We all have endured some kind of suffering in our lives. Whether it is the anguish of infertility, the almost unbearable loss of a spouse or a child, the humiliation of being fired from a job we love or the ongoing struggle of a health situation, suffering, it seems, comes in all shapes and sizes.
Through experience, we know that it is often easier to suffer ourselves than to watch a loved one suffer. We want to take away their pain and yet we cannot. The pain is not ours to bear, but we can certainly share in it in doing our part to alleviate their suffering.
A couple of years ago, our family went through a difficult time when our daughter was diagnosed with Lyme disease. My husband and I were tormented that our child was in pain and there was nothing we could do to take that pain away. She suffered greatly with aches throughout her little body and, at night, would cry out in her sleep because the pain was so bad. My mind gravitated to the “if onlys” — if only we had gone somewhere else that day, if only we hadn’t gone into the long grass on that outing, if only we had checked her hair for a tick bite afterward.
Watch out for the “if onlys.” Fixating on them is futile, for they can chain us to a past that we cannot change. Entrust your “if onlys” to God’s mercy and goodness.
It is hard to see pain as a gift. When we think of gifts, we naturally think of what is positive rather than something that stretches us, pushes us or brings us to our knees. Suffering is a natural part of all of our lives and yet most of us, rather than embrace it, run from it or drown in it. This is only natural since suffering can be intensely painful, leaving us feeling exposed and vulnerable. Nobody is spared from suffering. This tells us that it is a natural part of the universal condition, so there must be good reasons why we go through times of suffering which are often accompanied by lots of tears.
Many Hebrew words for grieving, weeping and lamentation actually mean “to distill,” which involves separating and converting in order to change one substance to another. The distillation process involves conversion of a liquid into a vapor that is then condensed back into liquid form.
Let me give you a simple analogy and one that is a part of my daily life: making a cup of tea. When the kettle boils, the water evaporates and when that vapor hits the cool part of my cupboard, it leaves little drops of distilled water on the surface. It separates and there is conversion from water to steam.
Distilling can be a beautiful description of God’s renewing work in the midst of our suffering. In any distillation process, separation and conversion occurs. During times of suffering, we go through our own distillation process and our attitude and behavior are refined and purified. With time and God’s grace, we may come to understand that this particular suffering, while not pleasant, was a gift, for it allowed something new to emerge. Conversion has taken place and resistance and grief give way to acceptance and new life. For my husband and myself, our suffering brought us closer together and made us appreciate more deeply the gift of life and the gift of our children. Our daughter told us that she now believes her illness helped her to become stronger and more kind to other children.
In our secular culture, which values strength, suffering is often eschewed in favor of a “survival of the fittest” mentality. Henri Nouwen, the great spiritual teacher and author, wrote in his book “The Return of the Prodigal Son” that “it is often difficult to believe that there is much to think, speak or write about other than brokenness.”
This brokenness caused by suffering is a touchstone of God’s grace. Through suffering, our heart is expanded, we see more clearly and we understand more deeply. Through these intense periods of suffering God is continually transforming us to be more compassionate, more hopeful, more merciful and more loving — all attributes of Christ. The Scriptures tell us that God “will wipe every tear” from our eyes (Rv 21:4). God’s distillation process takes our tears and turns them to joy. We might not realize it in the moment, but with time we may come to understand and appreciate it.
Stanz is director of parish life and evangelization for the Diocese of Green Bay and author of “Start with Jesus: How Everyday Disciples Will Renew the Church” (Loyola Press).