The Transformation of Suffering

Sometimes a life experience is so dramatic, so poignant, that it stops us in our tracks and forces us to pay attention. This is true of many of the situations and events experienced by the saints. Not only do we sit up and take notice, but in many ways we are challenged by these moments. Some of us change our lives’ trajectories because of them. All of us are called to be grateful for them.

In 1975, Cardinal Francis-Xavier Nguyễn Văn Thuận was arrested by the Communist government of Vietnam and imprisoned for 13 years, nine of them in solitary confinement, before being finally exiled from Vietnam in 1991. Following the example of Saint Paul while he was in prison, Francis-Xavier wrote messages to his people from captivity; his writings would eventually blossom into three books.

Chapter six of St. John’s Gospel relates an extraordinary story: seeing a vast crowd coming to hear him speak, Jesus takes the five barley loaves and the two fish offered him by a young boy and makes that bread and those fish into food enough for the five thousand. Francis-Xavier takes that story for the title and indeed the operating principle of his book, Five Loaves and Two Fish.

The first loaf is living the present moment; the second loaf, discerning between God and God’s works; the third loaf, prayer as a fixed point of reference; the fourth loaf, the Eucharist as his only strength; and the fifth loaf, love and unity as Jesus’ testimony. And then we come to the first fish: My First Love: The Immaculate Virgin Mary and the second fish: I Have Chosen Jesus.

Five loaves and two fish. “Stay with us,” prayed the disciples on the road to Emmaus. So he took bread, blessed it, and gave it to them to eat. Francis-Xavier’s sister writes that “during an interview with the media after his release, he was asked what his secret strength had been that kept him alive and sane. His answer was always, ‘The Eucharist.’ He explained how when he was arrested, he had to leave immediately, empty-handed. The following day he was allowed to write to his faithful to ask for some personal effects. He wrote: ‘Please send me a little wine as medicine for my stomach pain.’ They understood right away. A few days later, the guards handed him a small container addressed to him, labeled ‘Medicine for stomach ailments.’ He also received another small container containing small pieces of Holy Host. With three drops of wine and a drop of water in the palm of his hand, he would celebrate Mass. ‘Each time I celebrated Mass, I had the opportunity to extend my hands and nail myself to the cross with Jesus, to drink with Him the bitter chalice.’ And those were the most beautiful Masses of his life. He always carried in his shirt pocket the little container holding the Blessed Sacrament. He would repeat, “Jesus, You in me and I in You,’ adoring the Father.”

During 13 years in jail, in a situation of seemingly utter hopelessness, the fact that he could listen and speak to God became for Francis-Xavier an increasing power of hope that enabled him, after his release, to become for people all over the world a witness to hope—to that great hope that doesn’t disappear, even in long nights of solitude.

Francis-Xavier himself spoke of what his imprisonment had taught him during a talk he gave shortly before his death. “From the very first moment of my arrest, the words of Bishop John Walsh, who had been imprisoned for 12 years in Communist China, came to my mind. On the day of his liberation, Bishop Walsh said, ‘I have spent half my life waiting.’

“It is true. All prisoners, myself included, constantly wait to be let go. I decided then and there that my captivity would not be merely a time of resignation but a turning point in my life. I decided I would not wait. I would live the present moment and fill it with love. For if I wait, the things I wait for will never happen. The only thing that I can be sure of is that I am going to die.

“No, I will not spend time waiting. I will live the present moment and fill it with love.

“A straight line consists of millions of little points. Likewise, a lifetime consists of millions of seconds and minutes joined together. If every single point along the line is rightly set, the line will be straight. If every minute of a life is good, that life will be holy.”

There is so much to learn from these words and this witness! Those of us who have never been imprisoned have no idea the fear—the panic, even—that must be one’s first, second, and last feeling. To transcend that fear and reach out to others is extraordinary. To find in it something of holiness is even beyond.

“Those in prison,” wrote Saint John Paul II, “look back with regret or remorse to the days when they were free, and they experience their time now as a burden which never seems to pass. In this difficult situation, a strong experience of faith can greatly help in finding the inner balance which every human being needs. This is one reason why the Jubilee is so relevant to prison life: the experience of the Jubilee lived behind bars can open up unexpected human and spiritual vistas (…) To celebrate the Jubilee means to strive to find new paths of redemption in every personal and social situation, even if the situation seems desperate.”

How many of our own situations feel desperate? How many of our own present days seem like “a burden which never seems to pass”? How many of our own problems feel unsolvable? Yet there is meaning in everything, and, as Francis-Xavier reminds us, no situation is there to merely be endured, to be waited through: we’re called upon to participate everywhere and in every way, by being beacons of Christ’s light for those around us and by bringing his word to a world that needs it now more than ever.

photo credit: Mitch Lensink for Unsplash

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