Dear Father Edward, does the idea of redemptive suffering apply only to physical suffering or does it also extend to submission to emotional/mental/spiritual suffering that comes from an abusive relationship? If I am the target of regular mistreatment by my husband and I offer it up, is this the same as redemptive suffering?
Dear friend, it sounds like your situation is very challenging. I will do my best to answer your question and I will pray for peace and resolution for you and your family. I would also like to ask all of our readers to join in prayer for you and all those who find themselves in these very painful situations.
The concept of redemptive suffering can certainly apply to suffering that is emotional, mental or spiritual. Each of us is a unity of body and soul, and suffering of the soul is every bit as real as physical suffering — sometimes more so. Emotional suffering includes situations like having to watch a loved one struggle with a terminal illness. Mental suffering can include cases of chronic depression. Spiritual suffering could include the “dark night of the soul,” where a devout person has a deep sense of loneliness or desolation, to the point of feeling abandoned by God. (In this last case the Almighty is actually purifying the soul.)
Quite separate from these is the case that involves emotional/mental/spiritual suffering in an abusive relationship. An abusive relationship is unhealthy both for the one being abused, and also for the one who is abusing. Therefore, the truly loving thing to do is to find a way to end the abuse. This may involve seeking psychological or pastoral help for yourself and, if possible, for your husband. The abuse indicates that he likely has deep-seated issues that need attention and healing. Moreover, your own psychic (and physical) health faces risks from long-term exposure to abuse. Thus, a wife owes it to herself and her family to seek outside help. In the meantime, you should also do what you can to remove yourself and your children from harm’s way.
The Church is actually quite clear about this. The Code of Canon Law in No. 1153 §1 states
A spouse who occasions grave danger of soul or body to the other or to the children, or otherwise makes the common life unduly difficult, provides the other spouse with a reason to leave, either by a decree of the local Ordinary or, if there is danger in delay, even on his or her own authority.” Regular mistreatment is a violation of justice and charity; it is a wrong that should be resisted and, with the help of God’s grace, righted.
Do not think that this course of action is some kind of spiritual cop out. Taking steps to protect yourself and your family from current abuse, and actively seeking ways to help resolve the underlying causes of your husband’s behavior are not easy tasks. They will be painful on many levels, and that suffering – the internal suffering caused by the challenge of trying to right this wrong – will indeed be redemptive, as you unite it through prayer and the sacraments to Christ’s own suffering on the cross.
Yours in Christ, Father Edward McIlmail, LC
Father McIlmail is a theology instructor at Mater Ecclesiae College in Greenville, RI.
Art for this post on redemptive suffering and abuse: Modified detail of Long Suffering, Julia Margaret Cameron, 1865, PD-US author’s life plus 100 years or less, published in the U.S. prior to January 1, 1923, Wikimedia Commons.