"Dulce Lignum, Dulce Pondus Sustinens"

Generally, suffering is something we try to avoid as human beings. Suffering means pain, and pain is a natural indication of loss (or at least some type of decay) in our person; psychologically or physically, untreated decay ultimately results in death. Despite our aversion, we can never escape pain and suffering as hard as we may try, and so we are forced to find a manner in which to reconcile it as something bearable and meaningful in our minds and hearts. Although we can fathom "bearable," perhaps the word "meaningful" seems quite out of place in a discussion of pain and suffering. Rightly so, since, although both can be borne, suffering alone (not pain) can provide meaning to the human person.

As human beings, we are composed of both body and soul; both experience pain in very different forms. Pain, per se, is the initial stimulus necessary for suffering to occur. In and of itself, pain is nothing more than the reaction of a living organism (spiritual or corporeal) to the decay mentioned before. In short, it is a natural reaction proper to all living and conscious beings. Suffering, on the other hand, results when the pain inflicted on an organism is both perceived and viewed by that organism as undesirable and ultimately detremental to its own integrity. Here, the mere phenomenon of pain is transcended by the introspection of the one being hurt. In other words, it seems that only those with the potential to know themselves from an exterior point of view can experience suffering, first-hand. This, then, is a reality reserved to human beings alone, and even those whose consciousness is limited by lack of maturity or serious medical problems, since the ability for self-knowledge still exists in the human soul which functions beyond temporal restrictions.

Understanding the peculiarly human dimension of suffering, then, one begins to see how meaning can therefore be ascribed to it. No element of human life is without meaning to some degree; meaning pervades even the most static and base phenomena of man's perception. We continually apply the categories of our understanding to our experiences of the world around us, thereby interpreting and inevitably drawing meaning from it all. As it goes, the bigger and more profound an experience, the more prone to an intense meaning it becomes. Suffering, as the recognition of personal decay, is thus grounds for some of the most striking meanings we can impose; among the possibilities, it can mean for us either the beginning of an inevitable spiral toward the ubiquitous and untimely fate of death, or the perfect chance to re-examine our innermost understanding of what it means to be truly 'human.'

As Catholics, the reality of suffering takes on an entirely new dimension in the person of Jesus Christ, and particularly in him crucified. The all-too-typical agony of self-decay is epitomized in the suffering of the God-Man, the Son of God, who descended from the heights of glory in order to suffer unto the depths of his divine being, crying out on the Cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Mt 27:46) No bit of cruelty and torment was reserved from him, who bore our infirmities in his own Precious Body. As the cause of our salvation, Christ's suffering is endowed with meaning beyond our comprehension; his saving act a bridge between the truly human and the truly divine and one which contains an infinite wealth of beauty.

For this reason, the Catholic Tradition has always viewed the Passion and Cross of Christ as the sweetest of sufferings: the one imbued with meaning beyond all the rest, which provides purpose for our lives and beauty in all the struggles of daily life. "Dulce lignum, dulce clavo," declares the traditional hymn of Good Friday, "Dulce pondus sustinens": "Sweet the wood and sweet is the nail, which sustains so sweet a burden" as the Body of our Lord, crucified.