September 2013 Print

Suffering Explained by Saints

by Dr. Gyula Mago

Suffering of every kind is evil. Man has a horror of suffering, as did Our Lord Himself:

“My Father, if it be possible, let this chalice pass from me. Nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Mt. 26:39).

Yet Our Lord underwent unspeakable sufferings and a shameful death on the Cross and thereby redeemed the world.

Now we face the demand of the Man of Sorrows that we follow His example:

“If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Mt. 16:24). So, following Christ, i.e., being a Christian, requires that the Christian suffer with Christ. And the saints also insist strongly that some suffering is necessary for salvation:

“Since the Son of God obtained our salvation through suffering, He willed to teach us that there is nothing more fitting than suffering to give glory to God and to sanctify our souls.”

—St. Teresa of Avila


“Call to mind frequently that it was by suffering and endurance that Our Lord saved us and that it is meet that we too on our part must work out our salvation by sufferings and afflictions, bearing injuries, contradictions, and annoyances with the greatest calm and gentleness.”

—St. Francis de Sales


“In bearing with suffering, be cheerful and constant, thinking that suffering is the royal road along which one travels to heaven, and that the present life lasts but a moment. The gain that there is in suffering lies in this, that it is in imitation of Jesus, your Bridegroom.”

—St. Mary Magdalen de Pazzi


“It is terrible what treatment God allows his friends to suffer. But then we should not really complain, for that is how He treated His own Son.”

—St. Teresa of Avila


“That is why Christ tells us that if we want to join him, we shall travel the way he took. It is surely not right that the Son of God should go his way on the path of shame while the sons of men walk the way of worldly honor: ‘The disciple is not above his teacher, nor the servant greater than his master.’ ”

—St. John of Avila


To suffer and to endure is the lot of humanity.

Nothing begins and nothing ends

That is not pain and moan,

We are born in other’s pain

And perish in our own.

—Francis Thompson


There is a seemingly infinite variety of sufferings. They may be classified in various ways. The primary distinction is between physical and spiritual, or moral, suffering. Physical suffering includes all the kinds of illness, injuries, blindness, deafness, loss of limb, weakness, fatigue, hunger, thirst, the pain of childbirth, fire, natural disasters, war, even martyrdom. Spiritual or moral suffering includes persecution, sorrow, fear, betrayal, humiliation, failure, insults, calumny, contempt, contradiction, ridicule, abandonment, mourning, loneliness, and the inability to prevent moral corruption.

God is not the cause of evil. He permits moral evil only to save human free will. Physical evils He allows for some good. We here introduce the second distinction: on the one hand, there is self-chosen suffering, such as discipline, fasting, voluntary penances, and choosing to accept humiliation. Then there is suffering which comes, in some way, from God or neighbor: illness, almost all spiritual suffering, or martyrdom.

If something is hard to bear or even intolerable, and we resist it and want to banish it from our life, it is suffering. An example is having to take medicine with a particularly disagreeable taste, which St. Francis Borgia used as penance. Or maybe someone is constrained to eat potatoes only, either because of poverty (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn describes such a case in his novella Matryona’s Place) or because he is allergic to all other foods. The monotony of having to eat the same thing all the time becomes increasingly burdensome. It becomes true suffering.

“May God send us more trials to suffer for His sake—even if they are only fleas, hobgoblins, and bad roads!”

—St. Teresa of Avila


“My daughter, you will never do Me a greater service than that of patiently bearing, in memory of My Passion, whatever tribulation befalls you, whether internal or external, and of always trying to do those things which are most contrary to your desires.”

—St. Gertrude


“Every time I do not behave like a donkey, it is the worse for me. How does a donkey behave? If it is slandered, it keeps silent; if it is not fed, it keeps silent; if it is forgotten, it keeps silent; it never complains, however much it is beaten or ill-used, because it has a donkey’s patience. That is how the servant of God must behave. I stand before you, Lord, like a donkey.”

—St. Peter Claver

How much is suffering worth?

Christ endured many of these sufferings, but not all. For example, His perfect body was not subject to illnesses, so He was not able to suffer from illness. Saint Paul dared to say: “I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ” (Col. 1:24). Christ perfectly accomplished the Redemption with the sufferings that were possible for Him. Yet a cancer sufferer may help Christ in His work of Redemption by suffering as Christ was not able to suffer, and fills up those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ.

“One ounce of suffering is worth more than a thousand pounds of prayer; one day of crucifixion is more valuable than one hundred years of all other holy exercises.”

—Venerable Sister Maria Vittoria Angelini


“You will be consoled according to the greatness of your sorrow and affliction; the greater the suffering, the greater will be the reward. 

—St. Mary Magdalen de Pazzi


“Patience in suffering is superior to raising the dead or the performing of miracles. It is a narrow way which leads directly to the gates of heaven. Suffering makes us companions of the Martyrs.”

—Blessed Henry Suso


One further consideration is needed. The fact remains that suffering is an evil. Therefore, the Catholic cannot love suffering as such, for its own sake. But he can accept suffering, he may even love suffering for the sake of God. So for suffering to be meritorious, it must be accompanied by the love of God. Suffering and the love of God together make amends for sin and determine sanctification and perfection.1 Greater suffering and lesser charity may have the same result as greater charity and lesser suffering.2 Let us learn at the school of the saints what they teach us:

“Without love, deeds, even the most brilliant, count as nothing.”

—St. Therese of Lisieux


“Thank the Lord for all the things in which you feel pain, and thus you will be perfect in a short time.”

—St. Mary Magdalen de Pazzi


The sufferings of Our Lord were infinitely valuable because they were accompanied by God’s infinite love for His creatures. But suffering and charity can not only accompany each other, there may even be a fusion between them.

“Do you really want to love Jesus? Then learn first to suffer. It is by suffering that one learns to love.”

—St. Gemma Galgani


“He who wishes to love God does not truly love Him if he has not an ardent and constant desire to suffer for His sake.”

—St. Aloysius Gonzaga


So suffering endured for the love of God, suffering accepted with charity indicates predestination, because the sufferer is like Jesus Christ.

“If God sends you many sufferings, it is a sign that He has great plans for you and He certainly intends to make you a saint.”

—St. Ignatius of Loyola


“There is nothing more painful than suffering, and nothing more joyful than to have suffered.…To the world, suffering is a reproach, but to Me it is an immense honor. Suffering is an extinguisher of My wrath, and an obtainer of My favor. Suffering makes a man in My sight worthy of love, because the sufferer is like Me.”

—Blessed Henry Suso


“We never have a greater reason to rejoice than when we are oppressed and burdened by sufferings and afflictions, because these render us similar to Christ our Lord, and this resemblance is a true sign of our predestination.”

—St. Vincent de Paul


Suffering sent us by God that we cannot escape is much more valuable than anything chosen by us.

“Be it known that, in the eyes of God, one gains more merit in a single day through trials given to us by God and neighbor, than in ten years of penances and other practices chosen by us.”

—St. Teresa of Avila


Very frequently prayers ask God to remove pain, suffering, and illness from someone’s life. Unfortunately, wishing suffering away is an impediment to sanctification. So if you have it in you, pray not for the removal of suffering, but ask for the grace to respond to the call of God and embrace suffering wholeheartedly. Never is love for God purer than in suffering.

Dr. Gyula Mago was born in 1938 in Hungary and raised a Catholic. He lived there under Communist rule for 20 years. He obtained his Ph.D. from Cambridge University, England, in 1970 and was Professor of Computer Science until 1999 at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He now lives in retirement and attends Holy Mass at the Society chapel in Wake Forest, North Carolina.

1 The Theology of Christian Perfection by Antonio Royo and Jordan Aumann (Priory Press, 1962), p.271.

2 The Theology of the Spiritual Life by Joseph de Guibert (Sheed and Ward, 1953), p.95.