The Complete Spiritual Doctrine of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, by Rev. Francois Jamart, OCD, provides excellent clarification on the nature and value of embracing suffering. With regard to some of my previous posts, I wish to clarify that I am referring only to the kind of embracing suffering which is done for love's sake, and not for any earthly gain.
According to Thérèse, "The whole of the spiritual life is thus reduced to two elements: love of God and detachment from ourselves." It is in this detachment that we embrace suffering. So one can say that the whole of the spiritual life is thus reduced to embracing suffering for the love of God. We can never completely detach from our true selves, our souls made in God's image, but the "self" we have to detach from is the ego, or the "defense system" we have woven to protect ourselves from pain. This ego is the same as the bushel basket and our soul is the light. All the sins, faults and imperfections of our lives are strategies we have learned in our flight from vulnerability to protect ourselves from pain. When we "die to ourselves," "embrace suffering," "detach from ourselves," "strip ourselves of our ego," then the image and likeness of God in our souls is made visible and God is glorified in us.
"In order to be a saint, it is then necessary to forget ourselves, to love God with our whole soul and to love our neighbor for His sake. Animated by faith and love, we must cling to Christ and endeavor to reproduce His life in our own. He who imitates Christ necessarily renounces himself and strips himself of inordinate self-love." Here we have further description of what it means to embrace suffering, but it's not yet so clear exactly how one goes about doing this. What is clear, however, is that embracing suffering for the love of God counter-balances our self-love. In this balance we find the capacity to experience the full range of mixed feelings necessary for the effective practice of the virtue of prudence.
"The spirituality of the early Christians was inspired by those principles. They approached God in all simplicity by remaining united to Christ. They avoided everything that might impede that union or distract them from Jesus. They trained their minds and hearts after the model of the divine Master: 'Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus' (Philippians 2:5)." Now we know that whatever it is we must do it is supposed to be simple.
"At a later time it was judged that this goal would be more easily attained with the help of spiritual treatises. Methods of prayer were developed and spiritual formation was synthesized as a means of helping those who could not receive personal guidance. This was very useful but, as a result of it, there developed a multiplicity of ascetical rules and practices which tended to obscure the heart of the matter: that interior disposition of confident love for God, which should be the basis of our relations with Him." (emphasis mine) All the rules and practices, which were more than likely the fruit of this confidence, mistakenly became regarded as a means to this confidence. The cart was put before the horse. Furthermore, as pertains to us today, since it is rather unlikely, given the current trends in parenting, that our relationship to our parents was built primarily on confident love (at least from our point of view as children) rather than on our acceptable performance and adherence to a complex set of rules and regulations, it should come as no surprise that our ability to comprehend such a relationship with God would present tremendous difficulty for us.
"People got the impression that a complex and rigorous course of asceticism was necessary for any one who aimed at perfection. The example of many saints seemed to confirm them in this erroneous view. Most saints had indeed lived a life full of austerity and hard penances, macerations of all sorts, vigils, humiliations, the contempt of men, etc. Holiness thus came to be looked upon as the portion of a few privileged souls. Again, those penitential saints were often favored by extraordinary graces: vision, revelations, miracles, prophecies. Those facts seemed to put the pursuit of sanctity beyond the reach of the ordinary man." Sanctity came to be measured by perfect behavior and extraordinary rewards for such behavior.
"But now, in our own day, there appeared a Carmelite nun, who was young in years and apparently had no authority to speak, and yet she insisted on teaching 'a Little Way very straight and short, a Little Way entirely new; which would lead men to perfection. Whereas others had declared that sanctity was something that was hard to attain, she said that it is easy. She maintained that in order to reach it, it was not necessary to engage in manifold practices, to perform rigorous penances, to receive extraordinary graces. What was needed was simply that we acknowledge our 'nothingness' and approach God with love and confidence. 'Sanctity,' she proclaimed, 'is an interior disposition which makes us humble and little in God's arms, conscious of our weakness and trusting even to audacity in the goodness of our Father.' She was thus inviting a return to evangelical simplicity." Only a childlike confidence in (attachment to) God was necessary. All else was superfluous! At the end of his life, St. Francis declared that he wished he had not been so hard on himself--that it was not necessary! But for us, who have been trained in a rigorous striving for perfection in our behavior, habitually stifling our emotions lest we be impelled to deviate from the straight and narrow road of perfect behavior, abandoning such efforts has the tendency to create the illusion of condemning oneself to eternal misery--embracing suffering. And yet, this is exactly what we must do to become holy. What St. Thérèse calls "acknowledging our nothingness" (she even goes so far as to demand that we love our nothingness), Dr. Neufeld refers to as being keenly aware of our vulnerability. Traditional authoritarian parenting in which the outward signs of love and acceptance of our children are conditional on their desirable behavior teaches them to despise their littleness and vulnerability--the exact opposite of Thérèseian spirituality and the only indispensable interior disposition necessary for their sanctification. Attachment parenting asks of parents that they embrace their vulnerability in order to preserve in their the children an awareness of their vulnerability. Embracing suffering DOES NOT require that we undertake a rigorous regimen of severe penances, fasts, mortifications, etc. It means the exact opposite! It means that we come to rest in the arms of God and allow ourselves to feel, as we did as little children, our dependence, our neediness, our powerlessness, our vulnerability. It means that we no longer trust in our own means but rather submit ourselves unconditionally to the means through which God sees fit to transform us. Knowing full well our own vulnerability, we have nothing more to fear--the weaker we are the smaller the crosses our loving God could mercifully see fit with which to yoke us.
Dr. Neufeld explains the purpose of suffering:
"Our emotional circuitry is programmed to release us from the pursuit of contact and closeness not only when attachment hunger is fulfilled but also when we truly get that the desire for its fulfillment is futile. Letting go of a desire we are attached to is most difficult even for adults (this is what the Spiritual Doctors call "detachment"), whether it be the wish that everyone like us or that a particular person love us, or that we become politically powerful. Not until we accept that what we have been trying to do cannot be done and fully experience the disappointment and sadness that follow can we move on with our lives...
"As with fulfillment, futility must sink in for the shift in energy to occur, the shift that leads to acceptance, from frustration to a sense of peace with how things are. It is not enough to register it intellectually, it must be felt deeply and vulnerably, in the very heart of the limbic system, at the core of the brain's emotional circuitry. Futility is a vulnerable feeling, bringing us face-to-face with the limits of our control and with what we cannot change."
Embracing suffering is what we do when we feel deeply that the way in which we have been loving is not working. God allows us suffering as an opportunity for futility to sink in--in order to draw us to Himself. To admit to ourselves that we have not been loving as we ought is terrifying. Faith and confidence in the God of love will facilitate this letting go. The only reason it is so difficult for us to entertain this kind of blind confidence is that we are unfamiliar with such a fatherly love. This is not a criticism of our own parents, but a general acknowledgment of our collective human frailty.
Psychologically, St. Thérèse spiritual doctrine is perfect. Or rather, the seal of approval the Church has so enthusiastically given her doctrine supports the wisdom of attachment psychology. Fr. Jamart, undoubtedly echoing the sentiments of the Church, writes, "For Thérèse was endowed with a keen and exceptionally precocious intelligence and with a remarkable power of psychological insight and observation." Incidentally, some of the methods of modern psychology such as co-dependency recovery and "healing the child within" are highly adaptable to this spirituality and can go a long way to facilitating such a conversion with God's grace.
Dr. Neufeld maintains that in order to feel mixed feelings, which is necessary to stem the tide of unconscious impulses, we must be able to "feel deeply and vulnerably." When we are in the flight from suffering we are only able to experience the range of mixed feelings contained by our inordinate self-love. By coming to rest in the confidence of God's unfailing mercy (which is experienced by us as a terrifying risk, or subjecting ourselves to unknown and possibly unlimited suffering) we achieve spiritual and emotional stasis, becoming able to experience the full range of mixed feelings humanly possible. The change in our interior disposition is almost instantaneous, although the process of increasing our capacity to experience these new feelings will probably be a life-long growing process. Ironically, the capacity to "feel deeply and vulnerably" actually inoculates us from being easily wounded by others. Having stripped ourselves of our own egoism, or defensiveness, we find ourselves able to distinguish between others' defensiveness and the underlying fear of suffering that motivates their actions. At this level of understanding we are far less likely to take things personally, and far more likely to feel only compassion.
To give an example, in the case of a "noisy" toddler in mass one may wonder what to do with the suffering she might be experiencing. Every situation, practically speaking, will require different action on our own part. In this case, embracing suffering doesn't necessarily mean that you determine to remain in the pews no matter how much noise the child makes, or that you resign yourself to standing in the vestibule for the rest of your life, no matter how the child behaves. What it means is that whatever course of action you choose to follow (presumably, having made the decision to surrender your will entirely to God, you have achieved stasis, charity has germinated in the soul, the virtue of prudence springs from that charity, the impulses of the Holy Ghost move the soul, etc.) you have peace about it. On this subject St. Thérèse said, "I confess that this word 'peace' seemed rather strong but, on the other day, reflecting on it, I found the secret of being able to suffer in peace. To say that we suffer in peace does not mean that we suffer with joy, at least with a joy that is felt. In order to suffer in peace, it is enough to will truly all that Jesus wills." The negative feeling of suffering you experience is not something that you do anything with, but something that is done to you. And why would we want to do this? Fr. Jamart explains, "Being preeminently God's gift to men, it is also, at least after abandonment to God, the best proof we can give of our love for God. More than any other work, it sanctifies us and increases our capacity for happiness and our measure of glory. More than any ohter, it is the instrument of the salvation of souls." And elsewhere he writes, "But a soul matures and perfects itself only through sufferings." Most of us have learned to stuff those painful feelings with distractions, venting, or projecting (transference). We employ the same tactics with our children when they're suffering. We would do well to meditate on Christ in the garden, when in His agony, God almighty sent an angel, not to distract Him from his suffering, or to remove it, but simply to comfort Him. When we have embraced suffering, we understand instantly how to just let these feelings happen to us, marinating in the feeling without having to immediately do anything "about" it. Sometimes, of course, there is something we CAN and even SHOULD do about a situation about which we have strong negative feelings. But giving ourselves time to embrace these feelings gives us time to make prudent, rational decisions about the best course of action, and then be at peace with whatever decision we come to. Embracing suffering endows us with the joy of serenity--to accept the things we cannot change, the strength of courage--to change the things we can, and the humility of wisdom--to know the difference. Until we can feel deeply and vulnerably we cannot effectively practice these virtues. The practice of embracing these feelings, be they joyful or sorrowful, stretches our capacity to experience mixed feelings, which in turn increases our capacity to love.
This brings us to the flip side of embracing suffering: embracing happiness, which is made possible by the decision to allow oneself to feel again deeply and vulnerably. The flight from vulnerability, like strong antidepressants, makes it difficult for us to feel anything at all, good or bad. And most of us won't even realize how numb we've grown until we make the leap. With our capacity to experience stronger and stronger negative emotions, our capacity to experience the positive ones increases proportionally. The greater our capacity to "contain" mixed feelings from farther and farther reaches of the spectrum (picture Our Lord's arms outstretched on the Cross), the greater our capacity to love. Dr. Neufeld deals with the idea of embracing suffering from this angle in Chapter 9, Stuck In Immaturity, under the section, Peer Orientation Stunts Growth In Five Significant Ways, Peer-Oriented Children Are Unable to Feel Fulfilled:
"It may seem strange that feelings of fulfillment would require openness to feelings of vulnerability. There is no hurt or pain in fulfillment--quite the opposite. Yet there is an underlying emotional logic to this phenomenon. For the child to feel full he must first feel empty, to feel helped he must first feel in need of help, to feel complete he must first experience the ache of loss, to be comforted one must first have felt hurt. Satiation may be a very pleasant experience, but the prerequisite is to be able to feel vulnerability. When a child loses the ability to feel her attachment voids, the child also loses the ability to feel nurtured and fulfilled."
Further evidence of this is contained in the spiritual doctrine of St. Thérèse. As if knowing instinctively what psychology has recently "discovered" about praise and rewards, she desired that all should know her faults, and that she should receive no reward for her love. And how well she understood the oneness of charity. Fr. Jamart writes, "From her childhood, Therese had desired to become a saint...But she soon realized that in spite of her good will, her efforts were insufficient...On the other hand, she could not persuade herself that God would inspire aims impossible for us to attain. Hence, she thought, in spite of her littleness she could still aspire to holiness. But how was this to be achieved? It is not possible to add anything to one's stature. She had to accept herself as she was and suffer her imperfections." To love God and one's neighbor unconditionally we must accept and love ourselves unconditionally. This is what I believe it means to embrace suffering--to love to remain as a little child. After all, who in the world today suffers more than children, who are as vulnerable as Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament? Thérèse herself explains: "It means that we acknowledge our nothingness; that we expect everything from the good Lord, as a child expects everything from its father; it means to worry about nothing, not to build upon fortune; it means to remain little, seeking only to gather flowers, the flowers of sacrifice, and to offer them to the good Lord for His pleasure. It also means not to attribute to ourselves the virtues we practice, not to believe that we are capable of anything, but to acknowledge that it is the good Lord who has placed that treasure in the hand of His little child that He may use it when He needs it, but it remains always God's own treasure. Finally, it means that we must not be discouraged by our faults, for children fall frequently."
Lest there be any doubt as to the validity of her doctrine Fr. Jamart provides solid testimony:
"Benedict XV affirmed that 'Thérèse, who was disciple of a Religious Order inwhcih the glory of the Doctorate adorns the weaker sex, has so much knowledge herself that she was able to point out to others the way of salvation.' The same Pope saw in her doctrine 'the secret of sanctity for the faithful throughout the whole world,' adding: 'This Secret must not remain hidden from anyone.' It is not 'reserved for innocent souls in whom evil has not destroyed the graces of childhood; it is also suitable for those who have lost their childhood innocence.'
"Pius XI went even further. He declared that St. Thérèse is 'a WORD OF GOD' descended from heaven to reveal 'spiritual childhood to us by means of her writings and to point out to others a sure way of salvation.' According to the same Pontiff, that young nun, from the depths of her cloister, presents to us 'an example which all the world can and should follow.' She 'opens up an easy road' that we may ascend even to perfection and the fullness of love. He prophesied that the practice of this doctrine would bring about a 'profound renewal of Catholic life in its entirety and the regeneration of society.' (What more appropriate and effective place for this regeneration to begin but within the family, within the parent/child relationship!)
"Finally, Pius XII, completing, as it were, the judgments of his predecessors, said that Thérèse's Way, conceived under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit is suitable for the children of God who have reached adult years; it is suitable for learned men as it is for the lowly and the unlettered; it is even very practical for those who, like the apostles (and parents!!!), bear a great responsibility for souls. Such testimonies need no commentary. With perfect clarity they confirm the providential mission of St. Therese and canonize her doctrine."
What a glorious vocation is motherhood! What a sweet means to holiness! In order to "become as little children" we are provided daily example and reminders. How humbling to be helped by the littlest ones among us! Meditate on your children's suffering and joy and submit to sharing in it unconditionally.
Sometimes we realize that we are much more willing to accept suffering in the really big things, but the little opportunities pass us by unnoticed. Thérèse sought to make her entire life "one act of love," while admitting to herself before God that she was unable to do anything good of herself. Our re-orientation, from horizontal to vertical, consists of one act of humility--one act of faith--one act of love. The beginning of sanctity begins with one step: the sincere acknowledgment of our desire to love as Christ loves, and that of our own efforts we are incapable of loving anyone but ourselves, and even that, very poorly. Honestly admitting this to ourselves exposes fully our vulnerability and the very real possibility that we could spend our entire lives never truly loving anyone, living and dying in misery and possibly spending eternity in misery. But since we were made to love--since love is the survival instinct of our souls, we will find ourselves more terrified of never truly loving anyone in this life than we are of eternal misery! And as soon as we embrace the prospect of eternal misery and the futility of our own efforts sinks in, that act of faith is made unconditionally and instantaneously. In that moment, we allow Christ to take full possession of our souls and we begin for the first time, maybe in our entire lives, to love as He loves, no matter what it costs us. This is what it means to say that the saints are not saints because they are afraid of the pains of hell--they are saints because they are not afraid of the pains of hell. By making our entire lives "one act of love," we submit unconditionally to loving every one, including ourselves, at every moment for love of God.
It is simple and yet terrifying. And yet, we can confront this fear now and in a moment be free of this fear for the rest of our lives. The reorientation of ourselves from horizontal to vertical is but a few tears away. If we believe what Dr. Neufeld writes about horizontal orientation amongst our children--if we believe what Thérèse believed about "loving our littleness"--and we desire to raise our own children up to a sainthood such as hers, we must eventually arrive at the realization that our reorientation is an absolute necessity. And as soon as the futility sinks in it will become a reality. In the words of Dr. Neufeld, "...sainthood may be what we are called to." I couldn't agree more!