In the Third Week of the Spiritual Exercises, we pray with the passion and death of Jesus. Having spend time in the Second Week walking with Jesus in his public ministry, we now walk with him to his death. What do we learn from doing so?
In his book The New Spiritual Exercises, Louis Savary suggests that praying with Jesus’ passion and death teaches us to how to suffer with consciousness and love. He writes
Humans are the bearers of consciousness and free choice. Thus, we can endure unavoidable suffering with consciousness and hatred, or we can endure it with consciousness and love. When you are conscious of your suffering, you can take the energy of your suffering and direct it either into anger and resentment, or into compassion and healing
What we learn from Jesus here is important. I think there is a tendency to think that our suffering removes choices from us and we can become completely overcome by circumstances. Carried along without making mindful intentional choices.
Walking with Jesus, however, we see that even while he suffered excruciating pain, he had compassion for the thief, forgiveness of his enemies, care for his mother, and ultimate trust in his father. We experience by staying with him throughout his passion that it is possible to suffer with consciousness and love. And that is a lesson we all need, since suffering is an inevitable part of our lives.
St. Ignatius hopes that in making the Spiritual Exercises we will more and more be able to model our behavior and lives on that of Jesus.
Is it possible to follow that model in the face of unbearable suffering?
Viktor Frankl wrote the first edition of his book Man’s Search For Meaning during a nine-day period within a year after his liberation from three years spent in Nazi concentration camps. Frankl makes the case in his book that life can have meaning under any conditions, even the most miserable. In part he conveys that message by recounting his concentration camp experiences.
Having experienced both brutality and kindness, and having watched the various responses of prisoners and captors to life in the camps, Frankl remained convinced that even in the most horrific suffering people have a choice of action. He wrote, “There were enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed. Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.”
Watching men who were able to go to their deaths comforting others, having watched people giving away their last bit of bread, provided for Frankl “sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Most of us will never undergo suffering at the level suffered by those in concentration camps, let alone that suffered by Jesus. But our own sufferings can sometimes seem overwhelming. Being with Jesus in the Third Week strengthens us to do so as he did.
Note that this is a the nineteenth in a series of posts in celebration of the Ignatian Year, which began on May 20 of this year