“The true measure of humanity is essentially determined in relationship to suffering and to the sufferer. This holds true both for the individual and for society. A society unable to accept its suffering members and incapable of helping to share their suffering and to bear it inwardly through “com-passion” is a cruel and inhuman society. Yet society cannot accept its suffering members and support them in their trials unless individuals are capable of doing so themselves; moreover, the individual cannot accept another’s suffering unless he personally is able to find meaning in suffering, a path of purification and growth in maturity, a journey of hope. Indeed, to accept the “other” who suffers, means that I take up his suffering in such a way that it becomes mine also. Because it has now become a shared suffering, though, in which another person is present, this suffering is penetrated by the light of love. The Latin word con-solatio, “consolation”, expresses this beautifully. It suggests being with the other in his solitude, so that it ceases to be solitude. Furthermore, the capacity to accept suffering for the sake of goodness, truth and justice is an essential criterion of humanity, because if my own well-being and safety are ultimately more important than truth and justice, then the power of the stronger prevails, then violence and untruth reign supreme. Truth and justice must stand above my comfort and physical well-being, or else my life itself becomes a lie. In the end, even the “yes” to love is a source of suffering, because love always requires expropriations of my “I”, in which I allow myself to be pruned and wounded. Love simply cannot exist without this painful renunciation of myself, for otherwise it becomes pure selfishness and thereby ceases to be love.
“To suffer with the other and for others; to suffer for the sake of truth and justice; to suffer out of love and in order to become a person who truly loves—these are fundamental elements of humanity, and to abandon them would destroy man himself. Yet once again the question arises: are we capable of this? Is the other important enough to warrant my becoming, on his account, a person who suffers? Does truth matter to me enough to make suffering worthwhile? Is the promise of love so great that it justifies the gift of myself? In the history of humanity, it was the Christian faith that had the particular merit of bringing forth within man a new and deeper capacity for these kinds of suffering that are decisive for his humanity. The Christian faith has shown us that truth, justice and love are not simply ideals, but enormously weighty realities. It has shown us that God —Truth and Love in person—desired to suffer for us and with us” (Spe Salvi 38-39).
In Spe Salvi, Pope Benedict XVI invites us to grapple again with suffering. Indeed, it is our duty as the Church to do this, and this in turn makes it our responsibility as individual members of the Church. He earlier notes that while we can and should attempt to limit the suffering of innocents, and to alleviate it, we must ultimately also accept it and embrace it. We do this, on the one hand, by “embracing” those suffering members of our society and helping to “bear” their suffering with “com-passion.”
The society that does not do this, that abandons the suffering to their fate, is a cruel society indeed. If we are honest, however, we recognize that we, too, have suffering which somehow needs to be borne, and that this suffering is not always avoidable, nor should it always be avoided. Indeed, Pope Benedict notes that
“It is when we attempt to avoid suffering by withdrawing from anything that might involve hurt, when we try to spare ourselves the effort and pain of pursuing truth, love, and goodness, that we drift into a life of emptiness, in which there may be almost no pain, but the dark sensation of meaninglessness and abandonment is all the greater” (Spe Salvi 37).
Suffering itself is bad, but it is not the greatest evil. Its avoidance cannot be the end to our lives, because when avoiding suffering becomes the only purpose in our lives, we paradoxically find that we suffer more greatly. Just as pleasure and contentment—lower goods, falling far short of the greatestGood, far short of true happiness–cannot be sought as ends in themselves with longterm success, suffering cannot be avoided indefinitely.
Thus, by embracing others who are suffering, and by attempting to help bear their suffering with compassion, we learn that we, too, can accept our own suffering.
This, however, is not enough. The suffering still persists, and merely bearing it stoically might enable us to cope with it, but then coping with suffering is not the same thing as happiness or even joy. We may all bear our own suffering and embrace the suffering of others, but we find that even then we are not all strong enough to bear the suffering of the world. We may avoid abject misery, but we do so only to enter into a profound state of sadness. We need, then, and example of true self-giving, of true compassion, of real suffering love.
We find this example in Christ. He Who Is, very Truth and Love, takes on our suffering, Himself. But this example is different, because Christ did not need to do this, did not need to suffer or experience suffering. Even for the sake of our salvation, Christ did not need to suffer death: the Baltimore Catechism 3 notes that His smallest suffering would suffice for this. “Rather, by suffering so much He showed His great love for us” (Baltimore Catechism 3, Q379). Therefore, when Christ took up His cross, He was not only taking on all our sins and thereby redeeming us: He was also taking on our suffering and redeeming it, giving it a new meaning.
He was, in other words, making it possible for us to find meaning in our suffering. We can, therefore, have joy in suffering and final happiness despite suffering; and this is made possible through hope. We can learn love from our suffering, because love itself requires a renunciation of ourselves–just as Christ “renounced” himself by not grasping at equality with the Father, though this equality was his to grasp (Philippians 2:6). “It was our infirmities that he bore, our sufferings that he endured, While we thought of him as stricken, as one smitten by God and afflicted. But he was pierced for our offenses, crushed for our sins, Upon him was the chastisement that makes us whole, by his stripes we were healed” (Isaiah 53:4-5).