“Embraced pain makes one free.”
This quote, written in italics under a radiant, smiling face on a holy card, has followed me for seven years. The countenance of the woman pictured on it displayed an intriguing joy; it stirred something in my heart. It’s jarring to see such a provocative quote attributed to such a young face. But the more I learn about this young woman—Blessed Chiara “Luce” Badano—the more I learn about the meaning of suffering. This simple teen had the audacity to willingly face her suffering, and, in carrying it with Jesus, she found joy, trusting that it was her path to eternal life. And that “yes” bore fruit in first her family and friends, and now in millions of others.
Chiara’s life was fairly normal for an Italian teen. An only child, she enjoyed sports and loved the mountains and the beach. It was during a tennis match with her friends when she dropped her racket due to sharp pain in her shoulder. After undergoing many medical tests, she was diagnosed with cancer in her spinal axis. It was terminal. She was seventeen.
But being raised Catholic within the community of the Focolare Movement helped to build a strong foundation for her faith. This suffering was an invitation to even deeper intimacy with Jesus, but He needed her full consent, a renewed and deeper “yes”.
Her mother, Maria Teresa, recalls Chiara’s response: “She cast herself on the bed. I wanted to tell her many things…but I had to respect her will. I could see from the expression on her face Chiara’s whole inner struggle. She knew she had to give Jesus her yes, not in her joy but especially in her sorrow…because naturally at 17, she wanted to live. After 25 minutes, she turned to me with her usual bright smile, a glance full of life… ‘Mum, Yes, you can speak now.’”
What transpired in that time she spent alone is between her and God, but what followed was the fruit of a renewed yes to God from her heart. Going forward, her mother often heard Chiara say, “Jesus, if you want it, I want it too.”
Before accepting anything, we have to acknowledge who we are and the dignity we have. Chiara asked to be buried in a white dress to symbolize her identity as a bride of Christ. It was from the dignity of her chosen-ness and giftedness that she consented to the invitation to suffer her cancer diagnosis. Her yes was not easy – as her mother recalls, she had to wrestle with the pain she was to endure and her imminent death – but she accepted it as Christ’s bride. This meant she was willing to trust that Jesus, as her Spouse, would be with her in any suffering and that their intimacy would to bear fruit.
Similarly, and even more perfectly, the Blessed Virgin Mary is greeted by the Archangel Gabriel as “full of grace” (Lk 1:28). It is her very identity that he reveres before inviting her to bear Christ to the world, an invitation that would bring with it great sufferings. We know “she was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be” (Lk 1:29). In her pondering, she recognized that this identity was not without responsibility. Yet, after receiving more understanding from the Archangel, and with perfect grace from God, she responded with fully embracing the responsibility and the subsequent cross it entailed: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38). Embracing the cross set before her, Mary contributed greatly to the salvation of souls.
Trust, unity, and gift are profoundly central to embracing suffering as a Christian. If we trust that God has permitted suffering in our lives for the sake of redeeming it in a powerful way—that He understands our pain, that He is profoundly united to us in it all, and that He will bring the fruit of your salvation and the salvation of others—we, too, have every opportunity to experience the same joy as Chiara in the face of our crosses.
Sticking to Our Yoke
We may not be Chiara, but all of us do have crosses. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus refers to the cross as a yoke. Historically, a yoke is fashioned uniquely for a pair of animals such that the stronger one carries the heavier load while the weaker one carries just the amount it can. Jesus – clearly the stronger one – promises us rest from our labor and heavy burdens, for his “yoke is easy and burden light” (Matthew 11:30).
So, what causes us to be heavy laden? One cause is taking on sufferings that we aren’t invited to by Jesus – whether it be personal mortifications we feel will “earn” God’s love or refusing proper help or care given by God. Another cause is unforgiveness. You may have heard the quote attributed to St. Augustine: “Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” Unforgiveness is a heavy burden and obstacle to our joy. Consenting to lies that cause us to forget our true identity as children of the Father brings heaviness to the soul. Perhaps the most damaging lie we can believe is that we can control our suffering and that we must fix our suffering without God. This completely negates the reality that in order to wear a yoke there must be another person sharing the load.
Addressing these wounds and sins may be part of Jesus’ yoke for us. But He invites us to do this with Him, and in Him, for he teaches with a “gentle and meek heart” (Matthew 11:29).
To Embrace is to Be Sober
Chiara requested not to receive morphine “because she wanted to be alert.” There would have been nothing wrong with alleviating her pain, but Chiara choose to enter into the pain in solidarity with Jesus, offering it as a gift for souls. She wanted to be alert to the cross she was choosing to offer. Jesus refused wine with gall while on the cross in order to not dull His pain (John 19:29). It was not self-harm, but rather a free gift, an offering for each of us.
Not all of us are called to extreme physical pain in our lives. However, we often experience emotional or psychological pain. In our culture, it is standard to numb or escape from pain through not only drugs, food, alcohol, and porn, but also noise, videos, over-consumption of information, and avoiding vulnerability. Through Chiara’s witness, Christ shows us that acknowledging the pain we experience is actually the way to true joy. Through facing the sorrow in her heart that came with her diagnosis, Chiara was sober and therefore free to embrace her path toward to Heaven.
Being sober takes courage because it means rejecting external and internal illusions. But it is worth it, because it is where Jesus begins to draw us closer to Himself in authentic intimacy. Here are some questions to consider bringing to Jesus to prayer to help not only become aware of your interior, but also let him into your experiences:
- What gift are You giving me in this (pain, emotion, addiction, struggle, relationship, situation, etc.)? Will you feel this with me?
- How do You see me in this suffering?
- Regarding forgiveness: Am I doing this with You, Jesus, or am I trying to do this on my own? How do we forgive together?
- Who or what intention do you want me to offer this suffering for?
Just like any friendship, Jesus seeks to invite you into His experience of embracing and sanctifying reality as it truly is. Meditating on his life can be food for a deeper, fuller relationship with Him.
Letting Him Bear Fruit
In consenting to what Jesus had for her each day, Chiara became a witness of such radiant joy that people who visited her in her hospital room left feeling like she consoled them more than they could console her. Embracing her suffering with Jesus admitted grace into more and more of her weaknesses. When people encountered her, they were encountering her transformed into Jesus, who was becoming ever-present in her because He was constantly welcomed into her greatest and littlest places.
We too can allow our suffering, united with Jesus, to bear fruit in powerful ways. For instance, if someone were to suffer from the cross of perfectionism and choose to run to Jesus to truly receive His mercy instead of falling into self-punishment, eventually that gentleness and mercy received from Jesus would become part of that person. Instead of parenting from a place of harshness, for instance, that person would be free to discipline with Christ’s gentleness, bearing the fruit of true charity in the hearts of their children and those they encounter.
This is the joy of being an authentic gift of self: allowing Jesus to penetrate the deepest parts of who we are – even the most shameful parts – and let His power and glory transform those places. Consider bringing these questions to Jesus in prayer to allow Him into those places and bear the fruit He made you to contribute to the world:
- What is the potential you see in me through this particular cross (pain, emotion, addiction, struggle, relationship, situation, etc)?
- What is the gift You want me to give?
- Is there more? (This could be more that He wants to say to us in the future, or more He wants to reveal to you in that moment. You may also be led to revisit something from the past that He wants to provide more insight into.)
The last words Blessed Chiara “Luce” Badano said to her mother were: “Bye mom. Be happy, because I am happy.” In the midst of her suffering, she was happy because she knew where it was leading her – to Heaven. In all that comes in life – not only the pain, but the enjoyments, laughter, and everything in between – we too can be happy, knowing the “joy set before us” (Heb 12:2).
For further reading:
- 15 Days of Prayer with Blessed Chiara Badano, Florence Gillet
- Blessed Chiara Badano: Her Secrets to Happiness, Geri Guadano
- Chiara Badano: A Teen’s Life and Beatification (video)
- Conversation with Christ: The Teaching of St. Teresa of Avila About Personal Prayer, Peter Thomas Rohrbach