The chapter for Monday Merton this week is very apropos. We just started a blogger’s collective called the despised ones, based on 1 Corinthians 1:28, “He has chosen the despised ones and those who are not to bring to nothing the things that are.” So here is what Thomas Merton has to say in “The Word of the Cross,” chapter 5 of his No Man Is An Island.
The word of the Cross is foolishness, says St. Paul, to them that perish. Yet among those to whom the Cross was folly and scandal were ascetics and religious men who had evolved a philosophy of suffering, and who cultivated self-denial. There is much more in the word of the Cross than the acceptance of suffering or the practice of self-denial. The Cross is something positive. It is more than a death. The word of the Cross is foolishness to them that perish–but to them that are saved “it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18). 77
To take up my cross and follow Jesus is not only self-negation but also the ultimate liberation. To embrace my cross is to scorn death and social rejection. When I try to measure my cross in terms of its suffering, I am turning it into currency paid in the expectation of future compensation.
Merely accepted, suffering does nothing for our souls except perhaps to harden them. Endurance alone is no consecration… We can deny ourselves rigorously for the wrong reason and end up by pleasing ourselves mightily with our self-denial.
Many Christians suffer from a martyrdom complex in which they prove themselves through their suffering. This is a very dangerous way of living that results in deep bitterness.
To believe in suffering is pride: but to suffer, believing in God, is humility. For pride may tell us that we are strong enough to suffer… Humility tells us that suffering is an evil which we must always expect to find in our lives… But faith also knows that the mercy of God is given to those who seek Him in suffering, and that by His grace we can overcome evil with good.
Another way of saying this is that the only positive of suffering is that it destroys our delusion of self-sufficiency. People who have to cry out to God for mercy are more likely to become merciful people, but only if the suffering really breaks them. People whose suffering never makes them feel inadequate are shaped in the opposite way; they have little patience for other people’s pity parties. Their suffering becomes a trump card: I got through it, so why can’t you?
Suffering can only be consecrated to God by one who believes that Jesus is not dead. And it is of the very essence of Christianity to face suffering and death not because they are good, not because they have meaning, but because the Resurrection of Jesus has robbed them of their meaning.
Our appropriate posture towards suffering is not to brag about it or resign ourselves to it, but to shake our fist at it in defiance. As Paul says, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”