November 21, 1996

[This letter in English]
[Dieser Brief auf deutsch]
[Esta carta en español]


November 21, 1996
Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Dear Friend of Saint Joseph Abbey,

Suffering remains one of the most profound enigmas of human existence. Its reality affects all people; no one escapes from it. If the spectacle of creation opens the view of the soul to the existence of God, to His wisdom, to His goodness and His providence, the suffering that exists in the world seems to obscure this image. Certain people can even be tempted to deny the existence of God: "If God exists, why is there all of this evil in the world?" Indeed, how can it be that our life on earth is so full of pain and conflict? Conflicts between the soul which is immortal and the body which is torn apart by sickness and death; between reason and the passions, which draw us in opposite directions; conflicts between man and the universe, man toiling every day to draw sustenance form the earth, which, too often, answers him with famines and catastrophes? Why are there so many troubles?

"In the core of all suffering undergone by man, and at the base of all the suffering of the world, appears inevitably the question: Why"? (John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Salvifici Doloris, February 11, 1984, on the "Christian Meaning of Suffering," 9).

Wonderful Harmony

Revelation teaches us that in the beginning God did not create man in this dramatic state. He did not just make him a man, a "reasonable animal"; He made him from the beginning in a state of sanctity. He clothed him in His grace, He came to "dwell in him." That is what the verse in Genesis expresses: Let us make man to our image and likeness

(Gen. 1: 26). The Fathers of the Church saw in the expression, in our likeness, an allusion to the sanctifying grace which made man a participant in divine nature, "like God." The grace conferred on Adam had this peculiarity of extending God's influence over the entire human being, body and soul, by powerful effects which we no longer know. The soul was complete master of the body, arming it against suffering and death; reason, free of concupiscence, ruled perfectly over the passions. Finally, man truly reigned over the world: The earth was for him a garden of delights, a paradise, without painful toil or struggle against nature.

This wonderful harmony which reigned at that time constituted what we call "the state of original justice." It was to be the lot of man as long as he remained in the divine friendship. Alas! As Scripture teaches us, man, tempted by the devil, lost the grace that tied him to God. In this sin, he preferred himself to God, and by that he scorned his Creator, he rebelled against Him, refusing his state of creature, and seeking to become "divine," not according to God's plan for him, but "against" God: and you shall be as Gods (Gen. 3: 5), the tempting serpent said.

Adam loses grace and with it the happiness of his existence in the earthly paradise: he will go on to death: You will die; he will have to fight against his passions, which incline him to evil (concupiscence); work will be painful for him: cursed is the earth in thy work (Gen. 3: 3-7 and 17). Saint Paul will say, Wherefore as by one man sin entered into this world, and by sin death (Rom. 5: 12), and with death all the many sufferings that weigh on humanity every day. If God permitted the fall of Adam, with all of its tragic consequences, if He tolerated it as we tolerate an insult, it was to respect the liberty of man. But to this insult made to His love, God answered by an even greater love: He offers His pardon and promises a Redeemer. Even more, He makes in a certain fashion common cause with man even in his sufferings.

Compassion is very near

In the Old Testament, God often shows His compassion and His tenderness towards man who is suffering. But the coming of the Saviour on earth marks in a more poignant fashion the solidarity of God with suffering humanity. The Gospel shows us Jesus ceaselessly bringing Himself near to the miseries of His contemporaries. Suffering moves Him, touches Him, upsets Him, sometimes to tears. Disregarding custom, we see Him go before the lepers, the untouchables of the time, to put His hands in their wounds and cure them. The suffering of hearts inspires profound compassion in Him, as in the scene of the widow of Naim weeping over the death of her only son. He draws all of those in pain towards His Heart open to all suffering: Come to me, all you that labor, and are burdened, and I will refresh you (Matt. 11: 28).

But God wished to go further: by becoming man, He put Himself also among the number of the suffering. Jesus wished to be born in a wretched stable; He worked hard to gain His daily bread; He knew hunger, thirst, the weariness of long journeys on foot (cf. John 4: 6); for three years, He did not have a home, not even a rock on which to rest His head (cf. Matt. 8: 20); He suffered the misunderstanding of men, their mockeries; they treated Him as a man given over to wine and good food. The truth and the depth of His fear of suffering appears particularly in the prayer in Gethsemani: My God, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me! In the passion, physical and mental pain reach their paroxysm. Finally, Our Lord wished to join man in the mystery of death. All men who suffer can say in facing the Crucified: "He too has suffered."

But if Jesus passed through the abyss of suffering, it was to transfigure it and give it a completely new dimension: from now on suffering is linked to love. If it remains a great evil in itself, suffering has become the most solid foundation of the essential possession of man, that is to say, eternal salvation. It permits us to be tied to Jesus in the work of the Redemption. A consequence of sin, it becomes, by the power of God, the means of our moral recovery.

Paschal Mystery

"Without Easter, the world is without hope. Thanks to Easter, life makes complete sense.... I have lived in my flesh and in my heart the mystery of the Passion and of the Resurrection.... We are called on to die and to rise up every day." The name of the person saying these words is Jacques Lebreton. He has been sightless and without his hands since November, 1942.

It was in the Libyan desert. In a group of resting soldiers, Jacques, squatting down over a case of hand grenades, takes the explosives one after the other to disarm them. "I was working and chatting with the boys," he would later say. "One of them, without my knowing it, takes a grenade and pulls the pin out. Then, scared, he hands it to me. I automatically grab it, but I quickly see that it's going to explode. Throw it quick! But my pals are there, I would risk killing them.... Suddenly, I hear the sound of a big gong. I am plunged into shadows. I try to talk, but I can't. I see myself dead."

Son of a naval officer, Jacques Lebreton left the family estate at Kerval, near Brest (France), in June, 1940, 18 years old, to join the Free French forces in London. Then, after a long journey in the Middle East, he ended up in Libya, facing the troops of the German General Rommel. For the first time, he confronts death: the mortar shells are whistling everywhere. There are a lot of dead people around him. He asks himself the question of God: "I had received a Christian education at home and at middle school. Suddenly, when I was eighteen, I went from a sheltered life to a completely exposed life. Little by little, my faith weakened and I quit practicing it. but in the face of danger, I asked myself the fundamental question: `Does God exist? Who is He? After death, is it a black hole?'....The answer to my question was going to be given to me in an unexpected fashion, with the explosion of the grenade."

After receiving first aid from the field ambulance, Jacques Lebreton was evacuated to a hospital in Damascus. For two or three weeks he remained plunged in a deep sleep. He suspects that his eyes have been seriously injured, but he thinks that he will get his sight back in six months or a year at the most. Time will heal everything. On the other hand, he doesn't know what is hiding beneath his enormous dressings that wrap the tips of his forearms: "I still felt my hands as if they were gripping the grenade: it's a well known illusion of amputees. When I discovered the truth, I was sickened. In Libya, I had seen twenty one of my comrades vaporized in a giant explosion; I said to myself: `Death in the middle of battle is nothing; you don't see it coming. What I fear more is to lose an arm or a leg. I couldn't take that....' And now, I found myself blind and without hands: a quadruple amputation. Twenty-one years old! How could God permit such a thing to happen?"

"Accept" in order to no longer "undergo"

Meanwhile, a sister, a Franciscan missionary of Mary, that Jacques had met during a previous visit to Damascus, learned that he was in the hospital. She came to see him regularly. "She spoke to me of Job, who did not curse God. She referred to the words of the Gospel: If the seed of wheat doesn't die in the earth, it doesn't bear fruit." The sick man feels these truths penetrate into his soul. He starts to pray again and to receive the sacraments. He even accepts Communion twice a week, and then every day. Thus he discovers the love that pushed Jesus, "man of sorrows," to die for us on the Cross. He experiences a mysterious force that brings him near to Christ. Thanks to the vigor of his newly found faith, he sees in his suffering a hidden redeeming value. Then, resting on divine force and not on his own weakness, he makes God the heroic offering of his eyes and of his hands. He decides to no longer "undergo" his tribulation, but to "accept it." Accepting it is a victory. "Before being wounded, I knew laughter, but not joy, true joy. Really, I wept with joy on my hospital bed. I even said to the nurse sister: `I haven't lost anything!'"

Love transforms hearts, and makes suffering meritorious. According to Saint Francis de Sales: "Divine love not only softens what is bitter, but transforms the cross into joy, because God is the God of joy." Jacques Lebreton experienced it. The joy which infuses the heart by grace, even in the middle of suffering, is not a joy of the senses but a peaceful and mysterious contentment in the faith, which made Saint Theresa of the Child Jesus say: "Down here everything tires me, everything burdens me... I only find one joy, that of suffering for Jesus, but this unfelt joy is above all other joy!" (Letter, March 12, 1889).

But when suffering only brings us sadness and weighs us down, let us recall these other words of the "little" Theresa: "Let us suffer, if necessary, with bitterness, without courage. Jesus truly suffered with sadness: without sadness, would the soul suffer? It is really consoling to think that Jesus, divinely Strong, knew all our weaknesses, that He trembled at the sight of the bitter chalice, this chalice that He had once so ardently desired" (Letters, April 26, 1889, December 26, 1896). Also, when we suffer, let us think that Jesus is there, compassionately close to us, to help us carry today's cross.

Amputated from God

Jacques Lebreton had also literally had his road to Damascus. "Curiously," he remarked, "it is by Saint Paul's gate that I entered into this city. Saint Paul arrived there blind, and he found his sight again there. As for me, I found there a light infinitely more precious than that which I lost." Every year, on the 5th of November, he will announce to his friends: "Today, I offer champagne -Why? - Because it's the anniversary of the day that I became blind!" In his faith, he essentially considered that, according to his own words, "the only infirmity is to be amputated from God."

"To be cut off from God," that's the work of mortal sin. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us that "to the eyes of faith no evil is graver than sin and nothing has worse consequences for sinners themselves, for the Church, and for the whole world" (n. 1488). Our Lord warned us that it is better to lose one's hands and eyes than to be thrown into the fiery furnace, hell, where we are led by sin, which turns us away from God (cf. Matt. 5: 29-30). The loss of eternal life is, without a doubt, the greatest suffering for man since, in losing it, he loses the perfect happiness for which God has destined him. Jesus came to free us from definitive suffering: eternal damnation. "The only Son was given to humanity in order to protect man above all against this definitive evil.... The mission of the only Son consists of conquering sin and death; He triumphs over sin by His obedience even unto death, and He triumphs over death by His resurrection" (Salvifici Doloris, 14). By destroying sin, Jesus destroyed the greatest of evils and at the same time the root of all suffering, since it is by sin that suffering and death entered into the world (cf. Rom. 5: 12). Thus it is possible for all those who will to obtain the forgiveness of their sins and to take part in the fruits of the Redemption. This benefit comes to us mainly by way of the sacraments, the channels of divine grace, which purify us, fortify us and makes our souls grow in sanctity. In addition, by prayer and worthy reception of the sacraments, the patient tolerance of all suffering becomes possible for us.

"Why does God permit suffering?" Mother Teresa was asked one day. "It is difficult to understand: it is the mystery of the love of God; that is why we cannot even understand why Jesus suffered so much, why the loneliness of Gethsemani and the suffering of the crucifixion had to occur. It is the mystery of His great love. The suffering that we see now, it is as if Christ relived His Passion in us. - How can suffering be admired? - If it is accepted in the correct sense, as coming from the hand of God, for our sanctification, the purification of our soul and also for the reparation of the sins of the world, then it brings peace and it can be admired. - But isn't God a God of love? - God does not give us suffering in order to torture us, but to draw us to Him."

A service which cannot be replaced

Far from being useless, people who suffer accomplish a service which cannot be replaced. "Faith, by participation in the sufferings of Christ, carries in itself the inner certainty that the man who suffers completes what is lacking of the sufferings of Christ (cf. Col. 1: 24) and that, in the spiritual perspective of the work of the Redemption, he is useful, like Christ, in the salvation of his brothers and sisters" (Salvifici Doloris, 27). It is for that reason that the Church venerates those who suffer: She sees in them those who continue the work of Christ our Saviour. Saint Theresa of the Child Jesus confided a little before her death: "I would never have believed that it was possible to suffer so much! I can only explain that to myself by the ardent desire I have had to save souls" (September 30, 1897).

The Most Blessed Virgin Mary, spared from all stain of sin, has been closely associated with the work of salvation. "In her, the innumerable and intense sufferings built up with such cohesion that, while showing her unshakable faith, they contributed to the Redemption of all. Her going up to Calvary and her presence at the foot of the Cross were a very special participation in the redemptive death of her Son. Jesus also conferred on Mary a new motherhood - spiritual and universal - with respect to all men" (Salvifici Doloris, 25, 26). That is why whoever has recourse to this Mother who is so compassionate and tender towards those who suffer, will obtain a measure of the grace of consolation.

But it is above all in Heaven that we will harvest the fruits of our patience in carrying the Cross. Indeed Saint John assures us in the Apocalypse that in Heaven: God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes: and death shall be no more, nor mourning, nor crying, nor sorrow shall be any more, for the former things are passed away (21: 4); and Saint Paul writes to the Romans: For I reckon that the sufferings of this time are not worthy to be compared with the glory to come, that shall be revealed in us (8: 18). Saint Cyprian, speaking of this glory of Heaven, expresses it thus: "What glory and what joy to be admitted to see God, to be honored with the Lord Christ our God, with the possession of the joy of salvation and of eternal light, in the company of the just and the friends of God, of the joys of immortality attained" (Letter 56, 10, 1); and Saint Augustine: "What happiness won't this be, for there we will busy ourselves with the praises of God, who will be everything in everyone! He will be the achievement of all our desires, He who will be seen without end, who will be loved without weariness, who will be praised without tiring. There, we will rest and we will see, we will see and we will love, we will love and we will praise" (City of God, Book 22, c. 30, n. 1, 5).

That is the grace that we ask Our Lady and Saint Joseph to grant you as well as to all of those who are dear to you, living and deceased.

Dom Antoine Marie osb.

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