Intentions of the Holy Father for April

Ecology and Justice. That governments may foster the protection of creation and the just distribution of natural resources.
Hope for the Sick. That the Risen Lord may fill with hope the hearts of those who are being tested by pain and sickness.

A Thought During a Long Run

During my distance run with my roommate tonight, I had a thought at some point. But I'll share that in a minute.  At the start, we offered our run for different intentions.  In the last miles, we started offering particular miles for different people and different intentions. That helps me, and perhaps him, to stay tough during my runs. Running is largely mental, and so is toughness. People whose first contribution to a conversation about long-distance running is, "I could never do that," probably won't. But they could, even in a wheelchair. During the Marine Corps Marathon last year one of the things that inspired me most and made me most emotional during the run was to see how men in racing wheelchairs, and without functioning legs, could keep up with the runners. Some of them were born without legs. Some of them lost their legs in the war. They tended to get passed on the uphills, but man, did they compensate on the way down! And ten dollars says that not one of them spent the race saying, "I could never do that."

So here's the though that occurred to me: "Toughness and gentleness are not at odds with each other, but in fact are complementary virtues." When we say someone is tough, we usually mean that he or she can take a beating, can get knocked around, and still get back up. "Tough" is a very different thing than "violent," or "aggressive," or "harsh," and its contrary opposite is not gentleness, I think, but weakness or cowardice. "Tough" might be a modern word for something like "having perseverance," or "having fortitude."

Now, someone who is tough knows how to take a knock and not get knocked down, or at least how to get back up. A tough person knows what it is to suffer in the way that a coward does not. A coward goes to any length in order to avoid suffering, perhaps because of fear that it will break him, or perhaps out of simple decadent complacency in comfort. This evasion of suffering can obviously lead very quickly into all sorts of sins. The coward refuses to suffer, never learns of what mettle he's made, never knows triumph, what the Bible calls glory, what we are all made for - perhaps because he cannot conceive even the hope of glory. When we reject weakness and suffering, we will begin to reject it, resent it, in others as well.

On the other hand, the tough person knows what it is to suffer. He has quite likely suffered amply, suffered in a way that a coward preempts by saying, "I could never do that." It is no coincidence that children come to birth before they come to the point of hurting their mothers' hearts. The woman's soul is prepared for suffering by the suffering her body has already learned to endure. This capacity can make them seem amazingly hard to a soul more repelled by pain. "How can she kick her own daughter out of the house, just for doing drugs, or bringing strange boys home overnight?" The tougher person knows that there is a good out there, worth attaining, and greater in goodness than the intervening suffering is in badness. So the tougher soul hardens itself to push through pain and suffering, and wins the prize. (Think of Rom 5:3 or 8:18.)

Precisely because these tougher souls, women in pangs and men in racing wheelchairs, know what it is to suffer, I believe they have a greater capacity to accept it in others. They may not choose to do so, but I think they have a greater capacity to be genuinely patient with others' weakness, suffering, and sorrow. They certainly have a greater ability to help others endure their own difficulties. In an unexpected way, the spiritually tough person is much better at being spiritually gentle. And precisely because our bodies and souls are so thoroughly interconnected, a lesson we learn in one can help us to live better in the other.

So many modern "solutions" to problems come from a rejection of suffering. "I could never carry my child to term, having it remind me of the man that raped me," and others, accustomed to similar thinking, ignore the child's humanity and innocence and concede abortion in cases of rape. It's easier. Less suffering. I-could-never thinking. "But grandma is so old and weak, and tired, surely this disease will torture her to death if we do not put her out of her pain," and others, accustomed to similar thinking, ignore the fact that rather than comforting and loving her, they will only do the work of the disease. It's easier. Less suffering. I-could-never thinking.

The insanity is here: the coward who betrays his comrades to avoid being shot in battle might very well be shot after the battle, and if he isn't, will probably wish he had been, so great will be his interior agony, his self-loathing, his division. For it is a plain truth that we are either at war with sin or at war with ourselves. We can never be at peace with sin because peace is contrary to the nature of sin. The part of our soul that wants goodness will then wage war against the part of our soul that has made a pact with sin, agreed to rationalize and protect it. And the agony of a house divided, of a war within one's soul, of doing evil and hating evil at the same time, is far worse than simply dying. But we often select it because it seems easier, more pleasant, better, especially in the short term. But in the long term, it is a worse sort of death. It is disintegration of the self, the death that does not die, and in the very end, it is hell. Likewise, after the glamor of sin has lost its luster, the couple that have divorced rather than dig into their problems are rarely happier, even if their daily lives seem more manageable. The father who has rejected his homosexually-inclined son "as a matter of scriptural principle," is not at peace.  Nor is the mother who tells the same son that such abnormalities are normal, in order to be nice.  They have successfully split Solomon's baby in two by choosing either to hate the sinner or to love the sin, but they have not successfully saved their son as both of them have intend.

And let's face it: our culture hates suffering. According to Yoda (in Star Wars - you know, the little green dude), suffering is the worst evil. So it is in Buddhism. But in Christianity it was suffering on a cross that saved the world. Aside from the purely natural benefits of enduring suffering to attain a great good on the other side of pain, we who are baptized into and united with Christ have an amazing opportunity; we can offer our suffering in union with His to help Him to redeem the world (Eph 3:13; Phil 3:10-11; Col 1:24; 2 Thes 1:5). That is amazing. And we must remember that people are not the enemy, nor is even suffering, but the I-could-never thinking is. Just as a physically tough person can help a physically weaker person to attain new heights, we Christians, who know that Christ is the Helpmate of us all, should help others to attain new height by persevering through the more profound difficulties that are spiritual and moral.

We not only have to fight for laws that outlaw bad "solutions" to very real problems, but we also have to help those who are spiritually weaker, more vulnerable, more afraid, to learn to endure the difficulties of life by enduring them together. That is what "compassion" means in Latin, "to suffer with," not "to magically make suffering go away." It is what our Lord did by becoming human, and it is how we humans are to serve the Lord. Right now, crisis pregnancy centers and old folks' homes seem especially the places to be - the front lines of our spiritual warfare against I-could-never thinking. The reply to such thinking that arises everywhere and especially in such places must always be, "Ah, but you can do all things with Him who strengthens you," (Phil 4:13). And it must be followed by, "And I'll help you do it."

Tying it all together, in those last miles of the run, my roommate and I prayed for the grace to be made tougher, and we offered our little, voluntary sufferings in union with Jesus' for people about whom we care a great deal especially some people that Jesus is currently asking to voluntarily endure involuntary sufferings. Because running is largely mental, and the mental is half of how we engage in the spiritual, the devil can certainly try to slip in, to break morale, entice us to sin. When a pain the hip or in the glutes interpreted itself as, "Wouldn't it be best to stop now?" I grit my teeth, prayed for Jesus' help, and said, "F*@# you, devil. Go to hell! This mile's for so-and-so. They need it and you're not going to get it," and I pushed into the pain a little. And like the pangs of childbearing, these littler pains pass too. Now, the devil defeated - at least for a few minutes - and the post-run milkshake-and-burger-dinner inhaled and the endorphins making my heart happy in spite of stiff legs, because of stiff legs, I am starting to feel a little sleepy.

Here's what I will pray, I think, before I sleep:

Heavenly Father, please make me tough, so that I can run this race of life the way you want me to, with a gentle heart filled with love for you and those you give me. And now as I lay me down to sleep, please refresh me for another day of service to you, and grant me in my service whatever joys are necessary to sustain me in it, and to bring others to you by it. I ask these things in Jesus' Name. Amen.

Sorry for rambling so long.  It was a long run - there was lots of time to think.  In case you're curious, there's just

I'm weak and liable to spend lots of the next nineteen days thinking, "I could never do that," rather than "I can do all things through Him who strengthens me."  So let's keep praying, OK?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Ryan,

I really enjoyed your post. I too believe that 'avoid suffering' should not be the way we plan our lives. I recently read JPII's Apostolic Letter, Salvifici Doloris, and am meditating and studying it, for my own benefit and because I have learned personally that suffering can be a way to a better relationship with Jesus, and if one allows (cooperates with grace), a way to holiness.

I enjoy your blog, I found you when you commented on another website re: Newt Gingrich.

Christ's peace be with you.