‘The lessons I’ve learned in the school of suffering’

by Father J. Edward Bradley 

God has called all of us to become saints. And who are the saints except those who have allowed God to form them and love them into holiness. Usually this forming and loving is a direct result of suffering. And in “the school of suffering” some of us are placed into a classroom for accelerated learning.

This school requires that we take courses no one willingly signs up for. The tests are hard. The assignments seem impossible.

It was a team of three physicians who interpreted my X-rays and other medical tests for me and then told me the dreaded news: “You have cancer.” Since it was already in Stage III, plans were made immediately for my treatment. I can’t remember very much of the conversation with the doctors; I was trying to convince myself that it was true.

I went into the church and tried to pray. After a time of fitful prayer, an old prayer from St. Ignatius Loyola came to me: “Take, Lord, receive, all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will. Give me only your love and your grace, that’s enough for me. Your love and your grace are enough for me.” With these words echoing in my head, I said “yes” to the Lord. Because I had cancer, my life was truly the Lord’s to do with as he will. From that moment on, I knew only one thing for certain: I do not know what my future holds, but I know who holds my future.

Humility is a prerequisite of learning and growing. It is the ability to recognize that we all need help in life to deal with problems and difficult situations.

Humility was the first of several lessons I learned in the school of suffering. Very soon it occurred to me that I was being given a personal and private glimpse of what life is like for the sick and suffering. I began to develop a greater empathy for those people who suffer with their physical sickness and the hardship of not being able to do what they once did almost effortlessly.

Very early on, despite the suffering through chemotherapy as well as the anxiety and uncertainty of my illness, I learned that this is a time of feeling so alone . . . and yet so loved. One day while I was praying in church, a parishioner came up to me, put her arm around my shoulder and prayed, “Dear God, please heal Father Bradley and give me his cancer.” I was incredulous. I looked at her and, with tears in my eyes, was able to pray: “Lord, rather than give my cancer to her, give her heart of love to me.”

Many sincere people have prayed for me, and for that I am very grateful. Some have voiced their prayers and concerns to me, and I have tried to help them with a better perspective on suffering and pain. One man, with great concern about my physical condition said, “Don’t worry, Father. God will hear your prayers because we need you here. And I just know God will not let you die.”

I took out the rosary with a crucifix on it that was in my pocket and said, “Have you looked at a crucifix lately?” If anybody was needed in the world, it was Jesus. If anybody was good, it was Jesus. If anybody didn’t deserve to suffer, it was Jesus. And yet God allowed him to suffer and die in the most hideous way, in the prime of his life and ministry.

I tried to share with all the people I could that the only guarantee I have is that God will always be with me and will take care of me. This is how I also explain it when people ask why God gave me cancer.

I have to admit that I have never felt that God gave me this cancer. It is true, though, that God allowed this cancer to happen. I believe God allows suffering to happen to bring about a greater good. In fact, what we first perceive as not good, upon later enlightenment, we realize is often a gift, a blessing in disguise.

The crucifix is the perfect sign of the paradox were God allows something so bad in order to bring about a much greater good — namely, salvation. The more I prayed with my feelings, questions and doubts, the more I could see an image of Jesus on the cross. With one arm nailed to the cross, Jesus lovingly reaches out with his other arm, embracing me and drawing me closer to him.

There is absolutely nothing good about suffering in and of itself. As a matter of fact, Jesus spent much of his ministry healing people and alleviating suffering. Nevertheless, there is much good that suffering can bring about if it brings us closer to Christ.  Therefore, the most helpful thing I have learned in my suffering is to unite myself with Christ on the cross, .  At the time of my most intense suffering, when the hurt is so deep I cannot even find the words to pray, all I can manage to do is to hold onto a crucifix or cross, thereby holding onto Christ who is holding me.

One of the harshest realities about suffering is that it can close us off from people — even people we are close to. It can close us off from our family and friends. It can even close us off to ourselves.

Sometimes we are embarrassed. We feel so bad and know we don’t look our best either. We find it a struggle to want to be with other people when we don’t feel well. Sometimes we don’t want to be a burden to others. We don’t like asking other people to help us when we know our requests and needs make extra work for someone else. Sometimes we simply lack stamina. We don’t feel like being with anyone because we just don’t have the strength. We find it hard, and sad, to tell someone not to visit because we just do not have the energy to talk for even a few minutes.

Sickness and suffering combine dangerously to isolate us from the very people who love and care for us the most. We suf- fering folks understand this need to be alone at times, but we must take care not to cut off the love of family and friends whom we need to get through difficult times.

On the other hand, for some people suffering can be the one thing that finally opens us. Our hearts are broken open. In these cases, suffering opens us to a new depth within ourselves, depths never before realized. Suffering leads us to deeper levels of our inner lives. Pain and suffering also have potential to open us up to other people who have similar problems and pain. Sometimes, our suffering connects us in odd circumstances, like many different pieces of a puzzle that by themselves do not make sense, but when connected enable us a better look at the bigger picture. This is what happened among fellow patients during chemotherapy treatments each week.

Sitting together with our intravenous tubes dripping chemo into our bodies, we began to share our similar stories. It soon became obvious that we were connected by much more than IV tubing.  We shared our common concerns, questions and frustrations.  I began to listen and learn so much from my fellow patients.  they became my classmates in this school of suffering.  We were in this thing together, and together, we could offer each other the hope and help that few other people could.

Even more than that, we often promised to pray for each other every day. In fact, this is truly one of the best ways we could help each other.  This is how I have learned that compassion is one of the deepest gifts of the heart.  The word “compassion” means literally “to feel deeply with.”

Feeling deeply with each other is what we did in our chemotherapy classroom with our IV poles attached to us, incredibly representing the cross of cancer we had all been asked to carry. I indeed looked at my chemo-companions to be like classmates.

Regardless of our age, circumstances in life, or even the type or degree of our exact piece of the puzzle, we were all in the same class. We were all asking similar questions while dealing with similar struggles. All of us were just trying our best to get through this difficult course, hoping someday to graduate and move on in good health.

Another major lesson I have learned from my fellow classmates is how to look and listen to the subtle signs of suffering. Few people will wear their disease or disability like a badge or name tag. But you can’t miss its identification written in the painful eyes of those who are hurting.

My suffering opened me up to recognize how many, many people are hurting, quietly aching and pained, or secretly suffering. This hurt, this pain, can be physical, emotional, relational or even spiritual. I feel genuine empathy for my fellow classmates, more than I ever could have if I had not suffered along with them. And for this I shall be eternally grateful.

About the author

The Leaven

The Leaven is the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.

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  • Thank you for sharing your story. I am a pastor preparing for Advent, with the theme “Peace Amidst Unrest.” My prepation has been strikingly emotional. The news in our country and world is heart-breaking and I’ve had a period of deep anger as well. Pray that I would hear God’s word to me so I might know how to preach and pastor my congregation in these times.