Rich Tarro, a Maryknoll Lay Missioner working in Kenya, reflects on joy and grace in the midst of suffering.
In today’s Gospel reading from Matthew, Jesus lays out the conditions for discipleship: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” Suffering is a part of life. We can’t escape it. But here, Jesus is not simply reiterating this truth—He is exhorting us to actively take up our crosses, which are the means by which God’s love is perfected in us. As disciples we are called to walk with Jesus on this radical journey of love.
Pope Saint John Paul II observes in Salvifici Doloris (On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering): “Human suffering has reached its culmination in the passion of Christ. And at the same time, it has entered into a completely new dimension and a new order: it has been linked to love” (18). Through His death on the cross, Jesus made suffering redemptive. He transformed suffering into a participation in His love.
To rise with Christ, the Catechism teaches us, we must die with Christ. But are we supposed to take this literally? Although the meaning of suffering remains a great mystery, God uses suffering to show us how to unite our lives with His. God is a loving father who knows us better than we know ourselves. He knows what we want before we ask for it and, like any good parent, knows that what we want may not always be what we need. God calls out to us through suffering and lovingly awaits our response. Saint Thérèse, the Little Flower, whose life gives beautiful witness to the power of suffering, understands that “[God] longs to give us a magnificent reward. . . . He knows that [suffering] is the only means of preparing us to know Him as He knows Himself, and to become ourselves Divine” (Story of a Soul, 169).
Our all-knowing, all-loving God seeks to shower countless graces upon us. Sometimes these graces come in the midst of trials. But how do we receive these graces? We must be open to them, cooperating fully with His holy will. When we speak of “dying to ourselves,” we are really talking about self-denial. God asks us to renounce our will, not because He doesn’t want us to use it. Rather, God desires that we empty ourselves to make room in our hearts for Him. It is then that He can work in and through us. God bestows His grace upon us freely; we don’t earn it. But grace is transformative only to the extent that we are willing and disposed to receive it; an impossibility if we are far from God, distracted by worldly things.
My work as a Maryknoll Lay Missioner in Kenya brings me face-to-face with incomprehensible hardships and suffering: the family that has gone days without food; the single mother and sole caregiver of small children who is herself dying of AIDS; the father ashamed that he cannot provide for his family because there are no jobs. On a human level, it is difficult not to get caught up in the tragedy of these situations and the seeming hopelessness that surrounds them. I know that if I try to face such situations alone, it only leads to feelings of despair and inadequacy. But the Lord is with me. I see Him in the faces of those I encounter. He is there helping to carry the crosses of all who struggle. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).
It is the joy and trust of the Kenyan people in the midst of suffering and hardship that reveal God’s abiding presence. Most of us have a natural aversion to trials and suffering, but many people here have found a way to rise above it. Each day, these faith-filled souls choose to walk joyfully with Christ. Their very lives are powerful testaments to God’s unfathomable love. In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis reminds us that “Joy is not expressed the same way at all times in life, [. . .] but it always endures, even as a flicker of light born of our personal certainty that, when everything is said and done, we are infinitely loved.”
As Jesus, with His cross, bore our burdens with love, so also, as disciples, we are called to accept our crosses with love, as divine gifts chosen for us, to help us conform our lives to His. Likewise, we are called to help lighten the burdens of others, as Jesus constantly does for us. To me, being Christ to others is the essence of missionary life. It is the life that we are called to as baptized Christians. “I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do” (John 13:15).
The saints are powerful examples of how suffering unites us to Christ and how we can live with joy in the midst of hardships. The people I came here to help give more to me through their joy and love of God in the midst of trials than I could ever hope to give them in my ministry work. Like Saint Paul, as followers of the Lord, we must learn to rejoice in our sufferings—and despite them—for the sake of others. Saint Edith Stein affirms this when she writes, “Do you want to be totally united to the Crucified? If you are serious about this, you will be present, by the power of His Cross, at every front, at every place of sorrow, bringing to those who suffer comfort, healing, and salvation.”
So let us pray for the grace to take up our crosses daily, with confidence and joy, trusting in the Lord’s wisdom, and striving always to serve others with love.
Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, I give you thanks and praise for all your many gifts and blessings,
especially the love you shower upon me.
Be with me each moment of this day.
Help me to be mindful of your never-ending love, and inspire me to show my love for you by responding generously to the needs of others.
May I become your eyes, your ears, your hands, your voice in a world that hungers for love and forgiveness.
In all I say, in all that I do this day, may I do it for you.
Be with me, Lord, and bless me.
Mungu ni mwema. God is good.
Photo courtesy of Rich Tarro, MKLM