All Men Suffer; Few Men Sacrifice
The aversion to suffering is a universal experience we can all relate to. We instinctively recoil, resist, and even resent pain. As one comedian said, “I’m not into working out. My philosophy is no pain, no pain.” Pain causes one to suffer, and suffering prolongs pain. Suffering has many forms: emotional, physical, and spiritual, and has a nearly infinite amount of sources—our wives, our wives, and our wives (of course I am jesting). Yet “out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars” (Kahlil Gibran). Indeed, suffering is the soil that produces saints. Which raises questions: If suffering is the soil from which saints emerge, why are there so few saints? If everyone suffers, should not everyone be a saint? No man is exempt from the experience of suffering, but the real man, the emerging saint, the massive character seared with scars, is the man who not only suffers, but takes that suffering and transforms it into sacrifice. All men suffer; few men sacrifice. The word “sacrifice” is derived from the Latin words sacer, which means “sacred,” and facere, which means “to do” or “to make.” In other words, sacrifice is “the act of offering something to God” (Merriam-Webster), of making something sacred. God alone has the ability to transform natural substances into supernatural realities. For example, He transforms bread into His Body and Blood, He transform a corrupt decayed body into a glorified, resurrected being. However, God grants human beings the freedom and ability to transform our sufferings into sacrifice, to make what initially appears bad into something very good; to turn something that has an evil connotation into something set aside for the divine, something that is the cause of tremendous pain into glorious joy. This is the glory of man and the mark of a true man: he is one who converts his suffering into sacrifice unto God.
Prayer and Sacrifice
Recall from our last session that St. Thomas said that charity, being the greatest of all virtues, is friendship with God. Being a friend of God is the greatest thing that you or I will ever accomplish. There exist three fundamental components to friendship: trust, communication, and self-donation. By means of communication combined with self-donation, trust in the other is developed. If I sacrifice for my wife, yet never communicate with her (this perhaps being her wildest dream), or if I communicate with my wife yet never sacrifice for her, our relationship will lack trust and intimacy, never achieving the full expression and stature of love. So it is with our relationship with God. In order for our friendship with God to express the full measure of love, it is imperative that we communicate with God, which is prayer, and donate ourselves to God, which is sacrifice. Our Lady of Fatima related to the young visionaries, “Pray and make sacrifices for sinners.” Our Lord, responding to his apostles’ question about why they could not exorcise a demon from a young boy, said, “Only by prayer and fasting can this kind be expelled.” If our prayer is to be powerful, our prayer must be animated by sacrifice. Prayer without sacrifice is lip service, and sacrifice without prayer is mere rigidity and the training of one’s will. Sacrifice inspires our prayer and prayer inspires us to sacrifice.
Active and Passive Sacrifices
In ancient Israel, it was customary that the high priest, on behalf of the Jewish community, offered prayer and sacrifice in the Tent of Meeting, or eventually in the Temple, in atonement for their sins. Originally, the priest would offer bulls, goats, calves, and lambs as his sacrifice unto God. Christ, the eternal High Priest, ultimately offered Himself as the sacrificial Lamb of God on behalf of us, His body, His family. Jesus the Good Shepherd lays down His life for His sheep. If you and I truly desire to sanctify our families, if we desire that our marriages be animated by the love of God and our children be filled with the joy of the Trinity’s self-giving love, it is imperative that we enter the meeting tent of prayer not only with our prayers, but also with our sufferings transformed into sacrifice. Prayer becomes incredibly powerful when animated by sacrifice. You and I, throughout our brief and passing lives, will be afforded countless opportunities to convert our sufferings into sacrifices—into something sacred that can be given unto God. There exist two main forms of suffering: passive and active. The mystics and Doctors of the Church teach us that active sufferings are those that we purposefully choose to undertake and embrace with the purpose of offering them on behalf of others. Active sufferings are those we can control. Examples of active sufferings may be fasting on bread and water; skipping a meal or not using salt during a meal; choosing to spend time with a person less agreeable than someone you really like; turning off the radio, television, or phone; taking a cold shower (not showering would be to give someone else suffering); or, as many saints have done, wearing a hair shirt. And for the heroically virtuous I highly recommend hair underwear. Passive sufferings are those events, circumstances, and situations that inflict a pain over which we have very little control. Passive sufferings may come in the form of a poor health condition or sickness, difficulties with finances and employment, the loss of a loved one, misunderstandings in relationships, persecutions, detractions, mental illness, and the like. The saints and mystics explain that passive sufferings, if embraced and returned as sacrifice unto the Lord, are of greater value than active sufferings. Why? Because by offering active sufferings we retain control of the duration and intensity of the suffering, whereas we have little control over passive sacrifices and are vulnerable. This lack of control combined with the element of the unknown demands that we exercise patience, obedience, prayer, and trust in God, believing that He knows what is best for us.
How to Pass the Test
All men suffer but few sacrifice. St. Peter warns us that we will all be tested: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation” (1 Pet. 4:12). “So that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet.1:17). Recall that friendship with God demands communication and self-donation. When we are tested, this is the passive suffering that can be transformed into a generous sacrifice to God on behalf of our family. By doing this we prove that we really are friends of God. Jesus says, “No greater love has man than this, than to lay down his life for a friend.” We are called to befriend Jesus and our families by sacrificing for them. An easy way to remember the process of converting sufferings into sacrifice is by remembering the four “T’s”: test, trust, talk, and transform. You will be tested. Everyone experiences challenges, trials, and tests in their lives, and your life is no different. The first step is to take that test to prayer. The second step is to trust that God does not cause us to suffer aimlessly. Sin causes suffering; God does not cause suffering. However, God has an amazing ability to appropriate and allocate suffering in our lives in the most precise way, with the purpose of drawing out the most good, of perfecting us. Trust that God will aid you in perseverance that you may victoriously overcome your trial. Third, talk to God about it. Tell Him your pain, your desires, your hopes. Let Him be your Father. He wants to prove to you that He is your Father by answering your prayers. Fourth, surrender the suffering to God, transform your suffering into sacrifice—give it to Him. So often, we complain, grumble, resent, or want to remain in bitterness regarding our suffering. Give it up—literally. Offer it to God as your sacrifice of love.
Loneliness, Fatherhood, and Suffering
Adam, the first father, when tempted and tested, neglected to trust God. He doubted the goodness of the Father and instead submitted to the temptation proposed by Eve. What was Adam’s mistake? Where did he go wrong? When he was tested, he failed to trust, and therefore he failed to talk to God about his situation. Adam neglected to pray and therefore he failed the test. This is a very important lesson. You and I will most certainly fail to become the men, the fathers that we are destined to be—we will fail in time of temptation—if we do not pray and talk to God about our trials. St. John Vianney said, “We won’t find any sinner converted without turning to prayer. We won’t find any sinner persevering without depending on prayer. Nor will we ever find a Christian who ends up damned whose downfall did not begin with a lack of prayer.” Speaking of Adam in his play The Radiation of Fatherhood, Karol Wojtyla wrote, ,“He stepped once on the frontier between fatherhood and loneliness.” And later Adam says, “I could not bear fatherhood; I could not be equal to it. I felt totally helpless—and what has been a gift has become a burden to me. I threw off fatherhood like a burden.” Due to a fear of failure, a lack of trust that God would make him a father in the image of the Father, Adam as portrayed by Wojtyla chucks his vocation and chooses loneliness, and it is this sin of neglect that has, throughout the centuries, transmitted loneliness to so many fathers. Later, Wojtyla depicts Adam praying to the Father, saying, “When Your Son came, I remained the common denominator of man’s inner loneliness. Your Son wanted to enter it. He wants to because He loves. Loneliness opposes love. On the borderline of loneliness, love must become suffering: Your Son has suffered.” Reflecting upon these words, Andres Montana, the facilitator of the Fathers of St. Joseph Nashville chapter, related that between the spheres of fatherhood and loneliness is the mutual overlapping sphere of suffering. In other words, to move from loneliness to fatherhood you and I must cross the frontier and threshold of suffering, purposefully offering it as a sacrifice ( united to Christ’s sacrifice) to God;, otherwise we will fall into loneliness, believing our vocation to be a burden, believing that it is too much for us. Do you believe that your fatherhood is a burden? Do you feel lonely? Suffering transformed into sacrifice is the key to liberating you from loneliness and to achieving full communion with your family and your God.
Offering Ourselves with the Offering of Christ
A little side note: the most efficacious place for this offering of our sufferings is at Holy Mass. Holy Mass is the new Holy of Holies, the new Tent of Meeting, where Jesus, as High Priest, re-presents His offering to the Father on behalf of us. We, as high priests of our families, offer our suffering as sacrifice in union with the sacrificial sufferings of the eternal High Priest, whose suffering and death is re-presented to us and the Father during Holy Mass. When that paten is raised with Christ’s Body and Blood to the Father, we should also place our sufferings upon it. As Jesus said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains alone.” Those who choose not to suffer for Christ, on behalf of their families, will, in the end, be alone. But those who transform their sufferings into sacrifice will be surrounded by love. True fatherhood is the antidote to loneliness. When we decide to embrace trials, tests, and temptations, offering them to God in prayer, we begin to embrace our vocation, and begin to reunite our wives and children to the Father in heaven.
Sacrifice Affords Communion
St. Joseph, our holy patron, was a man who combined prayer with sacrifice. At every crucial moment of Joseph’s fatherhood, he embraced the test, trusted the Lord, entered prayer, and transformed his intense suffering to God as a sacrifice a secret, silent oblation to the Father. Joseph refused to remain in the sphere of loneliness, but passed over from loneliness, through suffering transformed into sacrifice, into fatherhood, which united the Holy Family. Joseph is an icon of God the Father whose Fatherhood is not lonely, but rather is one that lives in full communion with the Son and the Holy Spirit. Our fatherhood is “called to relive and reveal the very fatherhood of God” (see Familias Consortio 25). Only by prayer animated by sacrifice can we fathers move from the sphere of loneliness, isolation, and neglect, to union, communion, and self-giving love. For example, a friend of mine who is a critically acclaimed author and a much sought-after international speaker was intensely focused on his own ambitions, future endeavors, and career. His son, who suffered from years of depression, addictions, and attempted suicides was on the brink of attempting to take his own life for the fourth time. My friend cast off his vain ambition and entered the trial of his son, which was the trial of his very fatherhood, trusted in the Lord, and tirelessly prayed and sacrificed for his son, enlisting him in one rehab clinic after another. He stayed the course, surrendering his vain ambition to be known by the world, and entered the secrecy of fatherhood by means of daily prayer, Holy Mass, and sacrificial offering of his sufferings to God. By doing so, his son has recovered and is today with the Marians of the Imaculate Conception in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Another friend of mine was burdened for decades by the cross of an alcoholic wife. While on a pilgrimage he met another woman, who enticed him to leave his wife for her. During this period of temptation, my friend separated from his wife, considering the other woman a viable option. However, during this time, he also prayed intensely daily, received the Eucharist often, and offered his sufferings to the Lord. The Lord gave him the strength to return to his post and embrace his alcoholic wife, and today he testifies that Christ’s love animates him in a way that he had never known before. Both of these men surrendered their own sufferings and desires to the Lord and transformed them into sacrifice. Passing from loneliness through sacrificial suffering they entered fatherhood, the place of unity, affording their families true unity in God.
This past Sunday, my eldest daughter and I were riding our bikes along the Mississippi River when she asked about the content of this week’s FOSJ message. I explained to her much of what I have just shared with you, and ended by saying, “Those who sacrifice are those whose prayers are most powerful.” Then this thought occurred to me: “Devin, perhaps that is why your prayers are not as powerful as they could be.” Another thought trailed on the heals of that one: “Devin, you are cheating Me.” I was convicted, and realized that God has given me so much and yet I offer Him so little. I imagine that most of us have cheated the Lord. He gives us so much, and asks so very little. If we are truly Christ’s friend, we will answer the call to animate our prayer by offering God our sufferings as a sacrifice of love.
What’s the point? Saints, those souls of strength, do not simply grow on trees—they carry them and die on them. They don’t simply wake up one morning the saint they desire to be. No. They are forged, purified, and built up through many sufferings, trials, and hardships, which they transform into sacrificial offerings that are holy and pleasing to God. The Latin word patior can mean “to undergo, to suffer, to endure.” Patior is the root word for patientia, which also means “patience, suffering and endurance,” and is where we derive the word “patient.” In other words, God is the physician, and if we are to be healed of our loneliness we must become a patient patient who endures the healing blade of suffering by offering it as a sacrificial offering. As one man prayed, “Lord, I desire to know you truly.” To which the Lord responded, “To know Me truly, you must truly suffer.” You and I are the priest of our families who offer ourselves in prayer and sacrifice on their behalf. If we do so, they and we will become the saints God has destined us to become.