Elizabeth Scalia, the Anchoress, as a post up on the Christian virtue of suffering for the good of others. She calls it A Theology of Expansive Love.
Human suffering is one of life’s great mysteries. It is often a stumbling block to faith. But we can find meaning in our suffering if we look to the cross of Christ. Like Elizabeth, I grew up hearing “offer it up” and “offer it up for the poor souls in purgatory”.
I heard it quite a lot—probably because I was a frequent whiner.
But I only came to understand that suffering for others is a virtue when MS hit after 20 years in hiding. That doesn’t mean that I have ceased all whining. But I am getting better at it with God’s grace and by meditating on the cross. There are days where the only way that I cope is by literally fixing my gaze on the cross.
But we live in the age of suffering is the only sin. It has no meaning. The concept of penance, therefore, is all but a relic of an earlier era. Elizabeth asserts, correctly, that is because penance is seen as a punishment and not a Christian virtue.
“ We Catholics who grew up straddling the cusp of the conciliar divide may have a vague memory of the phrase “offer it up.” It was advice frequently given by the sisters who taught us our catechisms: “when you are in pain, when you are disappointed, when your feelings have been hurt, offer these things up to the Lord and ask him to use your suffering—that He join it to His own pain on the cross, for the good of others. Offer it as penance for your own sins, or the sins of those who cannot or will not do penance for themselves; offer it for the sick, the lonely, or for their intentions.”
“Penance” has received a bad name over the last thirty or forty years, largely because it was taught to many in the language of punishment rather than in the language of virtue, offering, and peace.
So, why not, penance? Why not take some of one’s suffering and—rather than popping a pill—endure it for a bit; live with it and in it, and do something with it; make it worthwhile instead of meaningless.
If we are told to “offer it up” at all today, it is usually in a tone of sarcasm or very weak irony. To we moderns, the concept has come to be regarded—like formerly common practices as prayerful ejaculations or a solemn breast-beat—as a quaint throwback to a time when notions of sin and reparation seemed to consume entirely too much of the Catholic sensibility. The idea of “offering it up” has fallen under the false but widely promulgated cultural disdain for something called “Catholic Guilt,” which is in truth, the marginalizing dismissal of the Catholic conscience.
Far from being a picturesque and nonchalant “there, there” to someone enduring either a minor inconvenience or a larger concern, “offer it up” is powerful theological advice that comes to us directly from scripture. As Paul writes to the Colossians: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and fill up on my part that which is lacking of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body’s sake, which is the church . . .”
Pondering the crucifix, and the immensity of what Christ endured, we wonder what could possibly be ‘lacking’ in his afflictions. But then, gazing upon His outstretched arms, we see an invitation. If we accept that no act in human history can begin to match the power, the healing, the victory and the justice that was achieved in the crucified suffering of Jesus of Nazareth, then attaching our own trials, minor or major though they be, to that still-resonating act of generosity and self-abnegation exposes them to all of the good contained in Christ’s sacrifice, and it assists in the salvation of the world.” Continue reading here.