Of all the saints and their various lovely stories, one of my favorite traditions in the church is an idea that St Therese of Lisieux expresses very clearly in saying, “Suffering itself becomes the greatest of joys when we seek it as a precious treasure.” It’s a beautiful reflection on Jesus’ suffering, suffering is one the primary ways that he loved us. Jesus literally died on the cross for us. Literally. And he had so much anxiety going into it, so much so that he sweated droplets of blood. And, yet, we as Christians are called into an equally deep love by accepting suffering as “the greatest of joys”. We do this to model our Lord Jesus who already took upon himself all the anxiety and pain for us. His cross and His death, becomes a call to a deep imitation of His love. It’s exactly what Lent is all about, entering deeper into prayer, fasting and almsgiving to cultivate a deeper love for Christ and for others.
I love Lent. A little off-color, but I find the greatest spiritual fruits in contemplating Christ’s passion, the pain He bore for us, and what that means for the crosses I bear in my own life. The cross is what brought me back into the church so many years ago, and His passion is what keeps me faithful throughout every season of hardship in my life.
I’ve been told time and time again to “unite my sufferings to the cross”, and I’ve had many varying levels of success. Suffering the flu, I was made to think I was holy. Going through a breakup, I almost thought of myself a mystic. I’ve come to love suffering. I’ve come to love sadness, sorrow, and pain, because I got the opportunity to learn more and more how to better imitate Christ in those moments... even to the point of purposefully entering into suffering, with varying levels of success.
However, this means when God is particularly good to me, when my life is easy and simple, I fall into a thought process where I think I need MORE suffering, for fear of not participating in God’s mystery ENOUGH. This can be a slippery slope as we often, "get what we pray for". I tend to look forward to Lent every year, as an opportunity to dive more deeply into Christ.
This lent, I set out to do something I’d never ventured to do. I decided to give up my biggest vice: coffee.
Now, coffee is a simple thing. Incredibly morally neutral. But, I, like many other young adults, was incredibly addicted. I love the jumpstart to my morning, I love the pep in my step, I love the warmth of a mug in my hand. I loved my routine of waking up early in the morning, to make myself a cup of coffee, and sitting down for prayer at the start of my day. I thought I had plenty of reasons why coffee was a good thing to keep around, I thought I could convince myself it would have been bad to give it up… there was not a single thing at that point in my life that would have been a worthy sacrifice, there wasn’t anything I could think of that would have been hard to give up. And I had decided that even though it was small, that it would be my challenge for the season. The least I could do, I had thought.
I was sorely mistaken.
I had entered lent with all my hubris. I don’t know if I had thought it would be easy, or if I had thought I would handle the withdrawal with much more nobility than I was capable of, but I had much higher expectations for myself. I was a baby, I complained and whined, I took frustrated naps, and I found myself irritable, impatient, and anxious.
I was not taking this teeny tiny little baby cross near as beautifully as Christ did.
Every morning I had to write on my wrist, “I will not complain” just to remind myself that in theory, I did love the suffering. But it was so hard to love in practice. It felt impossible to link it to the cross. I felt so far away from Jesus, simply because my very weakness distracted me from the present. This distracted me from prayer, which distracted me from being aware of His love. I was too focused on my own self-pity.
And I feel so foolish that it took me several weeks of Lent to actually turn towards the cross to see Jesus speaking directly to me.
Jesus cries from the cross, and into my heart I thirst.
The God of all creation, and the Lord of all abundance, now crucified and humiliated on the cross lacks something so simple as a drink. He begs from His tree where he was pinned, ever so precariously for our sins. The God who gave us everything - weeps, and he weeps to us, so desperately, for something.
I’ve come to deeply love Jesus’ thirsting. It highlights his humanity – Jesus who walked on water, the man who gave the blind man sight, our Lord who fed the 5000, he also asks for a simple drink. Have you ever had a time when you have really been thirsty? When have you ever been truly absolutely parched? Where you have headaches from dehydration, and your saliva feels like a paste? It’s horrid! It’s an experience that’s rather foreign to most of us, but it’s far more relatable than perhaps being scourged at the pillar, or sweating blood out of anxiety, or carrying a cross that would soon carry you.
But what Jesus wants is more desperate than water. More desperate than coffee. No, Jesus is crying to us from the cross for us. He is thirsty for our souls. Taking on Lenten penances was never about feeling pain, it was never about being holier for doing more things, it’s about reminding us of Jesus’ pain. Reminding us of ALL the pain felt throughout the world. It’s about empathy, solidarity, and love.
Do you only seem capable of focusing on yourself, as I often do?
So, take this as a reminder that it’s not too late to end Lent strong. It’s not too late to double down on fasting. Even after Easter, it’s not too late to delve into the mystery of the cross.