Since a backpack incident around Thanksgiving, I have been challenged by fairly constant (and fairly severe) back pain. That's going on six months, so I guess it counts as chronic, even though I keep working to "fix" anything that might be contributing to it. I am starting to wonder if I need to learn to live with it (without giving up hope that it will eventually go away somehow). Meanwhile, good Catholic that I am, I am trying to "offer it up" in reparation for sins against life, especially embryonic human life. Which may be why the pain is not going away. But that is another question.
Today I was reflecting on this concept of "offering up" pain, discomfort, disappointments, that sort of thing. Catholic spirituality has come under some heavy criticism as being somehow masochistic. Those who speak or write in this way usually present the Catholic tradition as saying that pain and suffering are good. That's not what the tradition actually says, but there are enough mixed signals to confuse people looking in from the outside. We have saints who went overboard in the sacrifice department; we have such things in our history as "taking the discipline"; there is talk of "victim souls" and we tell each other to "offer it up." There very well could be some unhealthy psychological stuff mixed into some people's practice when it comes to sacrifice, but that shouldn't define it universally. It seems to me that our spiritual tradition takes healthy account of the reality of suffering in life, whereas our culture obsesses over every boo-boo (except in the sports world, where really big boo-boos are dismissed casually). In fact, it is only in our culture with its high standard of living that we presume life can be lived without pain. I don't know what I'd have done all this time without Tylenol--but there are millions of people in the world who do not have access to any pain relievers at all. The pain I can't avoid, the pain that slips through the cracks the Tylenol leaves, is only a tiny bit of solidarity with those others who are coping with chronic pain and have no relief, not even momentary.
So the Catholic tradition is realistic. People suffer. There is pain in this life. That's real. And our spirituality tells us that we can find a spiritual benefit to this unavoidable aspect of real life. It is giving a positive spin on something that nobody in their right mind desires for its own sake. If some of the saints seemed to have an excessive familiarity with self-inflicted suffering, I suspect that for most of them, the love of Jesus Crucified was so overwhelming that it was solidarity with him that they sought, more than anything else. This isn't as weird as it sounds. I remember when I was getting ready for Kindergarten and got a battery of vaccines, the measures taken to protect my health caused a rapid and drastic reaction. I was put to rest on the bed in the back room of my grandmother's house, and my dear godmother came in. "I don't know what you have," she said, "but whatever it is, I want it." In the lives of the missionary saints, their sufferings were a direct result of their love for God and for the people they evangelized, and like Paul, they seemed to rejoice in the sufferings they bore on their behalf. Suffering is not seen as a good in itself; it is a sign of love.
So I think we are onto something very important here. I think it is a message for all the suffering people in the world. It is good news, even if it is not the news we were looking for.