Dear Father John: I admit I am fairly new to the spiritual life. But God has been doing amazing things, and I really want to keep growing. But I keep getting stuck on one thing. I just don’t get that, as Catholics, we are meant to spend SO much time focused on suffering! Suffering and guilt…Didn’t Jesus bear the cross so we wouldn’t have to? When I am suffering, of course, I seek God, but in my heart, I still believe that earth is not only a spiritual classroom, but it is also a magnificent gift! Am I wrong to love earth? Can’t I enjoy earth now and experience Heaven later (since eternity is, after all, so long)? I am sure you get my question, but I’ll put it in a nutshell, anyway. Why do Catholics put so much emphasis on guilt, suffering and living only for Heaven?
Even in your short question, I can feel the passion you have for God, and for life. How much that must give joy to his heart! You are clearly giving room for the seed of his grace to put down deep roots in your heart. You can be sure that with roots so deep, his grace will bear wonderful fruit in your life. I will try to answer your question, but I sense that there is more to it than you actually expressed. And so my answer may be inadequate.
Thinking too Much
Let’s start with your presupposition. I can’t say that I agree with it. You basically affirm that Catholics spend too much time thinking about suffering, guilt, and living only for heaven. I am not so sure. And in fact, if a Catholic did indeed spend too much time thinking about suffering and guilt, that would be unhealthy – as you imply. But on the other hand, it would also be unhealthy to blind oneself to the reality of suffering and the reality of evil, and the spiritual warfare that we are engaged in because of those realities. It would be foolish and Pollyannaish to ignore them, to pretend that they are irrelevant. What we need is balance: we need to think sufficiently about every part of the tapestry of God’s revelation, including suffering and sin and guilt and evil and the cross and eternal life, but not excluding joy and peace and beauty and all the good things of this passing world.
The Truth Will Set You Free
Our Catholic faith actually frees us, as no other creed does, from obsessing about the bad things (the guilt and suffering). Because it puts them in context. It gives them their proper meaning and weight. Good Friday is only meaningful in light of Easter Sunday. And the rhythm of “Good Friday – Easter Sunday; Good Friday – Easter Sunday; Good Friday – Easter Sunday” is the warp and woof of life on our pilgrimage towards heaven. Without the Catholic faith, one really has to become either a pessimist, like the Buddhists (life is suffering – in life, by definition, only Good Fridays exist), or a hedonist (life has no meaning, so just live for passing pleasure pure and simple, and ignore the Good Fridays). Either extreme is false, and thus unhealthy.
From a Catholic perspective, we are given the strength and wisdom to face life’s crosses without being overwhelmed by them. We are also given the strength to rejoice in the midst of them. This is why joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit – not grumpiness, pessimism, or sorrow. But mature joy exists within a fallen world. To belittle the reality of suffering and evil is as unhealthy as being obsessed by it.
Adorning the Cross
Nevertheless, we are not Taoists – the dark and the light are not equal: the light is eternal, the darkness is passing. St Teresa of Avila once said that a sad saint is a bad saint. And that is solid Catholic stuff. And the most inspiring Catholics I know do not spend too much time thinking about suffering and guilt – they spend just the right time on those subjects. They walk with Christ through the Gethsemanes of life, and they also share the Resurrections with him. And, through it all, a deep interior joy, joie de vivre, permeates every moment and every relationship and every activity. This is the maturity we seek, the spiritual maturity that God is leading us all towards one that accepts reality in its fullness, which includes the crosses of life in a fallen world, but adorns them with the gold and jewels of faith, hope, and love, of the Resurrection – just like the beautiful monstrances and crucifixes that we use in worship.
In part II, we will look at living only for heaven and evangelization as teaching the art of living.
Art for this post on Why do Catholics focus on suffering and guilt and living for heaven?: Crucificado En La Iglesia Del Convento De Santa Teresa En Avila (Crucified One in the Church of the Convent of Saint Teresa in Avila), photographed by Zarateman, 7 December 2010 own work, CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.