For most Americans, it was a brutal winter. We live in a house with drafty old windows, and our heating system — designed for a more temperate climate — was not up to the task of fighting off the incessant cold. The greatest weapon in our arsenal in our war against shivering has been our trusty kerosene heater. Where we live, there’s only one gas station with a kerosene pump, so when the weather forecast gets ominous, that’s where I go.
I’ve noticed, the past couple of times that I’ve gone there, that there’s a young man often working the counter who is missing most of the fingers on each hand. I did some research and discovered that it’s a condition called ectrodactyly, or “cleft hand,” which is a congenital disorder that leaves the hand with an appearance and function that’s claw-like, lacking the precision and dexterity of normal fingers. This isn’t a little mom-and-pop convenience store, though. It’s a full-fledged, big chain operation, with probably about a dozen pumps and a full-service store. It’s busy. All the time. But this kid really moves. Even when he has to ring up kerosene, which requires grabbing a calculator from under the counter to figure out a total for a certain number of gallons, because that pump isn’t programmed into the system.
Every time I watch him work, it makes an impression on me. The speed with which he handles money, the register, or even the buttons on the calculator. His obvious competence at his job, which he does much more efficiently, in my opinion, than most of his co-workers who lack any apparent disability. I don’t know anything about him or his faith or personal philosophy. To be honest, I don’t even know his name. But I respect him. I look at him and see a man who could have spent his life in self-pity and defeat, telling others that they need to do for him what he can’t do for himself. Instead, he chose to work hard, overcome an unfortunate situation, and not only get by but excel. Doesn’t matter one bit that he works in a gas station. If anything, that’s even more impressive. He has chosen to be the best at what he does, wherever he happens to find himself.
On my most recent visit, I left there thinking about what it’s like to have to live with that sort of a infirmity and continue to function. And it struck me almost immediately that, in a way, most of us do, even if we don’t realize it. Sure, it’s a different sort of limitation, but the fact is, we are all broken.
How many of us go around each day hiding what’s wrong with us from the world? Our anger, our depression, our anxiety, our feelings of insufficiency or confusion or despair? Our directionlessness or feelings that we don’t have a place in this world?
How many of us are in deeply painful and difficult marriages? How many bear the scars of abuse or difficult childhoods? How many are struggling with the fear and worry of financial insufficiency or outright poverty? How many are battling addictions, vices, or sins we can’t seem to overcome? How many are weathering spiritual attacks, or doubts about God and His Church, or even a loss of faith?
How many of us are suffering from a combination of a number of these things, and the cross of it simply seems too much to bear?
Every day, we still have to function. Each of us go out into the world, concealing wounds that seem as though they will never heal. We smile and do our jobs, go to school, attend Mass, and interact with others under the pretense of normalcy. But just because we do not bear our deformities and disabilities outwardly, where all can see, does not mean they do not exist. We pretend that things are fine because that’s what is expected of us. And probably in no small part because pretending it makes us feel a little more normal, at least for a while. Eventually, though, the reality sets back in, and we find ourselves back in the downward spiral. Immersed in the darkness of sin and concupiscence, we reel from the effects of the Fall.
We are all broken. But Our Lord, the Divine Physician, loves us and longs to heal us. To bind up our wounds.
First, though, we must weather the Via Dolorosa. We must follow in the bloody, beleaguered footsteps of Our Crucified God. Most of us spend our lives seeking comfort and consolation. We instinctively run from suffering just as our body automatically flinches away from a source of pain.
And yet there is no way to heaven except by being raised to it on the cross.
We do not get to escape suffering in this life. We must all endure it. If we flee from one kind, another will surely follow. Yet, to the Christian, suffering is redemptive. What would be empty and meaningless torment to a man without faith can, in cooperation with grace, become a source of purifying strength and real joy to a man of belief.
“For whom the Lord loveth, he chastiseth; and he scourgeth every son whom he receiveth.” (Heb. 12:6) This is a hard thing to understand, except in light of Christ’s own Passion. We must be purified if we wish to enter Heaven. We must enter into the mystery of redemption, placing our whole selves upon the paten at the Offertory during each Mass, unifying our imperfect sufferings with those offered perfectly upon the altar of Golgotha. “Hide me within your wounds,” pleads the supplicant to his Lord in the recitation of the Anima Christi. But how can we take comfort in wounds we have not also borne? How can we participate fully in the life of Christ unless we, too, bear some of the stripes He endured for us? “For we have not a high priest, who can not have compassion on our infirmities: but one tempted in all things like as we are, without sin.” (Heb. 4:15)
Truth be told, I am the wrong man to counsel others in their suffering, since I bear my own so unwillingly. God has been merciful to me in not giving me worse trials, but I sometimes think this is only because I can bear so little. I get caught up so often in what is wrong in my own life that I lose sight of the good that it may do, or of my many blessings. There have even been times when I have lost sight of God, and of His love. For me, Saint Paul’s words ring out like both a chastisement and a call to arms:
“And he said to me: My grace is sufficient for thee; for power is made perfect in infirmity. Gladly therefore will I glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may dwell in me.” (2 Cor. 12:9)
We are all broken, most of us in ways that no one can see. The options before us seem clear: we can choose to seek pity, to wallow in our difficulties and inflict them on others while turning against our Maker. Or, we can take recourse to the healing balm of prayer and the sacraments, have faith in the face of suffering, work hard, overcome our difficulties and misfortunes, and not merely get by, but excel.
It is only by the latter path that we can truly live, embracing our cross in this life, and experiencing the unending joy of triumph in the next.