Our Catholic faith is an absolute treasure trove of wisdom that I truly believe is deeper and greater than any human suffering, no matter how intense and unbearable. So if nothing you’re about to read appeals to you – keep digging through the treasure, my friend, until you find something that does. And then, perhaps you’ll be inspired to share those secrets as well. Here are four ways that I find joy when life is difficult.
Simple, Down-to-earth Dialogue With God
Often, suffering makes us turn inward. Think of the last time you were suffering physical pain or illness — all you want to pay attention to is yourself and the pain, and anything outside of that feels really challenging. We can zoom in on emotional or spiritual suffering in the same way, spinning around inside the pain and focusing on it, without ever “looking up”. Have you ever noticed, after you’ve been “praying” for a while, that you’ve actually just been circling around in your own head, and not talking TO God at all? This is the fundamental reorientation. Start talking TO God directly. That means you as a person relating to the Divine You, as simply as if He was sitting right in front of you (because He’s closer than that, actually).
Fr. Joseph Kentenich gives a clear image of what this looks like: when a child gets hurt, they immediately run to their parent and tells them about it. Total transparency! No defenses or hiding — just open, sincere, unaffected dialogue. What if we could learn to pray that way? After all, it’s the way that Jesus talked to His Father. Here’s a little more on that from his book Childlikeness Before God:
“During suffering we have the right, just as Christ did, to cry out with childlike pain. (…) Childlike suffering knows how to protest. It knows how to complain to the Father. If you have been a father to someone, you will know from experience that when a simple child comes and whimpers, “It hurts,” it wins a great place in the father’s heart. It is not a hindrance! You must see these things much more humanly. If we see things more humanly, we will see them more divinely. What does Our Lord do? We hear his childlike cry: “Father, let this cup pass me by!” (Mt 26, 39). We often imagine these things incorrectly. We usually think that Christ said this as some memorized quote. But Sacred Scripture tells us how much he suffered.”
Identify With Jesus
Identifying with Jesus creates a radical shift in perspective. Consider the following example. Do you ever wonder what those other 99 sheep were thinking when Jesus left them to go after that one lost sheep? Perhaps you might think it was something like, “Why is Jesus bothering with that sheep? It isn’t worth the risk of going out there. That sheep got itself lost, he deserves to stay that way.” Or maybe, “Why is that one more important than all of us? We’re behaving well, shouldn’t we get all His attention?” Or worse, maybe even, “If the sinner gets all the love, why on earth am I trying so hard not to sin? Maybe I’ll just run away too.”
One day as I was sitting in the pew listening to homily in daily mass, the priest made one of those comments about “preaching to the choir” of the 30ish folks that made up the congregation, implying something along the lines of, “Y’all already know this. I’m talking about the people out there.” And suddenly it hit me. That’s not at all what being the 99 (those who “didn’t stray”) is about, not at all. I realized in that instant what those 99 were doing — identifying with Jesus! They were one in the Heart of their Shepherd, and thus they wanted that lost sheep back just as much as He did. Aching and longing together with Him for the return of the lost one! If they were true sheep who “knew the voice of their Shepherd”, their will would be one with His, and they would want what He wants. And they’d help Him accomplish that too. They would also be aware that their own not “being lost” (at the moment anyway) had almost nothing to do with themselves and almost everything to do with His mercy! And that right now, the drama was focused on the one because it was His perfect timing to pour His mercy over that one. Identifying with Jesus is about asking what Jesus is thinking and what He can see from where He is standing, and thus being awakened to God’s will and perfect plan of loving providence.
How is this connected to suffering? Stay with me! This kind of an about-face, total shift in perspective awakens joy. So. Much. Joy. To identify with Jesus means to see our life very concretely through His eyes. To value what He values and to love what He loves cuts through SO much useless fluff: reputation, ego, jealousy, judgmental attitudes, over-attachment to material things…etc. All these things that bring suffering begin to get in line with an eternal perspective, and shrivel up. What joy can sprout forth to fill in the spaces previously clogged with junk!
Furthermore, to ask Jesus what He sees when He looks at us, and learn to identify more and more with that, can become a source of peace during many trials. I like to think of Jesus asleep in the boat. If His disciples could have seen the storm the way Jesus did (ie. as no big deal, or at least as a temporary suffering that would dissipate when God said it was time), they could have taken a nap right there with Him. To do that, they would have had to let go of how they saw the storm, and asked Jesus what He saw. This is about dis-identifying with our little self-centered ego and identifying with His perfectly whole Divine + Human Self. It’s about acknowledging our littleness and limitedness, and surrendering and entrusting ourselves to the One who is Endless and Infinite and loves us – you – perfectly. He Who is our Father in Heaven, Who is always taking perfect care of us.
So if I can begin to ask how Jesus sees my situation, I can understand a way forward through the storm. Then I will see that the wind and waves obey Him and truly start to quiet down, in His time. One could ask: how is He already reaching out to me in my suffering, right now? Who has He already sent to find me? How is He inviting me to grow in love in response to this pain? Is there another at my side who is suffering even more than I am, whom He wants me to seek out and love…? Oh, what shadows could be brightened, what burdens could be lightened, if we could but maintain this supernatural perspective for one moment.
Freedom From The Question Of Meaningless Suffering
“Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free-wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself.” ― C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain
Who can say it better than C.S. Lewis? Christianity holds a radical position on suffering. As Christians, we are free from the question of meaningless suffering. Absolutely free. Although the mystery of suffering will always remain, and the process/journey of life must still be trod, all nihilism and senselessness is utterly annihilated by His Cross and Resurrection.
Yet the Cross and Resurrection is not only something that happened in a time and a place to a historical figure (it is that). It’s also a supernatural reality being unfolded in our earthly human life every single day. The mystery of His death and Resurrection is always happening again in us NOW, if we have eyes to see. Unless I live out a real connection to that One Sacrifice in my own life, then I won’t be living in the true secret of the joy that His Resurrection holds for us here and now. I think the main question of our day, that directs us to the kind of joy our modern hearts yearn for, is not primarily the theological question of “Did Christ rise from the dead?” (though of course that’s important, and if you’re interested here’s a book in answer to that question). Rather, how is Christ wanting to raise me from the dead right now, with Him, through Him and in Him? How is He trying to transform my suffering through His grace? How is He asking to live His life in me, right now?
Here’s CS Lewis again, this time connecting that shift of perspective in secret two, to the suffering we’re talking about in secret three:
One Day At A Time
Last secret of true joy — and this one is so practical and yet so hard for us right now in the current world. The secret is to learn to live life one day at a time. Holiness means trying again every day. This is the same way Jesus lived and exactly how He tells us to live.
“Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God doth so clothe the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith? Be not therefore anxious…” (Read it within the whole context: Matthew 6:25-34)
The task is to consciously choose this way of life a thousand times a day. And all of the above will help: dialoguing with God in the moment, asking Him to shift our perspective, and surrendering every suffering as soon as we can to the mystery of His plan of Love for us. One practical way to build on this habit is to journal at the end of the day on this question: How did my Father in Heaven take care of me today? Try to write three things. Then after one week, read back over seven days. Then after one month, read back over the month. Then you can experience the secret to true joy: cultivating a constant attitude of gratitude to God, and contemplating His truly infinite mercy and power in your daily life. And here’s one last gem to help that sink in:
“Here the personal work must begin. You must learn to lead an interior life, you must learn to meditate on the manifestations of divine love in your daily life. You must “Learn to swim in the sea of divine mercy.” Every day we should ask ourselves: How has God shown me that he loves me? If you don’t let this work on you, then you will never really experience the personal love that God has for you. How many events are there in my past life, including and perhaps especially painful events, disappointments, in which God showed me His unlimited love. God, our Savior, does everything out of love for me, to show me His love.” – Fr Joseph Kentenich
Prayers and blessings to you on your journey toward joy. May our Blessed Mother, the Lady of Sorrows, accompany us as we strive to always grow in love, and trust Him in the midst of suffering like she did. In this way, may we learn from her how to stand beneath the Cross, full of hope to await His joyous and victorious Resurrection once again.