been dealing with my own cancer for the last year and a half and I can tell you from personal experience that redemptive suffering is not an abstruse theological construct. It is a simple, accessible reality. You can base your life on it. You can also base your dying on it.
Suffering, when united with the Cross and viewed through the prism of redemption, can actually become a gift. It is a privilege to suffer when God gives that suffering meaning and uses it for His purposes.
Nothing good is ever wasted in the economy of God. And suffering posited in the Cross becomes a surprising good. God can turn anything into good, if we offer it up to Him to use for His purposes.
It is all a question of trust. And children are very, very good at trust. Mr Ruse bases his book on the lives of children whose suffering has come to the attention of the world. Their biographies read like a roadmap to redemptive suffering.
The simplicity of these children’s faith is not simple. It is, rather, pure. Reading about them shows us the way to the Way in times of trouble because they knew what we have, in the complications of adult living, forgotten.
Children who suffer are often able to transcend what to us appears to be the brutality of their experience. I believe that there are countless children whose suffering and deaths are deeply holy and sanctified.
“Precious in the sight of God is the death of His saints.” These innocents, what Jesus called the “little ones,” are all His saints.
I encourage everyone to read Littlest Suffering Souls, especially those who are struggling with suffering in their own lives. It will edify and strengthen you. While all children who die are precious in God’s eyes, these children about whom Mr Ruse writes were special beyond the innocence of childhood.
They were more intentional and prescient in their understanding of Christ in the Eucharist and the redemptive power of the Cross. They didn’t know the theology of these things. Instead their trust allowed them to reach across the chasm between our finite limitations and His infinite possibilities. When we nail our sufferings to the Cross, He will elevate them to an eternal plane. These children knew this and lived it without laborious adult complication.
Reading their stories can show you the way through the thicket of your own suffering. It will show you how to die. And it will show you how to live.
In our American world, besotted as it is with the physical and the empirical, we have lost the truth that those two things — living and dying — are one thing, not two. We are eternal souls. In truth and in reality, we do not live to die. We die to live.
The sufferings of this life are not random happenstance and neither is any of us. Suffering is an opportunity. It is a Cross. Our cross.
We can endure it like dumb animals. We can rant against it and use it to deny God. Or we can pick up our Cross and follow after Him.
We can offer our suffering for the salvation of souls and for the hope of those in Purgatory. We can unite our suffering to Jesus as He hung on the Cross and follow Him.
That is redemptive suffering. It is not complicated. It is, as Littlest Suffering Souls shows, so simple that a child can do it.
But it is real. And it is powerful.