A few years ago I was listening to a podcast by Fr. Thomas Hopko in which he talked about St. Paul’s words in his letter to the Colossians: “I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His body, which is the church” (1 Col 24). Fr. Thomas, perhaps like many of us, could not help wondering what St. Paul meant by that, so he went to ask one of his professors what exactly was lacking in the suffering of Christ. The answer he received was that what was lacking was his (Fr. Thomas’s) participation in it. It was a reminder to him (and, through him, to us) that what we are called to as Christians may be different from what we expect.
Part of the problem with our expectation is where these expectations come from. It seems to be a rather popular message that all suffering and even all discomfort is something to be done away with. It is worth examining whether that message is reasonable or good.
I think an honest examination of our souls and attentiveness to our lives would lead us to accept that, as human beings, we are prone to temptation and sin. Some would argue that ceasing to struggle against sin would be to do away with suffering. It is a tempting argument, but ultimately not a convincing one. Lives ruined by anger or envy, the pain of mothers who underwent abortions, and the health problems associated with over-eating are just some indications that not struggling against sin does not remove suffering. However, the struggle against sin also involves suffering – at the very least a suffering of self-denial. So it would seem that the expectation to remove all suffering is not reasonable.
Which leads me to the second part of the examination: would it be good to remove all suffering? In the baptismal service, the priest repeats the words of Christ: “Whosoever wishes to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his Cross and follow me.” This self denial, the struggle to choose the will of God over our own will is something that does not happen without suffering. It is a suffering tinged with the sweetness of drawing nearer to Him who is the purpose of our life, but it is suffering, nonetheless. None of this means that all suffering is good or that we should not try to alleviate suffering. After all, we pray for those who repose that they be granted rest in a placee with no pain, sorrow, or suffering. However, the elimination of suffering separated from healing from sin is neither possible nor good.
I bring this up at the threshold of Great Lent, because there are a couple of aspects of Lent which can bring discomfort into our lives and, for that reason, it is tempting to ignore or avoid them.
The first is the one which most people associate with Lent: fasting. It is true that fasting is not an end in itself. It is also true that that there is not a standard fasting practice that fits everyone. The truth of these statements does not negate the importance of fasting as a tool in spiritual warfare. It is a teacher of self-denial in day to day life. It is also an exercise in humility, as we submit either to the fasting rule of the church or to one worked out with our spiritual father.
The second is the sacrament of confession. There are several potential reasons for discomfort when thinking about confession. One such potential reason is owning up to our imperfections. It is one thing to say that “there is no one who lives and does not sin” and another to acknowledge the presence of specific sins in our lives. A related reason is the repetitious character of confession, the sense that we are not making progress. However, by God’s grace, our progress is often hidden from our eyes. It is also the case that the struggle against sin can be difficult and long. St. Mary of Egypt confessed to St. Zosimas that it took fourteen years in the desert before she was no longer tormented by the memories and temptations of past sins. That was in the desert, away from the concrete circumstances in which she sinned. If we, for one reason or another, cannot cut off temptation, we can expect our struggle to last even longer.
The last potential reason for discomfort that I will discuss here is the fear of being known. In the age of Instagram and social media, it is easy to create a facade that we present to the world. Allowing someone else to see behind the image can be uncomfortable. The alternative – remaining hidden – does not allow us to become truly Christian. An illusion cannot come into communion with a human being, nor with Christ.
This Lent, may God grant us the strength to face our discomforts and endure that suffering which is for our salvation.
With love in Christ,