I have a real life incident seared into my memory that has become a symbol for a common type of piety that I call a false martyr complex. A dear friend stood in a communion line, head bowed, shoulders slumped, one arm across her chest with her hand clenched as she struck her heart. At first appearances she was a picture of perfect piety, a soul in torment, burdened by her sin, suffering in reparation. Yet, she had stood like this for years if not decades with little change. As I stood in the opposite line, I did something spontaneous and rather shocking; I bent my knees, leaned over, caught her eye, smiled and waved! My child like behaviour actually worked momentarily. She straightened up, smiled, with twinkling eyes and snapped out of her false, martyr complex for a few minutes at least, nearly laughing out loud in church.
My friend was not as holy as she appeared to be, even though she lived a devout, disciplined, ascetic lifestyle. Her life was a daily round of mass, rosaries, Eucharistic Adoration and frequent confession. Unwittingly, she fell into a trap that all of us fall into as we try to become devoted disciples of Jesus. It was a religion that in the end focused on herself, her actions, her devotions and effort. She was at the front and centre, not God.
To make that shift from an egocentric lifestyle to a God centered lifestyle is tricky business. Thank heavens the Catholic Church has always understood the need for spiritual directors but the fundamental difference between self-centered piety and true, vibrant life in Christ is when we give up trying to save ourselves and surrender to Jesus. When we consciously choose Christ, the switch is immediate from misery to joy, even if we seem to suffer just as much in our external lives.
When we act like a victim sacrifice, suffering for our own failings or like a scapegoat who suffers as the result of others sins, we might like to think of ourselves as saintly martyrs but our suffering is anything but holy. There is no act filled with more pride. We are in fact stealing Christ’s job. Christ came to suffer and die on the cross for our sins. He is the sacrificial lamb who takes away all sin. He is like the scapegoat of the Old Testament, burdened by the sins of the people who by his death and resurrection, justifies everyone by the power of His blood in the eyes of God the Father.
It takes humility to realize that our miserable, self-inflicted suffering does not save anyone, least of all ourselves. Accepting Jesus as our Saviour really goes against our grain as human beings because we want to earn our salvation, purify ourselves by suffering out of a misplaced sense of guilt. Ironically it usually takes suffering to break down our ego and pride. Once exhausted by trying to save ourselves, we often must hit bottom before we are desperate enough to change, to let go of our pride and control and surrender in humility to Christ our Saviour. Only the drowning man even realizes that he needs help, only a sick man grasps the truth that he needs to be healed.
Yes there is a place for redemptive suffering but what most of us experience is far from redemptive because our suffering is not in union with Christ’s. Redemptive suffering is not long-faced misery but in fact joyful because it is life-giving and life affirming as we live in, with and through Christ our Saviour. It might involve physical pain but it is lived in the Light, in peace and in joy. When we are no longer the centre of attention but Jesus is the centre; all heavy, psychological despair and mental anguish dissipates like insubstantial mist under the burning sunlight.
“Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”
The Joy of Mothering
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