All is grace — even in suffering

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Circumstances in my own life have resonated with the big question that all of us who love the Faith and see people leaving the Church go back to over and over again: How do we help arrange the introduction of Christ to others? We all know that the key way is by our own witness, but what does that look like? How do we prepare the soil? What is it that we’re missing when we seek to be evangelizers of the world (as all of us are commissioned to be)? 

This isn’t a theoretical question for any of us who love the Faith. As a parent, as a parishioner, as a disciple, this is the constant reality that we must be about the business of doing. As a mother of 10 children, some of whom are adults, many of whom are teens, witnessing the reality of our faith becomes harder and harder with the myriad of influences beyond our doors. 

We must contend with the various distractions and seductions of the world, the sins and history of our own witness and the witness of the whole Church. Anyone who loves the Church knows we live with the absence of those whom we no longer see in the pews. Anyone who loves the Faith longs for those not at the Mass to return. How do we help eliminate the reasons for leaving? How do we reveal the reason — the person we know, the “why” of why we stay?

To suffer well

The Church offers the sacraments, beauty, truth and works of charity. It teaches us how to suffer well, and why suffering can be redemptive. The world offers substitutes for much of what the Church offers — poor, warped substitutes: symbols instead of sacraments; preferences and constructs for beauty; relativism and individualism for truth; and professional charities for personal responses, rooted in love, to others in need. But the only suffering the world understands is to attain a greater good — exercise for health, studying for tests. Suffering that does not lead to something or that is not overcome in this life is considered random and void. 

I bring all this up because recently we discovered that I have breast cancer. It is scary and unknown to me and my family. Suffering may allow me to beat it, or it may not. While the outcome is not irrelevant to me or those I love, or who love me, it’s not the ultimate reality that matters. Our faith teaches that this is an opportunity to witness this reality of our faith, even for those who have walked away.

Praying, “Take this cup away, or if you know you should not, help me to suffer it well,” is the mantra I keep circling back to, buf it comes out as, “Help me suffer this well if I have to suffer … and P.S., God, I’d rather not suffer.” The grudging, childish part of my soul would prefer this be a much more enjoyable summer. 

Telling my children was the hardest part. The youngest is 10. She wept. We talked about how knowing is better than not knowing, and that ice cream, while not a cure, helps everything. We hugged for a long time, and she made me promise, after surgery, ice cream with sprinkles and toppings — the works.

At the foot of the cross

at the foot of the Cross
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I get why we don’t talk about it. Who wants to think about embracing one’s cross, much less embracing it as a mission? It’s like praying for one’s enemy, turning the other cheek, going two miles when someone asks you to go one. All that sounds uncomfortable and unpleasant, but it’s what we’re called to do.

Telling people, “Hey, become Catholic. We have the crucifixion!” probably doesn’t sell well, except it is true. It is Christ’s offering for us. It is not merely a symbol, and it is the most beautiful thing our God has ever done for us. We need to rediscover the good of Good Friday — the unflinching reality of Christ crucified. Even crucified by us, and for us, he offers us all his love from the cross. This is why we stay. Lord, where could we go? The only place any of this makes sense is at his feet. Sooner or later, life brings us here to the foot of the cross. 

Redemptive suffering

“All is grace,” as St. Thérèse of Lisieux said. God never refuses us his love, most especially in those moments when we would absent God or despair. But even when we know that God is, we waiver, but we need to hold to that reality. All is grace. It sounds simple, but it can be the hardest reality to apply when we are in the thick of great suffering or facing an ordeal of grief. 

We need more than the occasional homily or piece during Holy Week that discusses this reality of redemptive suffering. Hints of it from people asking the question, “Why does God allow for suffering?” aren’t sufficient. Encouraging people to engage in fasting or self-sacrifice gets reduced to self-improvement or a spiritual exercise in the same way prayer can be reduced to a formulaic response. This jewel of truth about our faith is not often examined in the midst of ordinary living, because when life is ordinary, who wants to think about suffering? Who wants to stop and ponder this reality we’re called to that requires our whole heart? The ordinary parts of every day allow us to press on with our busyness and pretend we don’t have this mission for the Church from Christ himself.

I know that the shoes, the emails, the bills, the errands, work, haircuts, laundry, meals — all of it — can keep us from running to the cross, or from recognizing that we need to embrace it. The traffic, the homework — everything just churns on, and the world does not stop, not for cancer, not for suffering and certainly not for the 3 o’clock hour that each of us will one day face for others and ourselves. It is because we know that even this is grace, that our lives must look different, most especially in suffering. We won’t know if we’ve done it well until we’ve weathered it. We won’t have weathered it until “it is finished.” 

Our world would reduce our Church to just another church, and all of our faith to a superstition and tradition that we embrace rather than a creed and a cross. Those who lived for the Faith and suffered for it throughout time up to now knew — knew! — that all of our lives are infused with meaning, because life itself is a gift of love from love, for love, and all is grace even if we cannot see how. It’s time today, and for each day going forward, for us to embrace the reality that all is grace — most especially suffering when we hold it as a cross.

Sherry Antonetti writes from Maryland.

Sherry Antonetti

Sherry Antonetti is author of The Book of Helen and blogs at Patheos/Chocolate for Your Brain!