By Corrine Winter
I have recently been in touch with three nieces of mine who are working hard on fundraising in connection with a Minnesota walk to defeat ALS. They are the daughter, the step-daughter and the niece of my brother Joe who died of ALS in 2010. I am inspired by these young women because they have taken a personal loss and turned the energy of grief into dedication to a cause. Thinking further on that, I recall a number of other stories that are similarly moving. A mother whose son committed suicide addresses groups of young people and parents on seeing signs of depression and reaching out. Parents in Geneseo, Ill., respond to the loss of a young son by working to set up an art center to benefit other children. Other families and groups of friends have established footraces, walks, banquets or social media pages in efforts to help others who may be suffering losses similar to theirs. These generous responses seem to me to be very much in line with the call of Christ as we hear it during this Lenten season.
During his public ministry, Jesus heals many who come to him, restoring sight, hearing, the ability to walk, the capacity to participate fully in the life of the community. At the same time, he does not avoid discomfort, grief, conflicts or the threat and final reality of his own death. Further, he challenges his disciples to walk the same path, to take up the cross, to drink the cup of suffering. Indeed, at times, we may be tempted to think that by his work, Christ glorifies suffering itself. But that is not his message.
Our faith tells us that Jesus suffered and died for our sins. He accepted suffering for a purpose worthy of his sacrifice and in doing so transformed suffering. Likewise, we are called not to seek suffering, but at times to bear it, to integrate it into our lives when it comes to us either in a seemingly arbitrary way through disease, natural disaster or as an aspect of our work for worthy goals.
It is natural to ask why we and others suffer. And when suffering is caused by sin, either individual sin or sin that has infused the structures of society, the question may lead us to justified anger and to fruitful action to change what needs to be changed. But then there is suffering that almost seems to be sent by God. Here too, we naturally wonder why. Even some psalms and other biblical prayers ask God why and how long and how God can abandon people. We can pray those prayers. But we must know that we will not find a fully satisfactory answer. People who become obsessed with finding one often seem to end up either accepting something over-simplified or assuming that the lack of an answer justifies the rejection of faith.
What I admire in my nieces and in others to whom I referred above is their focus not on explaining suffering, but on asking what they can and should do, in light of their pain, to ease the pain of others. Their focus does not take away the pain or the tears. It is not a new form of simple answer. If we listen to those who take up various crusades in memory of loved ones, we often hear the strain in their voices as the memories return. But the work they do does bind them to one another and to others. It transforms their suffering at least to some extent into labor that makes a difference. And at times it provides a sense of accomplishment to accompany the sorrow.
Not all who find a way to turn their suffering toward doing good speak of God as their reason for doing so. But those of us who are Christian, who hear the accounts of the redemptive suffering of Christ should find in him a deep motivation to follow his example of taking up the cross as an act of love.
(Corinne Winter is a professor-emeritus of St. Ambrose University, Davenport.)