St. Paul of the Cross and the Mystery of Suffering

by Jeanette Martino Land

Window The mystery of suffering can never be fully explained in this life. It will remain a mystery until we pass from death into eternal life. However, by meditating with St. Paul of the Cross on the Passion of Jesus Christ and the triumph of the Cross, we can understand more fully the mystery of suffering, as we see its redeeming value through the union we experience with Christ Jesus.

There are many theories pertaining to the subject of God and the mystery of human suffering. St. Paul of the Cross did not speculate on, nor try to fathom this mystery. For Paul, it was clear-cut. He wasn’t concerned with the mystery; his goal was to lead others to God. As he saw it, all suffering was connected to the Passion of Jesus:

“The loving soul keeps its heart always turned toward heaven and looks upon sufferings with the eye of faith as coming not from creatures, but from the loving hand of the Lord, and lets them disappear in the immense sea of divine love, which sweetens every bitterness.” (Letter #1099 to Thomas Fossi, November 8, 1757, Vol. II, p. 588.)

In Paul’s time, as in Job’s, suffering was seen as a punishment, a penalty exacted for sin. Some people still believe in this doctrine of retribution. However, Paul did not go along with the prevailing thought. He emphasized the strong relationship between suffering and love, the infinite love of God.

For Paul, the Passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ was proof of God’s love for all of humanity. He shared this spirituality of the Cross with one of his favorite authors, St. Teresa of Avila. Both saints inwardly longed for suffering and spoke of suffering as “joy,” a “token of God’s love,” a “great grace.” They stressed the importance of contemplating the humanity of Jesus, especially in suffering His Passion.

In a letter to Teresa Palozzi (Letter #1976, June 19, 1757, Vol. II. P. 562) Paul wrote: “The greatest sufferings are those of the great friends of God. Oh, how sweet it is to be crucified with Jesus.”

This is a deeply mystical view of God and the mystery of suffering. Was this just an intellectual assent on Paul’s part? Not at all, for Paul endured much physical pain and suffering in his lifetime. Repeated problems of serious pains and swelling in his joints, spasms, headaches, fevers, lack of energy, and poor health plagued him, leaving him weak and confined to bed for days at a time. Eleven years before his death, Paul wrote: “I am in my usual pains. May the Lord be blessed.” (Letter #1506 to Teresa Palozzi, December 19, 1764, Vol. III, p. 250.)

How many of us feel blessed when we experience physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual suffering? Quite the contrary!

Window We are tempted to see suffering as a punishment from God. If this is the Good News, we want no part of it. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Christ asked His Father to remove the Cup of Suffering — the mental and emotional suffering, as well as the physical. Just because Jesus was God did not negate His very real human suffering. Most of us would prefer to have the Father remove the pain and suffering from our lives. Yet, Jesus voluntarily accepted the Cross out of loving obedience, because He wanted to do the will of His Father: In His great anguish, He said, “Not my will, however, but your will be done.” (Luke 22:42).

When we suffer, or see others who are suffering from illness, pain, hunger, loss, poverty, homelessness, war, natural disasters, we question, “Where is God in all of this?” “Why is there so much human misery?” We can allow ourselves to feel helpless and lose hope. Or, we can preserve hope and be helpful in the midst of suffering.

To this, St. Paul of the Cross would say to us, as he wrote to Canon Paul Sardi (January 9, 1761, Vol. III, p. 95), “Now is the time to pray much, to suffer, to work and wait in silence and in hope.”

For Paul, accepting suffering in love led to union with God. “He saw that whatever was happening to him was a share in what the Father asked of Jesus. In some mysterious way, it was all love and led to love, even though the particular why of it was and will always remain a mystery.” (Spiritual Direction according to St. Paul of the Cross, Bennet Kelley, CP, p. 16).

This paradox of the Cross may seem like utter foolishness to those who have not surrendered completely to a loving God, whose “I believe” is merely an intellectual assent. But for those who enjoy a personal relationship with Jesus and are guided by the Holy Spirit, they know in their hearts that God indeed loves them, individually. Sometimes, this journey from the head to the heart is the longest and most important … journey that we can make. This kind of faith is not based on feelings, but is an act of the will.

Christ suffered for us. No one has suffered like Jesus Christ, who, in His humanity, truly felt the pain and agony of His Passion, crucifixion and death on the Cross. The wisdom of the Cross reminds us that we can learn to accept suffering as triumph. Jesus’ love was tested in suffering. Jesus’ trust in and loving obedience to His Father ultimately led to His glorious resurrection.

We can allow life’s pain and suffering to grind us down and diminish us, or we can refuse to let it crush our spirit. When we, like St. Paul of the Cross, learn to accept and unite our suffering with Christ on the Cross, our suffering can take on a new purpose and a new meaning. Suffering can even be a blessing or a valuable learning experience for us, when we look for the “yes” contained in the “no.” Suffering even can be redemptive when we accept and unite our pain to the Passion of Jesus.

When we accept our suffering, we do not waste our pain. In our suffering, we can discover God and look toward Heaven and Eternal Life with God. We know through faith that the cross is always given in love.

Any suffering, physical, mental, emotional or spiritual, is painful. Pain is pain and pain hurts. St. Paul of the Cross never denied that. He also believed in relieving suffering, whenever possible, for the individual and for others. Yet, because he was able to suffer with Jesus, Who suffered for him, his very real pain was not wasted. His impassioned preaching on the Passion gained many souls for Christ. Paul accepted in love whatever suffering the Lord permitted as coming from His loving hand.

And that made all the difference.



Jeanette Martino Land is the author of The Way of Love: Christ’s Life-Giving Passion (Liguori). She and her husband have served in ministry with Passionist Father Rick Frechette in Haiti.

Illustrations: Robert McKenna, C.P.

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