In a previous post, 1 I introduced St Paul’s head-body symbolism. In this post, I want to examine one of his richest and most meaningful uses of this symbolism. In Col 1:24, the apostle writes: “I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His body, which is the Church.”
As mysterious and unattainable as this joyful suffering can seem, it is an actual possibility. Father James Brent, O.P., offers spiritual care in hospitals and uses this symbolism in his ministry to great effect. 2 Brent explains to patients that their sufferings can be gathered up into Christ’s own suffering. By doing so, the suffering patient, though apparently helpless on a hospital bed, can actually participate in Christ’s fight against sin and death. Not only does Fr. Brent often observe patients’ pain alleviated by this realization, but some of them even become joyful, like St Paul before them.
But Fr. Brent says that initially, this idea comes off as foreign to people. It takes time to explain and make it viable for them. We just seem too far removed in space and time from Christ to possibly share in His suffering in a tangible way. Sure, one can claim that Christ endured all possible kinds of sufferings in Palestine two millennia ago, and that in that sense Christ suffered like us. But how could that really relate ontologically to us in, say, North America in the 21st Century?
Head-body symbolism provides an explanation. We can be gathered in the body of Christ in the same way that a human body is gathered by its head. My head mediates between my different members, spread in concrete space and time, and my mind, which deals in abstract patterns. Spatio-temporal separation at the level of my members does not prevent unity at the level of my whole body under my mind and its patterns. So I claim that our spatio-temporal separation at the everyday human level does not prevent unity at the grand level of the Church under Christ. Second, I will explain that suffering occupies a special place in this gathering. Christ suffered in order to gather us, and we can participate in this gathering with our own sufferings. In doing so, we “fill up in [our] flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ”, i.e., we unfold in space-time Christ’s own redeeming afflictions. Finally, I will distinguish between active and contemplative suffering in Christ. Not everyone suffers actively and outwardly like the apostles did, some do so contemplatively and in secret, like Mary. By laying out the organic relationship between these, I will explain that all of our afflictions have a meaningful place in the Body of Christ.
Let us start by looking at ourselves. Our body, extended in space and time, is gathered by our head into higher level patterns. A good example is listening to a melody. What is a quickly changing and meaningless series of sound waves for my ear is gathered up and contracted into one simple and meaningful melody by my head. In other words, my head mediates between the concrete oscillations of my eardrums in space and time, and the abstract melody that I perceive as a conscious agent.
Conversely, when we act, our head takes abstract conscious patterns and unfolds them in space and time through our bodies. For example, as I type these words, what is just one compressed thought in my consciousness is somehow communicated by my head to my nerves and fingers, which will type for several seconds all over my keyboard. My fingers unfold concretely in time and space the abstract conscious pattern of this sentence.
Let me pause to make clear just how incredible this seemingly mundane fact is. Our head mediates between our bodies, spread in space and time, and our minds, which live in a more abstract space. Somehow, our head mediates between the physical and the conceptual. Let me also state that we don’t need to go further than this for the purposes of this article. No need to debate the exact relationship between mind and matter. The point is that the head mediates between concrete space-time and abstract patterns, between the physical and the mental, between our members and our mind.
Let us keep exploring this head-body, spatio-temporal pattern by looking lower on the ontological scale. An example I used in a recent post 3 is that of cells, where the head is the nucleus and the body is the organelles. And it is indeed true that the various organelles unfold in space and time the abstract information of the nucleus. What is abstract hereditary information in the nucleus will create diverse concrete proteins by and for the other organelles all over the cell. It will determine what the cell as a whole becomes across space and time.
Conversely, all of the diverse and ever-changing interactions of the organelles are gathered up into abstract information through the nucleus. For example, when the mitochondria have an issue and release certain enzymes to signal their condition, these various enzymes spread out in time and space and will eventually reach the nucleus where they become meaningfully gathered into information. What was just a set of enzymes moving around now becomes the meaningful information signaling an issue in the mitochondria to which the nucleus can then respond.
We can also see this pattern in a family. Say the head of the family is the father. In that setting, you can see that the father will gather the individual and separate members of the family into the more abstract group of the family itself. Instead of having just a child there, another child over there, and the parents elsewhere, all doing their own separate thing, the head of the family gathers them into the overarching pattern of the family. Now the family will gather to eat dinner, will go to church on Sundays, will listen to this child’s piano recital on this date, and so on. Those are abstract family-level patterns that unfold concretely in the space and time of the family members through the father.
And of course families themselves are gathered into a parish by a priest, who is their head. All of the different families spread over a village will communicate with the priest. He will hear their confessions, visit them, etc. On certain days, all of the different families will physically gather in the village church in higher time 4. There, after having gathered all of the most salient signals from his parish, the priest adjusts his prayers and homilies of the weekly mass to keep the parish together under the story of Christ. Through the weekly and yearly cycles of the Church, the priest mediates between his concrete parishioners and their abstract common story under Christ.
Before moving on to Christ and the Church, let us take stock of the different spatio-temporal layers we just went through. The cellular is the lowest scale we examined. In a cell, the various chemical reactions occuring in nanoseconds over the cell are gathered into higher genetic patterns by the nucleus. In a body, the various interactions happening in microseconds over the different cells are gathered into the higher pattern of mind by the head. In a family, the various individual interactions taking minutes or days are gathered into the pattern of the family by the father. In a parish, the different families are gathered together into the higher patterns of a parish by the priest.
Notice how time and space contracted as we ascended all of those ontological layers: from chemical reactions occurring in nanoseconds all over the cells of the various organisms all over a village, to the weekly patterns of a parish spatially centered in a church. There is no contradiction between the reality of cells spread over space and time and the reality of the parish more condensed in space and time. Those are simply two different levels of Being that support one another. The cells provide matter for the parishioners, and the parishioners provide a pattern for the cells. The parishioners provide matter for the families, and the families provide patterns for the parishioners. The families provide matter for the parish, and the parish provides patterns for the families. None of this threatens the existence of any of those entities. Cells exist, just as do bodies, families, and parishes.
Christ Gathers His Body Through the Cross
The Christian claim is that Christ takes all of this to the highest possible level. He gathers all of creation, all of space and time into Himself, the Creator who is outside of space and time. He does so to this day by gathering all parishes into the Church, which is His Body. The high point of parish life is the Eucharistic Liturgy, which reenacts the crux of Christ’s own story. Every week, when the parish gathers to eat the Body and drink the Blood of Christ, broken for them, they are actually being gathered around Christ’s original Passion, two millennia ago. They gather around this moment to make sense of their own lives, and to let Christ unfold through them.
Like the sound waves in an ear are turned into a meaningful melody, or like enzymes in a cell are gathered up into a meaningful signal, our worldly perceptions, thoughts, joys and concerns are gathered up into Christ’s story through our parishes. Our daily affairs are no longer a simple meaningless succession in local time and space, they are part of a meaningful cosmic story. We each bring our own lives to church to fit them in the story, and we go back to our lives afterward wanting to unfold the story in them. Each thus plays a part in the unfolding of Revelation.
And let me state clearly that we should not be any more surprised by us being gathered into Christ by his Passion in Palestine two millennia ago than by molecules being gathered by a nucleus into a cell even when they are far away from that center. Spatio-temporal separation at one level does not prevent union at higher levels.
Now, because the Passion is the high point of Christ’s gathering of creation into Himself, suffering occupies a special place. 5 In incarnating as an infant in a poor family chased by Herod, Christ associated himself with the poor and persecuted. In the Beatitudes He announced that He would use meekness and innocence to take the World back from Satan. In curing the sick and bringing back the dead, he gathered disciples and started conquering sickness and death. In forgiving and loving repentant sinners, he started taking on the sins of the world and turning them against Original Sin itself. In proclaiming the gospel and warning against the corruption of the religious authorities, He prophesied and merited a prophet’s suffering, having been persecuted and abandoned by his friends. Like Job, by suffering through no fault of His own, He upheld the goodness of the Father against Satan.
It is in that way that Christ gathered in Himself the suffering of His Saints before Him, and on the Cross completed it and brought it up outside of space and time. The pattern we are witnessing concretely is that of Christ’s loving obedience to the Father, and of self-sacrificial love for creation. The eternal love between the Persons of the Trinity, outside of time and space, manifested itself concretely in history on the Cross. God the Son was with the suffering ones all along, taking on all that Satan could throw at Him, in obedient love for God the Father.
“But God raised Him from the dead, releasing Him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for Him to be held in its clutches.” 6 This loving self-sacrifice of Christ of course defeated Satan and turned suffering into joy. It is obvious when we look at it abstractly, outside of space and time. Indeed, Satan cannot destroy God the Son. A being cannot destroy the Ground of Being. The Original Sin that separates us cannot separate the Persons of the Trinity, nor the Trinity from Their creation. But this abstract eternal truth incarnates itself concretely in the most poignant of ways in the Passion. The greatest of sorrows, namely Christ’s crucifixion, is turned into the greatest of joys, namely Christ’s resurrection. Creation holds together around this turning point, where sorrow and joy meet in Love.
Thus, the suffering of the poor, the meek, the innocent, the sick and the prophets acquired cosmic significance at this turning point. Job’s obedience to the Father is now not only limited to a local bet against Satan, but is part of the cosmic story of Christ’s defeat of Satan through obedience. And the story of the prophets before Christ is no longer just one of opposition to local evils, all too often unsuccessful. They become a joyful part of Christ’s cosmic victory against Evil itself.
And from this gathering into Christ’s victorious Passion also unfolds the victorious suffering of his saints today. Consider the martyrdom of His apostles who, like prophets, died proclaiming His gospel in the face of sinful authorities. From this persecution churches were founded. Then, through the martyrdom of those churches, entire empires were converted, such as Rome. The history of the Church is one of expansion through tears, chains, and blood. Like Christ, She grows through cycles of deaths and rebirths, of suffering and joy. This is the unfolding in space and time of Christ’s eternal victory over death. It is the Body of Christ growing in the world.
Active and Contemplative Suffering in Christ
And this growing Body has many parts, intricately woven together in love. More precisely, you can see prophets and martyrs as the face and arms of Christ. They actively and visibly proclaim and suffer for Him. They actively bring others into Christ’s own Body. They are “fishers of men”, who bring people from a chaotic world into the Church. But the Church does not only have a face and arms. She also has a heart. The heart works in secret and gives life to the whole organism. And while the heart does not suffer visibly like the face and the arms do, it also suffers. The difference is that it does so contemplatively and in hiddenness. In fact, it is this hidden joyful suffering of the heart that gives life to the rest of the Church.
Take the Blessed Virgin Mary for instance. She was not a prophet, and was not persecuted by the local authorities, but Revelation chapter 12 describes her as persecuted by Satan himself. As a loving and innocent mother silently and powerlessly standing at the Cross of her unblemished Son, she felt the worst of human sufferings. Like Job, she was not being punished for her sins, nor even really for the sins of someone else. She was fundamentally suffering from Satan’s blows to her Son. She was feeling all the weight of Original Sin. And for doing so in obedience she was “clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars”. 7 Also notice how, unlike Job, Mary suffered joyfully. That is because, unlike him, she knew that her Son had conquered Death, and she knew that as a member of His Body she was participating in that fight.
Also notice that Mary’s contemplative suffering really did support the active suffering of the apostles. Indeed, though Mary herself did not go from city to city to evangelize and suffer martyrdom as the apostles did, “she is frequently called the Heart of the Church”. 8 She is the hidden heart, which fuels the entire organism. Her joyful suffering in the face of terrible afflictions gave strength to the apostles. By joyfully suffering against Satan himself, she showed them that they could also joyfully suffer in the face of local tyrants.
We all know people who bear terrible suffering and do it well. Maybe you have a relative or a friend who does so and you know how sorrowfully uplifting it is. In undeserved sickness or persecution, they are facing Satan directly, like Job, Mary and Christ before them. By keeping their heads up, they invite us to follow their example and to join our local labours to their cosmic labour. They bring our local fights into Christ’s cosmic fight against Satan. In other words, they are symbols of Christ for us, drawing us to suffer in Him, as members in his Body. They are the hidden heart of the Body of Christ.
Thus, as Christ’s contemplative suffering in the garden of Gethsemane fueled his active martyrdom on the Cross, so Mary’s contemplative suffering fueled the apostles’ martyrdom. Therefore, in unfolding Christ’s suffering, both Mary’s hidden suffering and the apostles’ active suffering had cosmic significance, and were rewarded by joy. Mary was not just suffering well in the face of a local crucifixion, and the apostles were not just martyred by local tyrants. They were participating in Christ’s victory over Original Sin and Satan themselves. In joyful sorrow, they were growing the Body of Christ in the world.
Let me conclude by emphasizing that the same goes for us today. Like Mary and the apostles, we can all suffer in the Body of Christ, even if we are spatio-temporally separated. Whether we do so contemplatively in secret or actively in public, our local sufferings can have cosmic significance in the Body of Christ. Our sufferings can all be centered on Christ’s own suffering on the Cross, the victorious turning point of history.
That’s true even of someone lying alone on a hospital bed, with no one physically present to witness their contemplative suffering. As the heart of the Body of Christ, their joyful suffering really can flow through us. We can even test it now. Just try to contemplate their suffering. Try to imagine it and let it speak to you. Take a moment and really think of those unblemished lambs who labour and die with no one apparently present to witness and benefit from their beautiful suffering. If you are like me, you will feel that this hidden cloud of witnesses is actually moving you. You will feel that they are bringing into perspective your own concrete sufferings, that they are reframing it in Christ’s cosmic story. You will feel they are inviting you to bear your own concrete crosses in the Body of Christ. And thus even someone who died anonymously hundreds of years ago in a distant land can speak to you today in the Body of Christ, calling you to take your place around the Cross.
Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us,
Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God. 9
Here is a video recording of this post:
- Marceau, Jean-Philippe. “Rediscovering Forms”, The Symbolic World Blog, April, 2020
- Brent, James. “Fulton Sheen on Pain and Suffering”, Youtube, March, 2014.
- Marceau, “Rediscovering Forms”
- Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age, at 56-58. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007
- Saint John Paul II. Salvifici Doloris, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1984
- Bible, Acts 2:24
- Bible, Revelation 12:1
- Saint Edith Stein. Quoted in The Scholar and the Cross at 85 by Grael, Hilda. The Newman Press, 1955
- Bible, Hebrews 12: 1-2