Holy Week... Jesus enters Jerusalem for the final days of His life, when, for our sakes, He will voluntarily shoulder a Cross as heavy as all the sins that ever were and ever will be committed, and will submit to suffering unto death. Foolishness indeed to the world in general, as St Paul points out in 1 Corinthians, but to Christians “the power of God” – a pathway to blessings beyond imagination.
It is no different today. Our society sees suffering as the evil to be avoided. Death itself is preferable to it. Not death arrived at through a process of seeing suffering through to the bitter end as Jesus did, but as an alternative, swallowed down quickly as a pill or potion or administered by lethal injection. What happiness can there be when suffering makes its appearance on the scene? What meaning and value can we find to our lives if they contain pain or severe physical limitations?
Seen through this perspective, euthanasia (or the abortion of a disabled foetus) becomes the compassionate – the only compassionate – option to offer the severely incapacitated. The Catholic viewpoint, that we have no right to take our own or anyone else’s life whatever the circumstances, is seen as meaningless if not downright cruel. Try to talk about the positive value of suffering and you are likely to be rhetorically stoned for, firstly, condemning someone to bear their pain no matter what and then for adding insult to injury by telling them suffering is good for their soul...
In fact that is the great message of Easter; that we will all find crosses, great or small, in our lives but that through faith in Christ those crosses – the things we most fear in life like pain, illness, paralysis - can be transformed into blessings. What then is left to for us to be afraid of? Encouraging someone to “hang on in there” is neither cruel nor pious nonsense because God “will not let you be put to the test beyond your strength but with any trial will also provide a way out by enabling you to put up with it” (1 Corinthians 10:13). Where suffering abounds, grace abounds all the more, to slightly adapt the words of St Paul.
This isn’t an easy concept, especially as you probably have to walk some dark roads yourself before you can testify to the hidden light to be found there. Such witnesses can be found. Alison Davies is a sufferer from spina bifida who herself passed through a stage of wanting to die; now she works to promote a positive view of disability through No Less Human, a branch of SPUC. Chelsea Zimmerman was paralysed from the chest down in a car accident whilst still a teenager; she is passionately pro-life and writes an inspirational blog, Reflections of a Paralytic. Alison and Chelsea are witnesses to the light, people who have made – and are making – a difficult journey and learning along the way to value life all the more. There are others like them, finding blessings and meaning blossoming like those hardy wild flowers one sees obstinately thriving between the rails of train lines or on rock faces.
Every flower must receive water and nourishment from somewhere, however. As we meditate on what Holy Week can tell us about suffering and grace, can we also respond to the challenge it gives us? Like Simon of Cyrene, Veronica and the women of Jerusalem, do we have hearts big enough to help shoulder the crosses of those who suffer so terribly - showing them what comfort we can, weeping with them when the pain feels too much and, well, just loving them? True compassion will always try to offer a reason to live, not a way to die.
*Perhaps it should be mentioned that this editorial is discussing unavoidable suffering. Of course it is our duty to alleviate suffering and seek a cure wherever possible; but not at the price of deliberately taking a life.