I came to Russia’s Far East Siberia 24 years ago with great expectations. I arrived with an American mindset — to fix Russia and Russians. I also came as a Catholic — to save the world. The problem is, I confused the Savior with myself.
I moved into my first apartment with peeling wallpaper, moldy walls and floors covered by old and torn linoleum. There was also a leaky faucet. There were, and still are, no Home Depot stores, so try as I might I could not fix the leaky faucet.
The faucet kept me up at night, each drip sounding like a thunderclap on the base of the sink. I sat before the faucet. I prayed a very concrete prayer out of desperation: “Lord, please help me fix this sink.” The Lord asked: “Can you live with a leaky faucet?” He was really asking if I could live in Russia without trying to fix these people and their brokenness. Could I live with them in their suffering? Could I suffer with them and for them as Christ did for us?
For 24 years the Lord has opened up to me the joy of redemptive suffering. Not the joy of mere suffering. Without the cross, suffering has no meaning. The late, great John Cardinal O’Connor of New York once told a suffering woman, “Christ could have saved the world by his miracles, but he chose to save the world by his suffering.”
And Saint Paul gives the most beautiful definition of redemptive suffering. “I rejoice in my suffering for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of the body, which is the church.”
Redemptive suffering happens when human suffering is offered up in union with the Passion of Jesus. At that point it can remit the just punishment for one’s sins or for the sins of another.
Saint John Paul II wrote in Salvifici Doloris, “In bringing about the redemption through suffering, Christ raised human suffering to the level of the redemption. Thus each man, in his sufferings, can also become a sharer in the redemptive suffering of Christ.” Don’t ignore the suffering of another and don’t waste your suffering.
Redemptive suffering isn’t masochism or stoicism. It is suffering born for another. What does a stoic do? A stoic claims we can rejoice even though we’re suffering because we’re not going to let it get to us or break us down. The stoic urges a stiff upper lip.
But suffering for others is difficult. To watch another suffer is hard. It leaves the heart wounded and weeping. That is real suffering and when we share in the cross of Christ our suffering isn’t wasted.
When we unite our suffering with Christ’s suffering, we participate in the redemption of the world! It is as dramatic as it sounds. When offered to God, no suffering is meaningless or wasted. No suffering is worse than death. Suffering offered in union with Christ’s cross has explosive power, including the power to sanctify not only our own souls, but to call down grace upon others as well. The saints knew this. The saints had an abundance of grace in their own souls already, but yet the suffering they endured was profound.
What was it for? What was it worth? It was offered for souls. The saints offered their sufferings for the sins of the world, for the souls of others, and it was redemptive, because it was offered in union with Christ’s suffering. This is how the Body of Christ works.
Now, this doesn’t mean we go looking for suffering (it will find us), and it doesn’t mean that we stand by while others suffer (we are called to ease the sufferings of others as much as we can). But when suffering comes, it is not meaningless; it is of great value to us and to the world.