During Lent, a few years ago, I decided to give up coffee and caffeine for forty and days and forty nights as a way of uniting that small sacrifice with the sacrifice of Our Lord in the desert. It was the worst 20 minutes of my life! After one day everyone around me was encouraging me to return to my love affair with java. During Lent of last year, I decided to drive only the speed limit, which I must say was a near-death experience in Memphis traffic. This experience reminded me that grace is amazing stuff indeed.
While it is certainly true to assert that Lent is a time of sacrificing somehow as a way of uniting our suffering with that of Christ, it is easy to forget that our mission in doing so is to seek genuine intimacy with Jesus Christ on the Cross and to unite our sufferings with his. In his Apostolic Letter Salvifici Dolores/On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering (February 11, 1984), Saint John Paul II notes that in the experience of suffering we, ourselves, are transformed into better men and woman, while simultaneously growing closer to Jesus Christ:
Christ drew close above all to the world of human suffering through the fact of having taken this suffering upon his very self. During his public activity, he experienced not only fatigue, homelessness, misunderstanding even on the part of those closest to him, but, more than anything, he became progressively more and more isolated and encircled by hostility and the preparations for putting him to death…Precisely by means of his Cross he must strike at the roots of evil, planted in the history of man and in human souls. Precisely by means of his Cross he must accomplish the work of salvation. This work, in the plan of eternal Love, has a redemptive character.
Often the word “intimacy” in our culture is understood solely in terms of sexual sharing between a couple. While this is certainly a very honorable aspect of intimacy for a married couple, as Pope Paul VI notes in Humanae Vitae/Of Human Life (#13), it is by no means theonly form of sacred intimacy. Priests for instance, generally have many intimate relationships with other priests and couples, and yet they are not sexually active with anyone. One could make the same statement about women religious, as well. This intimacy is vital for genuine spiritual and emotional growth and a healthy affective maturity. Put simply: It brings us to truth, which ultimately yields to spiritual and emotional freedom.
Another aspect of authentic intimacy is intimacy with the Cross of Christ in uniting our own sufferings with his. As Saint John Paul II has noted on a number of occasions, when we do this we: 1.) Come into contact with a part of ourselves that we never knew existed. 2.) We come into contact with a part of ourselves that would have remained dormant or unutilized, namely courage and character. 3.) We assist others in their own healing and growth in a more profound and intimate way, as well, because we have “been there.” The beauty in this, of course, being that almost always in assisting others in their suffering, we are likewise healed as a spiritual byproduct of these efforts and empathy. Given his own Carmelite attractions, one should not be surprised to find the occasional aromas of this spirituality of redemptive suffering in Saint John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, as well.
The Lenten journey of uniting our suffering to that of the Cross of Jesus Christ is often a process, not just a choice, but it is a process that completely transforms us into better men and women. Grace is indeed amazing.
Fr. Ben Bradshaw is a priest of the Diocese of Memphis. Fr. Ben holds a Licentiate degree in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Washington, D.C. He also holds Masters of Arts and a Masters of Divinity in Sacred Theology. His Licentiate dissertation focused on the response of the Catholic Church to the issue of Same-Sex attraction. Fr. Ben has attended courses at TOBI and has served TOBI as a course chaplain. He also consults on the development of TOBI’s Clergy Enrichment Program.