We are absorbed these Sacred Triduum days in the sufferings of Jesus Christ. What does suffering mean? How can we make sense of it? A new book which presents the profound insights of the late Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete (+2014) on this topic is the perfect place to turn for answers. Cry of the Heart: On the Meaning of Suffering (Slant Books, 2023) offers wisdom and vision that lead readily to prayer.
Monsignor Albacete was a friend and father—I attended many superb priest retreats he preached. His realistic approach to the mystery of suffering is rooted squarely in experience. Albacete calls out suffering as an experience that is “offensive to existence itself.” And he states the problem bluntly: “No worldly theory can adequately apprehend [suffering], do it justice, or do the sufferer justice and, therefore, provide insights as to how to respond to it.” Which seems to leave nowhere to go.
But Albacete scrutinizes it all more closely. “Pain,” he says, “is a real symptom that tells us something is wrong at the level of one’s existence. The world of suffering reveals that something is wrong that goes beyond any one particular manifestation of suffering. There is a great wound in the heart of human existence.” And “the consciousness of pain” that is suffering is “the kind of knowing that generates the question why.”
Albacete sees this urge to ask why in the face of suffering as something keenly provocative:
If we ask why, it means that we have some idea of how it should be, and something has occurred that doesn’t fit that worldview…. Asking this question shows that we are convinced an answer is possible, that there is a higher schema of reason into which we want to be lifted so we can deal with this reality of suffering.
In fact, if we did not undergo the experience of suffering, we would never be prompted to ask the question why which moves us to that “higher schema of reason.”
Suffering makes us go beyond our preconceived worldview towards something more … Therefore suffering is a sign of the conviction that there must be somewhere a source of reason that is always beyond our capacity to appreciate and to grasp within the moment.
Which is another way of saying that “when we cry out in suffering for answers, we are crying out to God, to the source of ultimate meaning.” For “if there is no God, it makes no sense to speak about suffering as suffering really is felt by human beings … Human suffering is totally incomprehensible outside of the light of faith.” It makes no sense to ask why? For whom would we be talking to??
Suffering makes us feel “as if we are sending out an SOS, a cry for help. Let us use a theological word. It is a cry for salvation. We want to be saved … Suffering is a cry for salvation, and the reply to it must be its redemption.” That is, the very mystery we are celebrating these sacred days.
Our identity in suffering
Suffering points to the human being’s transcendence and “tells man to go beyond himself, not to settle for the past or the present, but to press on.” In this way, suffering is a kind of revelation:
Suffering reveals what the human being is. Through suffering, … we touch the very heart of what it means to be a human being.
Suffering is a cry to God that characterizes the human person. And that cry is answered by the Son of God as he is crucified on the cross:
The human being is incomprehensible without Christ. The human being is a mystery of faith. Only faith can tell us who man is, because personal identity is related to the identity of the eternal Son of God.
Through the death of Jesus Christ, God is restoring our personal identity. Jesus “ — the someone on that cross — is sharing his identity with us. To share identity means that there is a bond between us that must have been present from the very beginning.” The redemption of suffering that happens on Calvary is “an event that restores our identity.”
Suffering reveals the human being’s relationship to Christ, and him crucified. “We become persons by saying yes to this divine love, by saying yes to the invitation to share the life, the identity of Jesus Christ … Redemption is being confronted with the cross and suddenly realizing that we must respond and take it up.”
The only adequate response to suffering
Albacete sees only one response that is adequate to address suffering’s mystery and misery — what he calls the risk of co-suffering:
What is co-suffering? Co-suffering means “entering into the suffering of the sufferer;” it “is the way we love the one who suffers:”
When someone co-suffers with us, then we become more and more persons — someones —walking towards transcendence together … To be a co-sufferer is to involve one’s personhood with the other, as the sufferer cries out to God … To co-suffer is to share the existential questioning of the sufferer … To co-suffer is to walk alongside them towards transcendence.
Since “suffering is the call for the free grace that comes to us without conditions, without rationalizations, without explanations,” suffering can only be relieved “by means of the co-sufferer helping the suffering person to have contact with that grace” — that is, with “the sudden experience of the original love that created us and that makes us persons and that affirms that we are loved and worth everything, that we cannot and need not be reduced away to factors to justify our existence, that we are loved by God for ourselves.” That is our Holy Week mission.
Not surprisingly, it is the experience of shared suffering that effects the most intimate and lasting encounters between human beings. “The communion of life born through shared suffering is the strongest interpersonal communion in the world, breaking down all barriers among human beings, and bringing us together through a bond with transcendence, with ‘something always greater than us.’” Albacete makes the claim that “the inhabitants of the world of suffering are the ones who truly transform the world.”
As we venerate Jesus Christ crucified these most holy of days, Msgr. Albacete helps us with this encouragement:
We have no other self but Christ’s. Who we are as persons hangs on that cross and is sustained by the love of the Father for Jesus. This is the only thing that gives us our identity and dignity.