Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Suffering and the Grace of Community

Sometimes God has to take you by surprise.

At Mass this morning, he had to use some heavy ammo to get me out of a vortex of negative thinking about a situation I have to navigate. There I was at the "Lamb of God," analyzing the possible reactions of a difficult person--an exercise in futility if there ever was one--when I glimpsed a huge, feathery centipede right in front of me on the pew one row up. Jolted out of my negative reverie, I looked around for a weapon and SLAM! smashed the ugly creature with a hymnal before it could reach Sister Mary Martha. It was a double rescue: Sister Martha from the centipede and me from overthinking something that is better entrusted to Our Lady, Undoer of Knots.

Why was I so fixated on the problem? Because it causes me suffering, and promises to cause even more. Surely if I can land on the right strategy, I can avoid all that.

Silly me.

I've been thinking a lot about suffering lately. Not so much my suffering (I've got it pretty good right now, humanly speaking, except for that ugly matter that had so captivated me at Mass), but I have been witnessing a variety of sufferings--and there's no avoiding the pain of those who have been suffering atrocities in zones of conflict or sporadic terrorist activity. In community last week, three sisters were patients in medical facilities. (Thankfully, one is back home now.) We also have several sisters in our infirmary wing who need fairly constant assistance. In my family, we have been accompanying my dear godmother, who broke her hip just under two months ago. Sharp minded and fiercely independent (at 95!), she is enduring a loss of autonomy she was simply not prepared for. Her own home is not really "hers" anymore, with the succession of caring nieces, nephews and sitters who come and go throughout the day. Facebook, too, offers plenty of opportunities to accompany people in a time of suffering.

So during this Advent season I've been thinking about and praying over suffering. It is helping me, actually, to better appreciate community life. (There is no avoiding suffering when you live in community!) Yes, being in a community can be a consolation in suffering: you can be confident of
being thought of, looked after, prayed for. You can even count on being remembered after your death. (Each evening after prayers, we read the names of the departed whose anniversary is the next day, and we pray an Eternal Rest for them.)

But sometimes living in community makes you suffer. St John Berchmans, a young Jesuit scholastic who died at 22, rather famously remarked that community life was his biggest penance. As a novice, I thought that was a rather glum assessment, but forty years later I am more appreciative of what Berchmans meant. Appreciative not only in the sense of recognizing how right he was, but also in the sense of being gratefully aware of what a grace this trial-dimension of community life is. Suffering in community equips us for bearing unexpected burdens. Adapting to the preferences or habits or characters of sisters from very different backgrounds is a doctoral-level school of flexibility and of the capacity to deal with situations that do not go as hoped for. Witnessing the sufferings of our sisters (on so many levels, not the least psychological) encourages me to learn (or at least to will) to "offer it up" when my turn comes to bear with something painful or burdensome or just plain annoying.

It's not the lesson I expected Advent to bring, but it surely is consistent with the story that is now unfolding in the readings at Mass: the Child will know the insecurity of poverty and of danger; as a man, he will have "no place to lay his head";  "despised and rejected," he will beg the Father, "take this cup from me." He, of all who ever walked the earth, could have avoided suffering. He didn't. He made our suffering, all of it, a place of communion with himself.

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