At the core of Franciscan spirituality is this striving to enter into the divine heart to feel the pathos of suffering love that God feels for the world. Francis’s striving to identify with the crucified Christ was not meant to be a spiritual absorption into suffering for its own sake and should not be construed as a masochistic sanctification of pain. Rather, Francis sought to know God by abiding with God in the passion. Francis embodied and illuminated the words of St. Paul, who wrote: “In my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” (Col 1:24). Francis believed that if we claim to be the body of Christ, we are called to participate in the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We are called to die and be raised again in new life, not just at the end of our life but in each moment of our discipleship journey. Francis accompanies us in following Jesus in the way of the cross, the way of active love on behalf of the crucified of the world.
Those who habitual seek to avoid all pain and experience only what is pleasant and comfortable, will sooner or later find themselves carrying far heavier crosses than those who try to consent to sufferings it would be unrealistic to try to eliminate.
Francis was a true lover of Christ, according to Bonaventure, because he was perfectly conformed to the Crucified Christ both in spirit and in flesh. The stigmatized Francis signifies to Bonaventure that if one desires happiness and peace, one must contemplate God and strive for mystical union through conformity to Christ Crucified, the Word of God.
Anyone who says that cooperating with God to become holy isn’t hard is a liar. I’ll tell them that to their face. Looking at your crap and changing it out of love for God is not supposed to be easy. It is supposed to cost us something, it cost God His son. Look at a crucifix and tell me that somehow we are supposed to get off easy. We aren’t. We make our choices, we choose our sins, we give in to them knowing that they are wrong and then we expect what? To give our lives to Christ and POOF, magic Jesus just fixes us? What would we learn from that? Nothing. The way that we learn is by facing our sins, ugly as they are and seeing what destruction they have caused and then ridding our lives of them. That is not easy, it is hard. Staying the same is easy. I’ll say it again, anyone who says that it is easy is a liar, Jesus didn’t call it dying to yourself for nothing.
St. Francis of Assisi found God not in pomp and glory, but in infirmity and foolishness. He found God in what we throw away. Francis found the God of endless light hiding in the shadows, on the margin of society. The spiritual life does not lift us above the human condition – its misery, problems, confrontations, pain and difficulties. Spiritual life plunges us deeply into our humanity. It would be nice to sit in church all day, hands clasped in prayer, drinking the ecstasy of the Lord. But that is unrealistic; we must enter into the marketplace, walk the alleys of commerce. We must help each other out of the ditches into which we fall. In the streets of life we encounter God. Everything human is divine.
As Christians, if we are to love as Jesus loved, we must first come to terms with suffering. Like Jesus, simply cannot be cool and detached from our fellow human beings. Our years of living as Christians will be years of suffering for and with other people. Like Jesus, we will love others only if we walk with them in the valley of darkness – the dark valley of sickness, the dark valley of moral dilemmas, the dark valley of oppressive structures and diminished rights.
Job, I came to see, is the model of what an Italian biblical scholar has called “the believer who loves the true God in himself and for himself, without ulterior motives”—and does so precisely along the dark path of suffering. It is Job, sitting amidst misery, who rejects his friends’ calculating, facile suggestions about why bad things happen to good people. It is Job who, in the end, refuses to cram the divine will and purpose onto the procrustean bed of human wisdom. It is Job who, finally, lets God be God—and who, by admitting that he is not the artisan of his own existence, makes a deeper act of faith in the God whose divine “logic” in beyond anything human minds can grasp.
The Christian doctrine of suffering explains, I believe, a very curious fact about the world we live in. The settled happiness and security which We all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the World: but joy, pleasure, and merriment He has scattered broadcast. We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy. It is not hard to see why. The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and pose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with our friends, a bathe or a football match, have no such tendency. Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.
What really hurts is not so much suffering itself as the fear of suffering. If welcomed trustingly and peacefully, suffering makes us grow. It matures and trains us, purifies us, teaches us to love unselfishly, makes us poor in heart, humble, gentle, and compassionate toward our neighbor. Fear of suffering, on the other hand, hardens us in self-protective, defensive attitudes, and often leads us to make irrational choices with disastrous consequences.
Hard as it is, we need to learn to forgive other people for making us suffer or disappointing us, and even to accept the problems they create for us as graces and blessings. The attitude is neither spontaneous nor natural, but it is the only one by which to achieve peace and interior freedom.