I heard this powerful statement from a speaker during an online conference I recently attended. I am still struck by her choice of words. Blessed with cancer? It seems almost like an oxymoron.
Yet, during this season of Lent, I feel particularly close to Christ’s cross. Our nine-year-old son has been sick for six weeks. As any mother knows, it’s so painful to watch your child suffer. But how can I suffer well? How can I help my children to suffer well?
Meaning in Suffering
This time has challenged me to embrace, not run, from suffering. What if I can find peace, joy, contentment, and meaning—not only on days that go well, plans fulfilled, restful nights, and relaxation—but also on days where all my plans unravel, nights repeatedly interrupted by a sick child, new and unexpected responsibilities, and no free time?
I remember a story someone once shared with me. Christ appeared before a man and offered him a cross. The man looked at it and said, “Oh no! I could never carry that! It’s much too heavy for me. Send me another cross.” So Christ brought the man into a large room, filled with other crosses, all of which were much larger and heavier. “What cross would you like now?” Christ asked. The man glanced back at the original cross … suddenly it seemed so much lighter.
Christ will never give me a cross that I cannot carry. I looked at my son, coughing for probably the millionth time, and reassured him, “Christ will never give you a cross that you cannot carry.” His slender shoulders can bear the weight of this illness. Who am I to say this cross is too heavy for us?
The pathway of pain, properly tread, offers us so much. It is not a punishment from God, but an invitation to unite our suffering with the suffering of Christ on the cross. Christ calls us to pick up our cross every day. A day without the cross is a day without Christ. I explained to my son that we can take this suffering and transform it into something beautiful. We can accept that this is what God wants of us right now and, if it’s God’s Will, it’s what is best for us.
Simon of Cyrene can inspire us. Perhaps, as the Roman soldiers summoned him forward, Simon thought: Why me? Maybe Simon wanted to run from the cross too. There were so many people lining the street watching Jesus carry His cross. Yet Simon was the one chosen for the job. Maybe that’s how Simon viewed the task at first: a job, an unpleasant suffering. Yet as he carried that cross alongside Jesus, how must have Simon been transformed? He must have walked away a different man, forever changed by that shared suffering. It wasn’t a punishment; it was a gift.
We hear stories of the saints who bear the wounds of Christ: the stigmata. On first impression, it seems like such a magnificent miracle! And it is. But sometimes, in the remarkableness of it, it’s easy to overlook that it’s a miracle of suffering: physical pain. Jesus blesses those He loves with the cross.
During Lent, our family has a sacrifice jar on our dining room table. Whenever someone has to do something unpleasant or difficult, he or she puts a dry bean into the jar and offers it up as a sacrifice, turning that cross into a prayer. I watched my sick son come downstairs in the morning. I hear the clink of the dry beans as he puts his sacrifices in—sacrifices for coughing throughout the night, for feeling exhausted, for not being able to go into school … He says nothing, but he offers them to God.
Suffering, well borne, becomes a training ground for the soul.
Suffering Reveals Who We Are
The cross also reveals. It strips us open and makes us see ourselves better. What kind of wife, mother, and disciple am I when it gets really hard? Am I just a fair-weather friend to our Lord or am I willing to trust in Him even when things become painful? This cross has humbled me in helping me see the virtues that I lack.
As I prayed during this time, I pictured Christ crucified. I embraced Jesus, clinging to His shoulders and wrapping my legs around his waist, like how a young girl would hug her father. I imagined the sticky sweat on His body, the caked and fresh blood, His gasps for air, the pounding of His heart beneath my ear as I rested my head on His crucified body. I was with Him there on the cross.
But I also felt the soaring energy and power of God Himself emanating from that throne of glory.
On a recent Sunday I parked the van in our parish church’s parking lot. My son and I planned to pray from our vehicle, watching the liturgy live streamed from my cell phone, his cough still too bad to have him sit with the rest of the family in the pew. I saw other families entering the church, mothers with their sons, laughing and running up the steps of church. I saw my son next to me, circles under his eyes, coughing harshly.
This is hard and difficult to bear. I felt tempted to complain. Yet, I sensed Christ telling me: you are so blessed. We have a gift. Jesus loves this son of mine even more than I do and He is inviting us to share in His suffering. Christ is so close to us in the cross. He makes our burden light.