One of the famous Gospel characters is the publican, the tax collector in the back of the room. Jesus portrays him as the ideal worshipper, the best kind of pray-er. He knows how to come before God; he does it right. Not full of himself, not holding up accomplishments to be rewarded, not comparing himself to anyone else around, he’s wide open to take in whatever it is The Lord has to give him. He’s got the perfect, all-receptive stance for coming before God and hearing what God has to tell him.
A hypothetical question about this man. How did he get that way? How did he learn this right posture before God and God’s people? We can only speculate, but might this be one answer? He suffered, and rather than being crushed by his suffering, he learned from it. Through his anguish, he learned of God and of how God would have him be and act. Here’s one possible backstory to frame his story.
This tax collector’s life was filled with hate. His neighbors despised him because of his fiscal authority. His family disowned him because of his bottom-of- the- basement standing in the community. He himself couldn’t sleep through the nights because of his guilt at collaborating with the Romans. He shouldered the heaviest of weights, burdened down and shunned as only an outcast can be. And so he lived his days in this constant state of anguish, outside the gates even of his own self.
What does he do with all this hurt and abandonment? Somehow, rather than turning in on himself and growing bitter, he lets the suffering teach him. Instruct him about his own inability to pull himself up by his bootstraps, about his own truth as a creature and not an all-independent creator, about the hollowness of any righteousness he can claim for himself. It also teaches him about the solidarity he has with other limited, hemmed in, faltering people. Rather than above them, he’s basically on their same level; rather than up in the helicopter, he’s in the same boat with them; that rather than judging them, he is to be their helper.
Suffering doesn’t have to smother. It can also teach me the deepest things, about God and where I stand with God, where I really fit in this world, how I relate to other people, what acceptance really means and what God is asking me to do. How did the tax collector in this account learn what counts and what doesn’t in God’s eyes? It was through the suffering that came to him, but embraced in the right way.
The story can be an introduction to St. Louise de Marillac and her “way” to God and God’s people. One of the central themes of her life and holiness is that she learned God through her suffering. She met the Father, Son and Spirit by the way she worked through her crosses and turned them from self-preoccupation into care for others.
Louise was a woman who not only had hard knocks in her life, but was especially prone to anguishing over them, being mentally tortured by them. Never knowing her birth mother and not really included in the circle of her half brothers and sisters, she had to work with what we might call today abandonment issues. She had a perfectionist streak, always fearing she wasn’t doing things right, especially doing right before her God.
For the first half of her life, she was a chronic worrier, assaulted by thoughts that calamity was just around the corner. And indeed, often enough it was. Not long into her marriage, her husband took sick. After three years of decline and constant pain, he died leaving her a widow and a single mother just as she entered her thirties. She had to move in with relatives to make ends meet. Some relations close to her were executed by the state for their part in political conspiracies. And she constantly fretted over her one son all through his growing up years and beyond.
But what Louise seemed to be especially anxious over was: how she stood with God, wondering if she had taken the right path in life and whether her misfortunes were divine punishment for her not responding enough to God’s calls.
And here’s the thing about Louise. Her sainthood came about in large part because of how she worked through all this anguish. Never really eliminating her tendencies or curing her obsessions, she turned them into gold — not just for herself but for countless others and for the glory of her God. They could have shut her down, turned her in on herself. But instead, they led her out, opened her onto the wider world, onto God’s Kingdom kneading its way into the stuff of this earth. How did she do it? What went into her way of facing suffering?
For one thing, she reached out for help. She went to wise people, spiritual directors, sympathetic listeners to get a hand hold on her situation. A special one of these was our own St. Vincent de Paul who advised her on and off for close to 40 years.
But for another, her life of prayer took a certain direction. And that was up the hill of Calvary, walking with the Suffering Jesus as he made his way there. She identified with him in his sufferings done for the sake of the world. Gradually, she mixed her burdens with his. Over time, she joined her sense of abandonment to his experience of rejection. Conversely, she could feel his surrender to his Father seeping into her attempts to do the same. She opened her heart more widely to Jesus’ strength, resiliency, but mostly to his all-conquering trust as he hung on his cross. She grew to live the truth of St. Paul’s claim that his very selfhood was anchored in another. “I have been crucified with Christ. I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me.” (Gal. 2:20)
You can see this happening in her prayer practices. In a depressed state one Lent, she hands herself over to be united with Jesus’ sufferings. “If God wants me to continue in this heavy sense of being abandoned, I give myself over to whatever he wants so as to honor the sufferings of Jesus Christ.” (LaFleur, 144). And by “honor” she means to follow the Lord into the dark corners of his life and there experience the grace Jesus does as he hands himself over to His Father.
You can hear it in her counseling of others. She tells her sisters to fold their pain into the agony Jesus went through. “Let us take the first step in following him and say, “I am going to follow you, Lord, to the foot of your cross. And I choose this place as my cloister.” (LaFleur, 145). In another letter she states, “…at the foot of this holy and precious cross, I give up everything that might prevent me from loving.” Uniting her sufferings with Jesus, she also joins her trust to his, the bottomless trust he has in his dear Father. And with him she’s sustained in the world of God’s love.
Growing deeper and deeper in her solidarity with the Suffering Lord, it’s no accident she’s so able to help others in their suffering. She knows what they are going through, but more to the point she knows what and who will take them through their dark nights: the Lord Jesus hanging on his cross as he is sustained by the love of his Father and shows us the love of this Father. This is why Louise can remain so close to the poor for so long a time, why she can bring such comfort to the abandoned and destitute. She knows the pain of her own brand of poverty. But more so, she knows whom to go to take her through the darkness of that impoverishment.
It’s difficult to talk about suffering this way without making suffering sound like a good thing. It’s not good. But, if carried in the right way, it can lead to good, can coax us out of our darkness into the light. If trustfully joined to Jesus’ passion, Louise would say, if taken onto HIS road to Calvary, it can bring us to that truer sense of how we should stand before God and how we can most effectively serve God’s people.
To sum up her “lessons” on what suffering can teach us:
- I stand before God humbly. I am the creature and not the creator. I live from God-righteousness and not self-righteousness.
- I stand before God trustingly. With Jesus, I sense rescue and that I will be given new life. I experience myself as the receiver of amazing grace. I come to know myself as the beloved one in whom God is well pleased.
- I stand before God gratefully. And I let this gratitude spill over into compassion and solidarity with those others who hang on their own crosses all around me.
We started out with that lowly publican crouched in the back of the synagogue. We moved to Louise, also huddled down in the shadows of her sufferings. From how life came at them, each could sing from their hearts the old spiritual, “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen.” But what’s different here is that each could sing the second part of that verse with even more conviction, “Nobody knows but Jesus.”
It’s that special knowing which transforms the suffering from a hell on earth into a life lived with pieces of heaven already here – or as Louise would say, into a “life of loving service of others, lived in the loving arms of Providence.”