The book The Spirit of the Cure of Ars by Fr. Alfred Monnin contains the catechism classes, homilies and conversations of Saint John Vianney. One passage speaks about how to see suffering as a privilege. The Cure of Ars says:
“Some people do not love God or pray to Him, and yet they prosper. When this happens, it is a bad sign. It means these people did a few good things amid many bad things. God rewards these small good deeds in this life. Sometimes, we say that God punishes those He loves. However, this statement is not always true. For those whom God loves, trials are not punishments; they are graces.”
Suffering as a Means of Approaching God
This passage summarizes the great principle of Catholic doctrine that suffering is an indispensable means of approaching God. It is indispensable for two reasons.
The first is because God wants us, for the good of our souls, to complete that small bit of suffering that He wanted to be missing from His Passion. The second reason is because man is conceived in Original Sin and therefore needs to suffer. We have a permanent source of disorder in us. We have unbridled and bad appetites coming from our disordered and fallen nature.
Our human nature constantly asks for objectionable things. Thus, we want what belongs to others. We do that which we should not do and think about that which we should not think. We are always inclined to act in this manner.
Suffering Eliminates Disordered Appetites
Suffering is the way to eliminate these disordered appetites found in our nature. Suffering breaks a certain exuberance that caters to this bad side of nature. This bad exuberance makes us pretentious, pampered, arrogant, petulant and demanding.
When we suffer, we learn to be content with little. We become affective, understanding and humble. When we start suffering, it eats away at our soul’s bad tendencies so that they gradually disappear and wane. We can then improve.
How an Unbearable Suffering Can Change a Person’s Life
Imagine an extremely sensitive man with an unbearable temperament who becomes resentful at the least thing. He only concerns himself with being at the center of things and showing off.
Imagine him experiencing a physical suffering. Suddenly, he senses an intense pain in his leg. He finds himself moaning in pain fifteen hours a day, saying: “Oh, I can’t bear it anymore! Please come and keep me company by talking a little with me. Bring me an object I need. Help me with something I need done. For God’s sake, have pity on me!”
Is it not true that after six months, this person’s bad temperament would be broken? He would be put through the wringer. By dint of his groaning and suffering, he learned that truth, which human nature conceived in Original Sin detests. We do not like to hear that an ordinary, normal life without great pleasures is already a great thing. Such a man can already call himself happy. Unfortunately, life is such a valley of tears that we continuously seek instead for extraordinary conditions of existence such as great fortunes, consideration or whatever we want. When this happens, we become unbalanced.
When Normal Pleasures Satisfy
For example, a man who has secured all his necessities will often begin to daydream. He will imagine a bed that allows him to sleep with the utmost comfort with a special kind of mattress and all sorts of accessories. He would consider this happiness!
However, when a normal night of sleep is taken from him because of suffering, he recalls how wonderful it is to sleep without pain. He says to himself: “Oh, how good that was! I am now the only one who will spend the night moaning! Everyone in this house goes to sleep normally, and I alone will spend the whole night groaning. What a great thing a painless night is!”
Since he suffered so much, he begins to understand the enormous value of regular sleep and a standard bed. This realization is the beginning of temperance; it is the ground floor of temperance.
Seeking After Fantasies
Another example might be a man who daydreams about making fabulous trips to attend magnificent events. In the past, certain people would open a newspaper and read: “Fly to Persia for the Coronation of the Shah.” The trip would cost many thousands of dollars. The person, who had not even one thousand dollars, thinks to himself of how he might get the money by selling his car, paying in installments or going into debt.
In the end, he does not go to the event and is therefore unhappy. On the day of the Shah of Persia’s coronation, he lies in bed, sulking because he could not live up to his daydream of going to the event.
That person well deserves a few hard knocks. If this poor man breaks his leg and spends six months in a wheelchair, he soon realizes that the greatest happiness is not watching the coronation of the Shah of Persia but going for a walk in the garden. As he sits there in his chair, he thinks how delightful it would be to only get to the corner and watch the passersby in the street. Thus, he begins to acquire a little wisdom.
Trials Are Indispensable
Our extravagances, whims and crazes are broken in this manner through suffering. These trials and failures are indispensable. Without them, we do not live well. Curiously, the need for the moral sufferings of the soul is very similar to what happens to the body. A body that never makes any effort suffers.
For example, take the image of a Middle Eastern pasha that lives in the middle of cushions, who never moves, and spends all his time smoking a water pipe and eating those brightly colored sweets while lying on a terrace.
We might think: “What a delightful life this pasha leads!” That is an illusion. Because of his inaction, the pasha suffers all kinds of organic disorders. He lives between two hellish alternatives: If he moves around, he suffers from doing something that disturbs his immobile comfort. If he remains inactive, he feels horrible because it is bad for his health. So he finds himself between violence and illness. As a result, his health will decline, and he will die early.
The human body needs a certain amount of violence or exercise to feel well. The same is true of the soul. The soul needs suffering. When we do not suffer, we end up looking for it. There is something in our souls whereby we suffer when we do not suffer. Lack of suffering causes a kind of nausea with everything around us. This discomfort is a punishment for those to whom God does not send crosses. Thus, the Holy Cure of Ars’ very true and just thought on the importance of suffering is one that we must always keep in mind.
The preceding article is taken from an informal lecture Professor Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira gave on August 8, 1967. It has been translated and adapted for publication without his revision. –Ed.