A Most Unusual Palm Sunday

How is it Palm Sunday already? Weren’t we only half way through Lent when the quarantining began? And that was last week or thereabouts, right? I am clearly losing track of time here. I was excited to hear from my son’s teacher last week saying that she was going to be hosting a half hour class on Mondays and Fridays–a little hint at normalcy! My husband actually keeps fairly regular weekday office hours in his home office these days, so, for me, weekends still feel like a relief, but I do miss the structure that school gives.

And really, that’s the only way in which we are being affected by this business. We are undeservedly fortunate to have (a) a salaried position, and (b) a teaching job that had already mostly shifted to online work with our February move. We live in a nice, spacious rental house, have a van for taking drives for a change of scenery, and internet to keep us connected to our loved ones. As I was driving my girls yesterday so that they would nap, I saw many many people outside their homes in their pyjamas, and it had an odd effect on me: it made me think that these COVID closures are a gift. Here we are, forced to slow down, and likely led to contemplate to some degree how much others mean to us. It’s quite possible some people might not have had the opportunity to slow down in their lives at all. Silence, or a lack of busy-ness, is essential to the soul’s health, though. In that respect, COVID is a gift.

But it’s not all sunshine and roses. We’re losing loved ones prematurely, we’re losing income, we’re losing our freedom to enjoy company in person and even to enjoy nature in our parks. There is a strong element of suffering. I am not the first Catholic to observe that this suffering comes at a liturgically appropriate time of year: Lent. And now, heading into Holy Week, we are really invited to contemplate the mystery of suffering.

Today we tuned into Ascension Press with Fr Mike Schmitz celebrating Palm Sunday Mass. The kids fell asleep and napped through most of it, making it just about the easiest Mass I’ve ever attended with them, and I got to listen to the homily! I’d like to recount some of it here, as it was just packed with points worthy of contemplation. Is Fr Mike Schmitz the new Fr Fulton Sheen? It kind of feels like it, eh? This man has a gift for preaching, and I praise God for leading him to the priesthood every time I listen to him preach.

He began the homily by picking out the words from the Gospel “It is finished” and started talking about unfinished furniture–so much to my surprise that I turned to my husband and asked if I heard it right! He made a beautiful analogy with it, though. He observed that just as sometimes we can buy unfinished furniture and choose our own finish, making our own mark on it, so too we complete Christ’s sufferings. For an unfinished chair is no less a chair being unfinished–it is as much a chair as it ever will be; so too Christ’s sufferings are lacking in nothing–except our own “finish,” or participation. Christ does not need us to participate in His suffering, but He invites us to. This was the best explanation of St Paul’s problematic line that I’ve ever encountered.

Fr Mike went on to say that, for the Christian, there is no senseless suffering. There is wasted suffering, but there is no senseless suffering. But when we join our suffering to Christ’s, our suffering takes on meaning, for, like His suffering on the cross, it becomes redemptive. When we say “yes” to our suffering and offer it back to the Lord as a sacrifice for, it becomes full of meaning.

Fr Mike distinguished between two kinds of suffering: physical and moral. The physical is bodily suffering, and the moral is basically every other kind of suffering: grief, sin, even irritation and frustration. When we offer these sufferings up, no matter how small and seemingly insignificant, we help make up “for what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ”–which, paradoxically, is nothing, but Christ so loves us that He desires that we might derive meaning from our suffering and so He invites us to join our small “yes” to His crucifixion, which, I need not tell you, saved the whole world.

I love that he spoke about how even our grief over sin can be used redemptively. Those things we’ve done that we feel awful for but can’t go back and change? Those words we’ve uttered and can’t take back? Those times we’ve avoided doing something good and something bad happened as a result? We can ask the Lord to use them. And He will. We just have to ask.

How do we “offer it up”? We just ask. We state our intention, and that is all. “This is for so-and-so.” Fr Mike says Christ was doing that all through His Passion. He saw each one of us, and His love for each of us individually motivated Him towards the bitter end. I remember doing this with my first labour and delivery. I was in too much pain to think of every intention during the labour individually, but I collected them at the beginning and offered them up, and then I entered into the suffering, a physical suffering I’d never experienced the like of before.

It became important to me that my children should learn how to suffer well. I hardly knew what that meant. I just knew that suffering was unavoidable in life and that I wanted my children not to turn to bitterness and cynicism, but to offer it always to the Lord. Little did I know that the greatest Golgotha of my life was right around the corner!

I’ve occasionally felt some guilt for embracing my suffering with Matthew so poorly. On the one hand, I suffered well: the Lord gave me the grace to rejoice in the terminal diagnosis and to accept it. On the other hand, I suffered poorly: I fell into a dark self-inwardness and nigh despair. I found I had nothing much to offer, as I had been reduced to nothing. Now, I realize that to some extent, my mental health was so greatly affected that I can hardly be blamed. But until I die, I will not know to what extent I embraced my suffering and made it redemptive, and to what extent I wallowed and wasted my suffering. As someone who has overcome past scrupulosity, I let it go, but I still felt bad for not loving Jesus as fully as I might have. Watching Fr Mike today, I think triggered by his comment that even grief for our past sins can be offered up, I suddenly realized that even this grief, the grief of not suffering as well as I might have, of wasting opportunities to do good, could be offered up. God is nothing if not opportunity. The Devil is nothing but a dead end.

So there we have it. Suffering well is easy: we just offer it up in the form of an intention–Do something with this, Lord! Of course, the reality isn’t that simple, as we have hesitations and reluctance to overcome, but God can make something with even the smallest of intentions.

Let’s offer up our little (and large) sufferings this week and in the weeks to come for the salvation of souls.