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Remain at the Cross

How to find victory in pain and suffering

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Deacon Joseph Michalak“Ever since the bloody and fruitful nuptials of Calvary, one who seeks love must be nailed upon the cross” (Archbishop Luis María Martínez, d. 1956).

The older I get, the less romantic the cross appears; I do not like the cross. And yet, more and more, he draws me to himself through the cross. I do not like the cross, but I want to be with him. Jesus’ exhortation to remain, to stay, to abide with him (cf. Jn 15) is an invitation to die with him that I might be — simply — with him. Abiding means dying. Suffering with becomes love.

“There is no love without suffering,” declared Benedict XVI, echoing countless saints. Any spouse, parent or friend knows this reality. Anyone who comes forward to serve knows this reality. We need not look for suffering; it finds us. How many of us can speak to the sufferings of a difficult marriage, of estranged children or once dear friends, of the soul-searing pain of loved ones who no longer walk in the fullness of Christ or his Church, the dark burden of mental illness, the all-consuming weariness of caring for the severely ill or of bearing with crushing work circumstances — not to mention so many brothers and sisters in Christ who suffer exile, loss of home and homeland, the victimization of war, terror or oppression because of their fidelity to Our Lord. And then there is the pain of our beloved Church rocked by division and the loss of vision and love. The cross is as varied as human life.

But at some point in the spiritual life comes the grace to realize I am my own biggest cross. My wife, Anne, and I know the death of our firstborn, miscarriages, years of her cancer and a fabric of attending diseases. In each case, we received these as gifts, as opportunities to care for others and to intercede for others, and as an invitation to intimacy with Jesus. These big crosses are, for me, relatively readily embraced. Yet, I still love me, myself and I — the unblessed trinity.

I prefer myself in countless guises, in ways I simply was unaware of before — impatience in little matters, interior complaining or self-pity in my work, frustration at my same-old sin (again). These are all classic signs of prideful self-reliance and self-love. And so, “Take up your cross, and follow me” (cf. Mt 16:24) has come to mean, simply, “Stay with me.” Suffer my own conversion. When those unloving signs inevitably show me for who I truly am, simply remain at the cross.

The wise physician-lover, Jesus, then gives tailor-made trials to school me in staying with him. I do not choose my cross; I only can choose to accept the cross he offers me as it comes. One of his most effective medicines is to remove interior consolation or clear sight of why he is doing what he is doing, simply that I might choose, in love, to stay with him. So long as I know this is where he desires me — with him, at the cross — I need nothing more. This is not romantic. This is hard. And sweet.

And then: Not only can I be together with him, but mysteriously I can be together with him for others. The good of his love is diffusive of itself. Love moves outward. I find that even suffering my own conversion can become a participation in his suffering for others’ sake.

Eucharist — grateful self-gift — comes to fruition: “One who seeks love must be nailed upon the cross.”

DEACON JOSEPH MICHALAK is the director of the Office for Synod Evangelization in the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis.

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