Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church.
“One thousand and ninety five,” sighed my friend as he pushed his chair back from the dinner table. He was not referring to the date of the first Crusade, but the number of e-mails awaiting his attention after two weeks out of the office.
I winced in sympathy, recalling the piles of mail, real and virtual, that had greeted my own return from vacation. “Offer it up for the souls in purgatory?” I suggested, only half in jest. “For sure, it’s one piece of pre-Vatican II theology I still subscribe to!” bounced back across the table. “Suffering shouldn’t go to waste.”
My mother’s salve for the hurts of childhood she could not immediately remedy always included the injunction to “offer it up” in addition to the requisite Band-aids and gentle kisses. In my pre-Vatican II childhood, burned fingers and broken toes offered chances not only to be tended to, but also to tend. Little was wasted in a house full of kids, not even suffering.
The conversation led me to wonder if I’ve failed to pass on a key lesson to my own children. Mike, at 14, seems aware of the ascetic value of pain (or at least he is fond of reminding his younger brother, groaning under the weight of some hideous chore, that “suffering is good for the soul”). Rarely does Mike articulate the sense that his sufferings, or even the annoyances that come with having a younger brother, might be good for someone else’s soul, even teasingly.
Yet the concept of redirecting suffering to another end beyond the purification of one’s own soul might not be as foreign as we think to a generation for whom the catchphrase “recycle, reuse, repurpose” rolls so trippingly off the tongue. Waste is to be avoided.
My kids view the “repurposing” of old stuff as a creative activity. What can you do with an outgrown life jacket and a roll of duct tape? Amazing things, if you have the imagination to see it, and the patience to carry it through.
Pope John Paul II, reflecting on the passage above from St. Paul in his apostolic letter, Salvific Doloris, asserts that redemptive suffering is also a creative activity: “The sufferings of Christ created the good of the world’s redemption… . No man can add anything to it. But at the same time [Christ] opened his own redemptive suffering to all human suffering.” Paul’s outlook helps us imagine the “creative character of suffering.”
Maybe what I need to remind my sons, and myself, when our own pains wear us thin, is that we can creatively repurpose them, pouring our sufferings into the mystery that is Christ’s redeeming work, into His body, the Church.
It is certainly time to recycle and reuse my mother’s injunction to “offer it up” for this generation – so they, too, can imagine how to repurpose the pain.
O God, Creator and Redeemer of all the faithful, grant to the souls of our departed loved ones, the remission of all their sins, that by means of our pious supplications, they may obtain the joys of Heaven which they have ever earnestly desired. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Michelle Francl-Donnay is a member of Our Mother of Good Counsel Parish in Bryn Mawr. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.