A friend of mine left the Catholic Faith years ago. As our friendship has unfolded, we’ve spoken about why a few times, but that has often proven a difficult and frustrating conversation for both of us. It is almost as though we are speaking different languages to each other.
Some of us Catholics often think that there is an unfailing and magical apologetics argument out there—that there is one special statement that would cause skeptics to not merely acquiesce to the existence of God, but to lovingly embrace Him. But if there is, neither Augustine nor Aquinas ever discovered it. That doesn’t dictate we should abandon our conversion efforts, but it might signify that we should evangelize by other means. One such path might be engaging redemptive suffering.
In my friend’s case, I tried prayer and fasting—the most obvious prescriptions for the Christian—yet my friend still seemed unmoved.
Then one day, the idea came to me for a different approach.
Suffering and Perseverance
First, a little backstory. Since my early childhood, I have suffered from frequent headaches. It’s the rare week that I escape either a stress headache, sinus headache, or migraine. When I had these headaches as a little boy, my mom always gave me the same advice—advice I have followed to this day: offer it up.
On a summer afternoon a few years ago, I had a particularly nasty headache, so I took my mom’s advice again; this time, however, I offered it up for my friend’s conversion. Now, I know this next part might sound strange, but I really thought that the next time I saw my friend, he was going to tell me that he had just decided to return to the Catholic Faith. But he didn’t. We had a pleasant conversation, but there was no outward sign that he was any closer to coming back to the Catholic Church.
As with prayer, I discovered, suffering requires perseverance.
Some time later, I came down with another headache, and an idea came to me. I thought to myself, Ok, time to take off the training wheels. I prayed “Dear God, I offer up this and every headache for my friend until his conversion, even if that means every headache for the rest of my life.”
As a Catholic, there have been times in my life when I’ve prayed the wrong prayer—prayers that employed the right words perhaps—but were self-centered and lacked my ascent of heart and will to God. But then, there are the prayers that you know are the right prayers from the moment they pass your lips. This prayer for my friend was one of those.
Why was my prayer so powerful? I was engaging in one the most mysterious opportunities of human suffering: redemptive suffering.
The Opportunity of Redemptive Suffering
If my friend were to discover that I was offering my suffering for him, it’s possible that he might feel sad about it.
But he shouldn’t.
Because along the way in this process, I’ve discovered something rather beautiful: my friend is not causing my suffering; rather, he is giving meaning to my suffering. In a sense, my friend gets me through these headaches. As Viktor Frankl, Auschwitz survivor and author of Man’s Search for Meaning, wrote,
“In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning.” —Viktor Frankl
In this case, friendship is the meaning, and it’s one worth suffering for.
Jesus unmistakably illustrated that an essential ingredient in human friendship is the willingness to suffer for the sake of a friend. Christ assured us, “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Most friendships do not require the ultimate sacrifice, but friendships that are unwilling to undergo even minor suffering for another are not friendships, but mere relationships of convenience and utility.
We are called to so much more.
What Exactly is Redemptive Suffering? Pope John Paul II on the Mystery
I can assist my friend in attaining eternal life by uniting my suffering to the redemptive suffering of Christ. And while I think that makes me pretty special, it does not make me unique. This specialness is something in which we are all called to partake. As Pope Saint John Paul II wrote,
“Every man has his own share in the Redemption. Each one is also called to share in that suffering through which the Redemption was accomplished….In bringing about the Redemption through suffering, Christ has also raised human suffering to the level of the Redemption. Thus each man, in his suffering, can also become a sharer in the redemptive suffering of Christ.” —Pope Saint John Paul II, Salvifici Doloris
Understandably, we spend considerable time and energy avoiding suffering, and none of us needs to go looking for it; in our human condition and fallen world, suffering will find us. But John Paul reminds us that the honor of partaking in redemptive suffering—one not given to the angels, but only to man—is an awesome glory, indeed.
Furthermore, Frankl reminds us of Fyodor Dostoevsky words, “There is only one thing I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.”
So, the question is not whether I ought to suffer for my friend; it is rather whether I can ever be worthy. But I am blessed for the opportunity.
And so are we all.