The Joy is through the Sorrow
Updated: Sep 3, 2020
Last fall, I prayed what is known as a “Miraculous 54 Day Rosary Novena” – essentially praying a rosary along with additional, special prayers every day for 54 successive days, the first 27 days in petition and the second 27 days in thanksgiving. My petition was for the miraculous cure and conversion of heart of a loved one, and I began the novena with great hope.
After dutifully praying each one of the 54 days without fail, I received one of the clearest answers to a prayer that I have ever received. The answer was no.
Rather than feeling crushed, however, I felt peace. I was disappointed, but not despondent, as I had been at other times of my life when my prayers seemed either unanswered or answered differently from how I wanted. This time, I did not stubbornly refuse to accept the answer, nor did I rage and gnash my teeth. What was the difference this time? The difference was that on this particular occasion, I realized that God’s “no” was said with a gentle smile. “No,” but with a hand extended to lift me up from the ground and wipe away my tears. “No,” followed by, “But come and see, daughter.”
Upon reflecting on the other occasions of encountering God’s “no” in my life, I realized that this had always been the case. God had never told me “no” in a tone of thunderous rage, casting down lightning bolts as punishment and Divine retribution, finding a perverse joy in thwarting what I thought would make me happy. To the contrary, every time I was told “no” in the past, although it had been extraordinarily painful, joy eventually resulted. In many cases it took years before I realized it, but the joy did come - not the kind of wild, exuberant fleeting happiness that the world calls joy, but true, deep joy. Joy unshaken by and independent of circumstances. A joy tinged with hope and peace. A joy brought about by a conversion on my part, a gradual accepting of God’s will in my life.
Suffering and joy are inextricably intertwined. Consider the Seven Sorrows of Mary, for example. The first three, Simeon’s prophecy, the flight into Egypt, and the finding of the child Jesus in the temple, are also either prayed as part of or are closely related to the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary. The final four Sorrows of Mary, Mary meeting Jesus as He carries the cross, weeping at the foot of the cross, receiving His body, and laying His body in the tomb, occur immediately prior to His resurrection. While God could have preserved Mary, His immaculate, most obedient servant and spouse of the Holy Spirit, from pain and suffering, He chose not to. And while God could have chosen any means by which to redeem humanity, in His mysterious and infinite wisdom, He chose the Cross. Suffering, then, is the will of God. Not because God causes suffering, but because He allows it.
This problem of evil and suffering has challenged saints and sinners alike throughout the millennia. St. Teresa of Avila famously quipped, “If this is how You treat Your friends, Lord, it’s no wonder why You have so few of them!" Pondering this from a human understanding, suffering seems nonsensical, the rationale being that either God is helpless to prevent the suffering, in which case He cannot be all-powerful, or He allows suffering to occur, in which case He cannot be all-good. How, then, are we to understand this mystery which lies at the very heart of the Christian message, that God both allows suffering and remains all-good?
Our two greatest models of the Christian life, Jesus and Mary, offer us a road-map to, while not necessarily understanding this mystery, accepting it. In the Garden of Gethsemane immediately prior to His crucifixion, Jesus became “sorrowful unto death,” praying three separate times, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as You will.” Later, at the very foot of the cross, watching her innocent son die a horrific death and in the midst of the greatest suffering she had ever experienced, Mary gave her second fiat, consenting to become the mother of us all. Suffering, then, is an opportunity for deeper conversion, to cultivate a deeper reliance on Him, to humble ourselves and submit in obedience. It is a chance to say, “Be it done unto me according to Thy word,” and “Not as I will, but as You will.”
In this capacity, suffering functions as a tool for salvation and a means for cooperating more fully with God’s will. Consider the words of the Christ Child to Mariamante, a visionary entrusted with beginning the spiritual movement of the “Apostolate of Holy Motherhood in Catholic Families”:
“Fear nothing that unites you to Me, such as your trials and crosses, rather fear only that which separates you from Me.... Pray for strength and courage to carry your crosses, not to have them taken away when they are your means for purification or sanctification.
“Although the mercy of God indeed includes the cures of many afflictions, it is only in those cases where I deem it as unnecessary for their salvation to carry that particular cross. If a cross or trial is of great spiritual value, I will not remove it, and you should never wish that it were, for it may be the means of salvation of many not only the individual soul.” The Apostolate of Holy Motherhood, Vision 26, Tuesday, March 3, 1987.
If the words of the Christ Child here seem extreme, consider the exchange between Jesus and St. Peter in Matthew 16:21-25. Jesus began to explain to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem to suffer at the hands of the elders, chief priests, and teachers of the law, be killed, and raised on the third day:
“Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. ‘Never, Lord!’ he said. ‘This shall never happen to you!’Jesus turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.’ Then Jesus said to his disciples, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.” (Emphasis added).
If we truly understood suffering as God’s will and a means of purgation and sanctification, we would embrace our suffering with joy, accepting God’s “no’s” in confidence rather than fear. Doing so, of course, will not remove the pain, but like one swimming with the current rather than against it, living life in concert with God’s will is always easier than living a life that is an obstacle to it (I speak from personal experience here!).
The next time you hear “no” from God, keep listening. Allow Him and Our Lady of Sorrows to comfort you. Hear Him as he gathers you to Himself, whispering softly, “Behold I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” The joy is through the sorrow. Keep the faith – Easter morning is coming.