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Suffering and the Light Burden

"Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” - Matthew 11:28-30

It is easy to forget sometimes that the goal of the Christian life is not to suffer. While learning to suffer well is essential to learning to live well, many people find themselves facing one of two responses to pain:

On the one hand, many modern thinkers — both Christian theologians and secular philosophers — have attempted to throw out suffering entirely. "Freedom" has become synonymous with the absence of pain and the absence of consequences. To live well is to exist in a society in which every potentiality is buffered on all sides from the storms of reality: in which your choices have fundamentally no impact on your quality of life nor on anyone else's. Freedom, paradoxically, is the binding of each individual's human agency so closely that it encompasses only the smallest possible sphere of individual pleasure and gain. Within your own claustrophobic sphere, you are free to relinquish all the burden of shame and guilt without fear of judgment or criticism. To "love your neighbor" is thus not only to leave him alone but to order your life in such a way that it poses the least possible inconvenience to his own solitary pursuit of happiness. It is, at best, a negative form of love.

On the other hand, certain reactionary groups have instead doubled down on suffering as practically an end in itself. Life is hard, they say — reality has a way of catching up with you. To work long hours for little pay is to them a badge of honor. To submit to even the most egregious misinterpretations of moral teaching is a kind of self-martyrdom. To avoid seeking justice or emotional healing is noble abandonment to Divine Providence. Beauty and created goodness are frivolous temptations meant to ensnare lesser souls. Heaven is so distant from earth as to make it blasphemous even to think of enjoying creation. Virtue is a path of difficulty and toil, untreadable by any except the most battle-hardened souls. If Christ lightens the burden at all, it is by mercifully demonstrating that it is at least possible to persevere in this suffering even unto death. Ascetic sacrifice does not serve the cause of mercy but supplants it.

The more one considers each of these two paths, the less attractive either of them seems. While the path of pleasure at least looks enjoyable, history and modern experience have demonstrated time and again that a life of isolated pleasure does not bring fulfillment; instead, it brings all the punishment of addiction: numbness, anger, loneliness, self-loathing, anxiety, depression ... meanwhile, seeking to avoid pleasure entirely leads to much the same thing, with the added bonus of repressed passions bubbling up and exploding at random intervals. Both, it turns out, are subhuman; neither are consistent with human freedom and joy.

Yet, as terrifying as Christ's teachings often seem — the story of the rich young ruler, for example, or the solemn warning of the "narrow way," or even his own suffering and death on the Cross — he himself declared, "my yoke is easy, my burden is light." In what world can the suffering we experience at our own hands and those of others be reconciled with true interior rest?

While I am far from the right person to delve into the mechanics of the soul's ascent towards divine perfection, it is one of the more obvious paradoxes of the saints that, even on the most human level, they are at once able to suffer intensely and lightly. Intensely, in that they lived through horrors that we in the modern West may never even have to encounter, let alone endure. Lightly, in that they did so with real, genuine, sincere joy.

The saints did not give up their worldly possessions with a sad expression of grave, pious reverence, their eyes turned down towards the dirt. No, instead they recklessly flung them away and, with newly unburdened arms, reached out to embrace their call from God, however ugly and gnarled it seemed. Their goal was not to suffer; their goal was to love, and in the excess of their love they came to desire suffering. As St. Faustina put it, "Suffering is the greatest treasure on earth; it purifies the soul. In suffering, we learn who is our true friend."

In the study of ethics, there is a constant, albeit often implicit debate: Who is more virtuous: the one who struggles mightily to attain a virtue, or the one who accomplishes it easily, having already embraced it in the very core of her being? I am not, for instance, a very patient person — but are my apparently futile efforts to stay calm in traffic more virtuous than the easy composure of my more phlegmatic friends? As good as it may be when I manage to take a deep breath instead of grumbling at the person who just cut me off, I would have to say that, in this matter, my friends are more virtuous than I.

The more we respond to suffering as an opportunity to love those around us — whether it be directly, as when we let someone jump in front of us at the light or when we bear with our loved one's small faults to keep them from unnecessary shame, or indirectly, as when we offer our sufferings up for the good of others — the more we can come to see pain not as an impediment to community or to personal fulfillment but as the very bridge that connects us with others and with God. The more we bear our pain, even that which on the surface seems to be completely destructive, the more it becomes the very means by which we and our relationships with others are healed. Good suffering is easy suffering.

For the one who has learned to suffer well, therefore, the result should never be despondency (though despondency itself may be its own cross). The necessary consequence of this kind of suffering is union with others. Like a child who runs barefoot into the woods, so excited to play that he forgets to guard himself against the rocks, branches, and pine needles in his way, good suffering all but ceases to be suffering at all. Instead, through its very contrast with pleasure, it becomes the highest possible way to express the depth of our desire for union with each other and with God.

This fact of the spiritual life may be in part why it is impossible to be a "lukewarm" Christian. Only the most radical embrace of love can reconcile the twin tenets of great suffering and perfect rest. For the one who holds herself back, who unapologetically resents the evil that comes her way — or equally for the one who accepts suffering so stoically as to cut herself off from the union with God it is meant to foster — suffering continues to hack and claw at the soul. It is only when we accept it willingly and place it in the hands of God that the wounds inflicted on us by our own and by others' faults become not a source of division but the means through which we find our rest and our joy.

In James 1:2, he writes, "My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing." This is not a suggestion, nor is it an empty comfort. Rather, it is a testament to the reality that it is only when we at last choose to shoulder the full weight of our cross that we can discover how light Christ's love for us has made it.

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