Part II

Aspects of Suffering

Suffering is experienced by the whole person, both body and soul -- the two essential dimensions of the human person.

In his book John Paul II and the Meaning of Suffering: Lessons From a Spiritual Master, author Robert Schroeder states:

Suffering is “experienced evil” that deprives us of the good we were meant to have as human persons. And this experience is one of the whole person, composed of both a body and a soul -- the two essential dimensions of our being. According to John Paul, we suffer both bodily and spiritually in accord with who we are as persons; suffering results when we lack the good we were meant to have in one of these two aspects of our selfhood.7

When one thinks of suffering, one thinks primarily of bodily suffering, which is the subject of medical science. John Paul II speaks of suffering from a broader, wider, multi-dimensional perspective.

Man suffers in different ways, ways not always considered by medicine, not even in its most advanced specializations. Suffering is something which is still wider than sickness, more complex and at the same time still more deeply rooted in humanity itself.  A certain idea of this problem comes to us from the distinction between physical suffering and moral suffering. This distinction is based upon the double dimension of the human being and indicates the bodily and spiritual element as the immediate or direct subject of suffering. Insofar as the words “suffering” and “pain” can, up to a certain degree, be used as synonyms, physical suffering is present when “the body is hurting” in some way, whereas moral suffering is “pain of the soul.”8

John Paul II goes on to explain that in various ways moral pain permeates all suffering, because when a person suffers, he or she suffers as a “whole” person, physically and spiritually. However, he also notes that the vastness and the many forms of spiritual suffering are certainly no less in number than the forms of physical suffering, yet spiritual suffering seems less identified and less reachable by therapy.

Bodily suffering often seeps into the soul, not content to be contained in flesh and blood alone. Thus, interior and unwelcome fears and psychological uncertainties are spawned and this leads to spiritual unrest. The suffering person often struggles to find inner peace. Likewise, sadness, disappointment, discouragement, and despair can have debilitating effects on one’s bodily health and are often reflected in the state of the entire organism.

Fr. Jim Willig was a young priest who died from renal cell cancer. In the years prior to his death, he struggled through the painful and often tormenting ups and downs of his treatment. His journey is chronicled in his book Lessons From the School of Suffering. Fr. Jim was a deeply spiritual man. By his own admission, he had always had an awareness of God, even in childhood. Suffering impacted him dramatically, and he learned through his own devastating experience that when the body suffers, so does the soul, and visa versa. Fr. Jim found that caring for the spiritual dimension as well as the physical dimension is essential for the sufferer. He relates:

Prayer in the school of suffering is not only allowed, it is absolutely required. Without a doubt, prayer has been my greatest source of strength in times of my greatest weakness. It has been my foremost source of consolation in times of desolation. It has given me more relief than most medicines I have taken.9

Yet, Fr. Jim found that he needed something more than prayer alone. He became convinced that all sufferers need more. They need the greatest prayer of all: The Eucharist.

Very early in my cancer treatment, the Lord taught me that the greatest prayer is the Eucharist. The Lord made me understand that my mind, my body, and my spirit need constant, daily nourishment. It was here, at the table of the Lord, that he also taught me the finest food for my soul and the strongest medicine for my spirit is the Eucharist. It is in the gift of Communion that Christ, himself, comes to us.10

Fr. Jim also learned that in his suffering he needed to approach God as a child and that tears were sometimes the most appropriate and effective type of prayer.

Like Jesus in the garden, sometimes my deepest prayers express themselves in tears. These tears have expressed far more than mere words could ever communicate. They express my fears, my hurts, and my longings from a place deep within me I had rarely entered before. It is there I learned that I am like a two-year-old child who doesn’t have any idea of what truly is best. I simply know I need help. I need to be loved. I need to be saved. The depths of these feelings were never previously given a voice in my more “adult” prayers.11

Suffering has both a personal and social dimension.

In Salvifici Doloris John Paul II states:

In itself human suffering constitutes as it were a specific “world” which exists together with man, which appears in him and passes, and sometimes does not pass, but which consolidates itself and becomes deeply rooted in him.12

Each suffering person is an individual member of this “world” of suffering about which John Paul II speaks. At the same time, suffering individuals comprise a social world of suffering that blankets the planet. Despite various cultures and traditions, suffering is something people have in common world-wide. At particular periods of time and in some eras of human existence, suffering is more concentrated. “This happens, for example, in cases of natural disasters, epidemics, catastrophes, upheavals, and various social scourges: one thinks, for example, of a bad harvest and connected with it -- or with various other causes -- the scourge of famine.”13 War is one of the most intense scourges and brings with it “a much greater harvest of death and a much heavier burden of human sufferings.”14

The Second Vatican Council document Gaudium et Spes, (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World) notes that human life, in itself the basis of all human good, is attacked or demeaned in many ways. Named in the document are: “murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia and willful self-destruction; whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children, as well as degrading working conditions where men are treated as mere tools for profit rather than free and responsible persons” (27).

Other dehumanizing situations include the devaluing of human life reflected in policies favoring capital punishment and the misuse of modern technologies that attack life or treat human beings as mere objects. These latter include nuclear or biological warfare, genetic experimentation, and certain reproductive technologies which force the generation of human life to be separated from its proper context: between a husband and wife in a loving, intimate marital embrace.

John Paul II speaks of the social aspect of suffering as being “collective” in nature. He views the entire body of sufferers throughout the world as part of this “collective” world of suffering. Such “collective” suffering is often rooted in huge blind structures, for example, political policies, cultural biases, economic practices, and social attitudes in which we all, sometimes unknowingly or indirectly, participate. These “structures” perpetrate and sustain human suffering in far reaching ways.

John Paul II speaks of our own time in human history as a particularly intense period of suffering which has increased “in proportion to the mistakes and transgressions of our contemporary civilization.”15 More than at any other period in history, the world has been transformed by progress through human effort and ingenuity, but is, at the same time, in grave danger because of human mistakes and offenses.

Robert Schroeder sums up this reality when he states:

Perhaps such heartbreaking truths in our story reaffirm that the presence of evil in our midst is undeniable. Even our happiest moments and most brilliant successes are often stained by sin, ignorance, and pain. In those spaces where humanity is not the cause of its own anguish, suffering still seems to find a way in.16


Asking “Why?” is a normal response to suffering, because human persons are rational beings.

According to Christian Psychologist Conrad W. Baars, author of Feeling and Healing Your Emotions, man derives his knowledge of the world first from his senses. This is also true for animals. However, while animals are sentient creatures, able to feel, see, hear, smell, and taste, human beings are a unity of body and soul. “The distinguishing feature of the human soul is that it is rational and intellective.”17 Reason provides human persons with a source of higher knowledge. It is a person’s reason that enables him or her to think, form ideas, compare, synthesize, judge, and solve problems.

Animals feel pain but, lacking reason and intellect, are not able to analyze why they are feeling pain or why they are suffering. When a human being feels pain or is suffering, either bodily or spiritually, it is natural for him or her to reflect intellectually upon this experience, to seek a reason for it, and to wonder if there is meaning in it. In other words, as intelligent, rational beings, human persons will naturally seek answers. It is natural for them to ask “Why?”

In Salvifici Doloris, John Paul II states:

Man can put this question to God with all the emotion of his heart and with his mind full of dismay and anxiety; and God expects the question and listens to it.18

However, as Fr. Jim Willig learned through his experience with renal cell cancer, it is natural to ask for understanding, but there are no easy answers.

One day as I meditated before the cross of Christ, I began questioning the Lord: “Why is it that I have cancer? And why did it have to be renal cell cancer that offers such little hope of any cure? Why do I have to suffer so much? Why? Why? Why?”

In the silence of the church, I could hear clearly in my mind the words that the Gospel of Matthew had reported Jesus saying to his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24-25). I let those challenging words sink in a bit and then I responded honestly to the Lord, “Instead of being your follower, how about we go back to being just good friends?” There is something in each of us that naturally resists the cross and the sacrifice that life sometimes asks of us. It was then that I realized Jesus has many good friends, a church full of them. But I wonder, “How many followers does Jesus have?”

To follow Jesus means to deny your very self and sacrifice your life. This teaching goes against our human tendency and the way society always urges us to look out for number one. Jesus tells us we must let go of number one. Or better yet, we must rethink who number one really is.

And so I pray about this and try little by little, day by day, to consciously unite myself with Jesus on the cross. As a Catholic, making the Sign of the Cross often became a rote way to begin and end a prayer. My hands were moved, but my heart was not. Now the Sign of the Cross has become a heartfelt reminder that I am “signing my life” over to the Lord.19

There are, of course, situations in which a suffering person can question the “why” of his or her condition and gain insights. Lifestyle choices can affect one’s health and well-being for good or woe. When lifestyle is examined and found wanting, adjustments can be made. Those struggling emotionally can seek treatment, learn to understand themselves better, and make beneficial changes. Medical science has advanced tremendously and offers remedies for a wide variety of health conditions. The explosion of information available to modern society makes it possible for many to research and find answers for themselves. However, as Robert Schroeder observes:

Often the line between the suffering we have a hand in versus the suffering that “just happens to us” looks blurry. We can’t always be sure what or who brings suffering into our lives. Sometimes, all we can know for sure is that we hurt. Nevertheless, suffering teaches us the unsettling truth that we don’t have total control over things. We don’t want to suffer, but we do anyway -- a reality which confirms that as being by nature “created,” we don’t get to choose the essential conditions of the world into which we’re born. If it were up to us, suffering would cease to exist. And yet suffering continues, because it is the human condition. So the challenge of coping with the many limitations suffering imposes on us become ours by virtue of our existence.20

Therefore, it is okay to ask “Why?” In so doing one makes use of the human faculties of reason and intellect. Both are endowments the Creator expects and desires his human children to use. As intelligent beings, human persons want to believe that life -- and thus suffering -- is not senseless, that it has some ultimate meaning, some purpose. Seeking answers should not be confused with calling into question the Will of God. Likewise, in asking for answers one should not expect to understand God’s infinite wisdom or grasp fully the great mystery that suffering is.

Suffering is not necessarily the consequence of a fault or a punishment for personal sin. Innocent people also suffer.

It is not an uncommon human response to react to suffering as coming from the hand of God as a punishment. Indeed, many very good and noble people scour their consciences, looking for any reason God may have for sending them a particular cross, or they use the microscope of moral examination to determine whether or not guilt justifies their pain. Yet, as Robert Schroeder tells us:

But what a challenge it is to really know for sure. How thoroughly must we analyze our moral history during the evaluation process? Should we interpret our current suffering as punishment for a sin we committed years ago, or just yesterday? Are we being disciplined now for all our sins, a select group of sins, or just one particular sin? 21

The honest assessment is that it’s hard to know if suffering is directly related to personal sin. What makes this inquiry even harder is that throughout time there has been a vast amount of innocent suffering. Children are a good example. Before the age of reason they are not capable of making moral decisions for which they are responsible before God. And although they have inherited the guilt of original sin, they are not guilty of personal sin. If personal sin is always at the root of suffering, one could conclude that innocent children should not experience suffering, since such punishment would not be deserved. Yet, even very young children suffer.

And what about those of us who are responsible before God for personal sin? How do we know if the suffering we endure is a result of this? Can we ever know with certainty? Again, the honest assessment is: No.

In Part I, we recalled the creation story in the Book of Genesis, establishing that God created a good world intended for human flourishing. Evil entered human existence through a free act of disobedience. The world and all who inhabit it became subject to suffering and death. From the standpoint of the guilt of original sin, we have all inherited the consequences of that sin. We are all subject to the fallen condition into which we are born, and suffering is part of it.

In Part II, we established that suffering has a social dimension, and this type of suffering is often perpetrated and supported by human beings themselves. On that basis, “it is equally true that one cannot reject the criterion that, at the basis of human suffering, there is a complex involvement with sin.”22 But knowing to what extent we are each morally responsible for the suffering we endure in this life remains unclear.

It is, however, always a good and beneficial practice to examine one’s life from the standpoint of right and wrong actions. This practice, in fact, is required of all Christians, in good times and in bad.

The examination of conscience has been a part of the Christian life since the earliest times and should always have a preeminent place in every Catholic’s interior life. In the New Testament, St. Paul urged that there be an examination of conscience before receiving the Eucharist (1 Cor 11:28). So important was the examination of conscience to St. Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556), the founder of the Society of Jesus, that he made it a key element in his Spiritual Exercises.23

According to John Paul II, the Book of Job in the Old Testament challenges the truth of the principle that identifies suffering with punishment for sin.

[Job’s] suffering is the suffering of someone who is innocent; it must be accepted as a mystery, which the individual is unable to penetrate completely by his own intelligence. ... At the same time, however, this book shows with all firmness that the principles of this order cannot be applied in an exclusive and superficial way. While it is true that suffering has a meaning as punishment when it is connected with a fault, it is not true that all suffering is a consequence of a fault and has the nature of a punishment.24

For those who suffer, John Paul II’s assurance that not all suffering is a consequence of a fault and has the nature of a punishment is a most welcome insight. Although the sufferer still finds himself or herself inside the mystery of suffering, this knowledge can bring great relief and remove an unnecessary and less-than-helpful burden.

Along with all Christians, the sufferer should examine his or her actions, attitudes, thoughts, and words for the purpose of distinguishing good from evil and right from wrong. In a spirit of correct discernment, sound judgment, honesty, integrity, and veracity this should be undertaken, not as a way of assessing if one’s sins can be reconciled with one’s degree of suffering, but because this is required of all faithful Christians.

One of the greatest challenges sufferers face is the uncertainty of recovery, of restoration.

The ways in which people suffer are so varied, it is difficult to grasp the full range of human suffering. One aspect of suffering that is common to afflictions of all kinds, however, is the uncertainty and powerlessness that so often accompanies them. As John Paul II points out, “we have the innate capacity and motivation to put our pain into context through interpretation. But when our afflictions don’t make sense, we experience confusion and anxiety, which add a new psychological dimension to the suffering we already feel.”25

For many, suffering is a long road marred by ups and downs, twists and turns, highs and lows. At times hope is inflated, but later this hope can be lost after only a short distance down the road to recovery. There are times when answers seem forthcoming, leading the sufferer to place confidence in those who appear to hold the clues to his or her affliction. At other times, one is left speechless and bewildered.

Pinpointing the reason for one’s suffering and applying an effective remedy to restore normalcy is a hoped for outcome. Even when the recovery is not complete, and suffering must be endured over time, at least knowing the root cause and how to manage it gives some peace and restores some semblance of control over one’s life. Unfortunately for many who suffer there is no rational explanation, and suffering denies them even a basic level of understanding about why they have been afflicted so dramatically.

For a long time Fr. Jim Willig did not know if hope of recovery was something to which he should cling, since his prognosis was not good. The uncertainty, the worry, and anxiety, along with the strength and ferocity of his emotions, was sometimes overwhelming. During certain periods of his illness, he struggled to find the calmness and certainty of faith he had possessed before his illness. One day he picked up his Bible and opened to the Gospel of Matthew and to the story about Peter walking on the water (Matthew 14:22-23). This is how Fr. Jim relates it:

For one brief and beautiful moment of complete faith, when Peter was only looking at Jesus, trusting in him, he was able to step out in faith and walk on water. Peter was able to rise above the elements of nature. The wind, waves, and water could not bring him down. But then, Peter naturally looked down at the frightful elements that surrounded him. As soon as he looked down, he started sinking. When he took his focus off the Lord, he was overcome. So, Jesus reached out his hand to Peter and brought him back to his boat. ... I came to realize that if I could keep my eyes -- my sole focus -- on Jesus, only then would I be able to overcome the natural tendency to be overcome by outside elements and fears -- the winds and waves of worry.26

Suffering has a way of entering one’s life and turning everything upside down. Fear, anxiety, and worry are natural reactions to the upheaval and powerlessness that suffering brings. There is no shame in this. And yet, the words of St. Paul to the Corinthians can be a powerful reminder that while suffering remains a mystery, it is not a mystery without meaning.“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies“ (2 Corinthians 4: 8-10).

As we will see in the next section, through our own earthly suffering, we are united with Jesus in his suffering and thus, we share in his work of Redemption. But this “salvific” sharing is not only one of suffering. We also have a share in Jesus’ life! Fr. Jim relates that when he read the above passage from 2 Corinthians, he felt that the Lord was explaining everything he was feeling. “What is more,” he states, “it also explained the highest purpose for which I was suffering. It was something no counselor but the all-wise Counselor could tell me. It was precisely what I needed to hear.”27

Go directly to Part III


Understanding and Accepting The "Redemptive" Value of Suffering

Based on John Paul II's Salvifici Doloris

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