The Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross is one of my favorite Catholic days! Celebrating the Cross on which our Savior suffered and died an unjust, painful, bloody crucifixion out of love for the world is so uniquely Christian. The non-Christian world (and maybe some Christians, too) cannot understand why we love this device of torture, and even many Christians would rather not think of the gruesome nature of Jesus’s death, preferring to hang serene crosses in their homes rather than the gruesome crucifixes most Catholics hang.
My Catholic upbringing and formation certainly taught me a lot about the Cross and the Passion, but it has been motherhood which has truly deepened my understanding of uniting our suffering to Christ’s. Because, let’s be honest, motherhood is full of suffering!
From the newborn who won’t sleep to the teen making big life decisions, from the high fevers we can’t control to the broken hearts over lost friends (real and stuffed), our mother’s hearts are uniquely formed, like Mary’s, to suffer with our children.
Through my first labor pains to bring a child into the world to my most recent pains at launching that same child into her life after high school, I have gained a greater appreciation for the beauty of the Cross in my daily life. And I am learning, day by day, from my vocation to embrace the Cross with more love and more intention.
Don’t Compare Crosses
It’s natural to see someone going through an especially difficult time and wonder how you would cope in a similar situation. What I have learned to avoid doing, though, is to say or think that one person’s cross is bigger or smaller than mine. There’s an old story about a man who asks Jesus for a different cross because he feels his is too difficult to carry. He is taken to a room full of crosses, which he tries one after the other like goldilocks. But in the end, he sees a cross that looks to him to be the perfect fit, and it is of course, because it’s the cross he came into the room with in the first place!
If we’re lucky (see below), then we’re all suffering. It doesn’t matter whether that other mom’s struggle seems small and petty. Showing love means showing compassion for her pain and validating her feelings. Empathy goes a long way towards building relationships, and even when others legitimately overreact, such as a child scraping a knee and crying for an hour, that moment is not the time to belittle his suffering as I comfort him.
But also, when we see someone going through something seemingly larger than we have ever encountered, that doesn’t mean we should feel guilty for our own daily sufferings. Every cross is valid to Christ. You are worthy to suffer with Him, and even though everyone’s crosses look different, to God any pain, when offered up to Him, can have the same sanctifying effect.
“Life is pain. … Anyone who says differently is selling something,” says Westley in The Princess Bride. Because we are not (yet) in Heaven, we simply have to expect that life will be full of challenges and suffering. There will always be struggle, because we are not made for this life.
Much of our modern world has a skewed sense of suffering. Many people see it as something to avoid at all costs. But as Catholics we know that all suffering is not bad, because it’s always an opportunity to grow closer to Christ. In fact, many of the saints welcomed suffering and some even prayed to be given more suffering. They considered themselves all the more blessed the more suffering they were given!
Whether we are handed bumps in the road or encounter traumatic catastrophes, I’ve learned to have faith that God always has our best interest in mind. He wants us to return to Him over and over like the prodigal son, and it sometimes takes some suffering to bring us to our knees (where we belong) and turn our hearts to Him.
Shift Your Mindset
Basically, I try to look at every moment of suffering, big or small, as a chance to grow in sanctity. When I was a young mom, a wise seasoned mama would frequently laugh about her “character-building days” as she called them. Those “bad days” were challenging days, but she saw in those crosses the chance for growth, the opportunity for each member of her family to grow in virtue.
While I’m not holy enough to ask God for more suffering, like some of the saints, I do see the potential in many of life’s challenges to benefit me and teach me in the ways of the Lord. This perspective often makes it easier to face rough days and difficult seasons with courage and determination rather than despair. I can even sometimes see suffering as a gift, and on my best days, surrender to His will, asking Him to teach me to be what He created me to be.
You see, I know that I have many faults. I intellectually understand that a refiner’s fire is necessary to cure me of my sinfulness, so I try not to get stuck in a state of frustration, anger, or sorrow. I try to turn my mind towards the benefits of suffering. Because when I make that mindset shift, I am, of course, turning towards my Lord and Savior, which is truly the ultimate goal of everything.
The Greatest Suffering
When I was in college, I was taught on retreat how to meditate by placing myself into a Scripture story. I could close my eyes and imagine the sights, sounds, and smells of that ancient setting. But wisely, my spiritual director at the time gave me passages in which I encountered the living Christ – most poignantly when Mary from Bethany poured her box of perfume on His feet. And as I practiced this form of prayer, I always stayed away from the Crucifixion.
Until I became a mother.
Most mothers learn, sooner or later, that watching our children suffer is soul-crushing. A sick child or a sad child or a lost child simply tears our hearts to pieces. But the beauty of these moments is that they also allow us to enter into the love of Mary for Her Son, Jesus Christ. And her love for Him was and is perfection. So, in a way, it’s the worst and the best kind of suffering all wrapped into one.
Rely on God
The single solution to all of our crosses is to rely on God to help us carry them. He created each one of us unique and unrepeatable, and so our suffering is also unique and unrepeatable. That means our crosses are customized for us, because God has and will equip us (and only us) to carry them!
Another wise mama once told me that in her morning prayers she thinks through her day, sometimes with her planner spread before her, and prays through the difficulties she expects that day. How beautiful! She asks God, in advance, to make straight those paths and/or help her to respond with grace. I’ve tried this, and it bring such peace to my heart to know that even thought I expect to face difficulties that day and might not remember in the moment to call upon the Lord, I’ve already asked Him to handle it for me.
After all, the Way of the Cross is our way to Christ. And since we all want to be more like Jesus, we must suffer in this life as He did on the Cross. There is no other option. The crux of embracing the crosses God sends my way is remembering that in this life our goal is not happiness; it’s holiness.
We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you, because by your Holy Cross you have redeemed the world.