The Cross and the Problem of Pain in our Present World
By Phillip A. Bellini
We’ve all been dealing with the Covid-19 virus as of late. Seems like that is all we hear of here in Louisiana, we are an epicenter for the virus. It is believed that it came from having Mardi Gras here, with many people coming in and then leaving, thus leaving the virus in New Orleans. In some of us that might provoke the grim thought that we find no difficulty in finding our cross, and when we find it there is no cause for celebration. The city has been on lockdown since St. Joseph Day. So let us try and lift up a tiny corner of that sometimes heavy curtain of suffering and see if any good at all lies behind it. But please believe this: The farthest thing from my mind is merely to lecture you on patience; rather we are thinking the problem out together. I’m just trying to blow dust off a few principles that hold for me as well as you, and which we are all liable to forget. The first is that from every eye some tears must fall: suffering in some form or another is inevitable. Life is like a rose, first a smooth stem and then a thorn, bright days and dark days, a smooth road and then a bumpy one. Who said we have to take the bitter with the better? We must remember that this human nature of ours limped out of the Garden of Eden a wounded veteran, subject to future aches and pains, both physical and moral. For example, the very fact that we have teeth (which is good) means sooner or later we are in for a toothache (which is bad). God never claimed that this earth was to be an amusement park of joy. When we pray the “Hail, Holy Queen” prayer, we call this world a “valley of tears.” So don’t be disappointed during these times and others if it isn’t a vestibule of heaven; it is only the rugged testing ground outside, with plenty of bumps in the road. How hard we hit them depends on our moral and spiritual fortitude.
This may all seem obvious to you, but you would be surprised how many people feel cheated if their piety and devotion do not protect them from troubles in life. They bristle, they are sullen and hurt when hardships and headaches dare to plant their thorn-bushes in the garden of the righteous. They may not admit it in so many words, but they feel their religion should act like a sort of spiritual vaccination (heard that word lately?) and keep them immune from trouble. The proof is that when the virus of trouble does come, their faith falters. Let any suffering come into their life, and doubt enters their heart. For some, their whole faith has been pinned on the absence of sorrow or misfortune. I’ve learned over the years you can never pin your faith on the absence of something. It has to be nailed, like Christ, to a Cross, the Cross which stands there like a sign-post or a road that simply says, “God’s will is this way.” Yet there is infinite consolation in the memory that God’s own Son, the day He trudged back to Heaven, took this very road of suffering. His Blood-stained footprints are there for us to follow.
So let’s put aside the notion that faith, or religion, is a guarantee against trouble. No, it is rather a guide and a help during it. Faith is not an escalator to bring us up the steep hill of life, but more like a cane to lean on while we do the climbing. Religion is not a magic charm to keep the world we live in away from us. Some people apparently would want an ocean but not seasickness, breezes but no gales, rain but no postponed ball games, sunshine but no scorched lawns, etc. No, the laws of nature work for the general good and we cannot expect the Almighty to step in, throw a switch, and stop the machinery to avoid our individual harm. It is a great, wide, wonderful world—for the exercise of virtues – and for that reason, difficulties and hardships and sickness and death lie ahead on every man’s road, and there is NO detour around them.
As to the evils that come to us from human nature, from the perversity of man, of course God could have arranged things differently. He could have made a world without alcoholics or thieves or murderers. This is saying He could have made a world without free will, where the whole human race would have been regimented, like computerized puppets marching on the straight and narrow path because they simply could not swing off in any other direction! We have to have just as much possibility to be a devil as a Saint, or our “yes” to God means nothing. He intended to build a moral universe, and the condition for that is freedom. God did not make us that way and it is no use to ask why not. Nobody audits the books of God. He chose instead to honor us with free will, with the power to choose between good and evil, so that He could award us with an incredible Heaven.
In the world as it is, the best that Faith can do, even for a Saint, is not to deliver him from the backlash of nature or the malice of men, but to give him the spirit and the weapons to meet his or her particular trials. So intelligent men and women look to faith, not for freedom from troubles but for courage to cope with them under the banner of our King, Jesus Christ. And when we are most down, then especially should we look up – to Him! We are kind of like a deep-sea diver. Maybe we are beyond our depth. Maybe the water around us is so murky we cannot see our way. But as long as our air-line is clean, as long as we keep contact with Him watching up there, we are safe. The air-line being the Sacraments, Mass, prayer, sacrifices and living the responsibilities of our state in life.
The trouble is many of us look down at our trouble all the time. We tend to look at the dark side of things, so we see trouble everywhere. Isn’t it better to look up, to lift up your eyes and your heart to the God of all consolation? With the C-virus there is the tendency to lean that way. Maybe you are old and lie on the cross of a sick bed. It could be anything, from arthritis to cancer to heart trouble. I was taught that suffering bravely is for the greater glory of God, even more than the most majestic Cathedral you ever saw stand against the sky. It is the bell that is struck that gives the melody, the candle that wastes away that gives light; and it is the human soul in suffering patiently borne that offers the greatest prayer to God.
It took me a long time to learn this, but I understand now what Archbishop Fulton Sheen said: “St. Peter gave more glory to God suffering in prison than when he was out preaching to the multitudes!” Out of all the apostolates I’ve been involved with in my life, I now feel I have received greater graces taking care of my Mom with dementia than all the apostolates I’ve been in. And for those who are young, remember we don’t have the blueprint of our future lives. God does! He knows what He is doing! Sometimes he lets our hearts break in order to get into them!
Maybe you are a father or mother, and death has left an empty chair in your house and an emptiness in your heart! And as you move slowly around your house, memories hit you and you have your own private way of the cross hung in your home! You can become bitter about it and shake your fist in rebellion at Heaven – as I did when I was fourteen years old and God took my grandmother -- or you can clasp your fingers and bow your head in prayerful resignation. You can ask the oldest question in the world, “Why should this happen to me?” Do you know the answer to that question? There isn’t any, unless it is the oldest answer: God (because He is God) knows best. We have to put our little hand in His big hand, and trust, like any child with any father, that He knows where He is going. Or maybe the answer is this. The highest medal for service in the U.K. is the Victoria Cross. In the United States it is the Medal of Honor. Who can say but that God gives His heroes and heroines – just the Cross!, a splinter of wood conferred by His own Bleeding Hand; because anyone that is really close to Christ must, sooner or later, share His Cross! Our best guide along the road of the Cross is our Blessed Mother, who followed Her Son to Calvary. She is always there to be our Mother and point the way to Her Divine Son. Pray the Rosary daily!
PHILLIP A. BELLINI is the Director of Religious Education at Good Shepherd Parish, New Orleans, LA, and is also a Consecrated Marian Catechist