In a recent article, I talked about how much we are affected by the company we keep, and how important it is to deliberately choose friends who will help us stay true to the cross.
The article was superficially about Natural Family Planning (NFP), but also about all kinds of other lifestyles, and all kinds of groups who form around them. One friend didn’t like the article, and responded, “I kinda hate NFP groups where if you rant too much, someone always takes it on themselves to call you out and tell you you should be embracing your cross more.”
I kinda hate them, too. When I’m already struggling, the last thing I want to hear is, “Well, have you considered embracing the cross?” Of course I considered it! That’s why I’m so mad right now!”
So let me be clear. Calling out friends is a bad way to be friends. And that’s not what I was encouraging. I would not last long in a group where, every time I complained, someone popped up like a puppet and stood there, sternly pointing at the cross and glaring at me until I turned into a better Catholic. On rare occasions, it is appropriate for one friend to tell another straight out, “Listen, you’re just going to have to suffer, and there is no other answer.” On even more rare occasions, it might be appropriate to administer a light verbal smack: “Snap out of it! You can do better than this.”
But those occasions are, as I say, rare. Still, I also say that the cross is central, and that any group that denies the cross is a group that will lead us to ruin. So how do we behave as true friends, who are actually pleasant to be around, and also behave as true Catholics? Maybe we recoil from the idea of pointing our friends toward the cross because we imagine this means we are sending them away to suffer. But, as I said in my original essay, love and the cross are inextricably linked. Part of what this means is that we would never allow someone to go off to their cross alone.
Here are some ways we can authentically redirect our friends to the cross in love:
By lessening their secondary burdens. If someone is suffering through a horrible pregnancy, a bad friend will suggest abortion as a way out. A good friend will clean her house, babysit her other kids, bring her freezer meals, and be willing to listen to her sorrows any time. Give her money. Send someone over to talk some sense into her husband, if he’s not doing his part in that marriage. Be Simon of Cyrene, and not, you know, Satan.
By example. Sometimes we suffer more in anticipation than we do from the trial itself. When we are surrounded by people who have already endured the trials we’re facing, we can see that it may be awful, but it’s not fatal; and it may eventually dawn on you that all your strong, good-natured, resilient friends weren’t born that way. They learned and earned it through suffering, so maybe you can, too.
By laughter. Laughter is a tremendous gift. It shouldn’t, by all rights, lessen suffering, but it does, at least temporarily. It’s much easier to laugh at your sorrows when there are friends who know exactly what you’re feeling and why.
By offering practical reassessments. Sometimes a second set of eyes will spot some way to lighten your burden in ways you missed because you were too exhausted or confused by your troubles. Many’s the time I’ve tried to flog my will into accepting some burden I thought was inevitable, until some kind friend pointed out that the hard way isn’t always the holy way.
By refusing to shun or shame people who fall short, as we all do eventually, sometimes repeatedly. It would be nice if we could just decide, “Okay, I’m gonna embrace the cross!” and then just do that for the rest of our lives. But in reality, our relationship with sanctifying suffering is more like a soap opera, where sometimes you’re in love, sometimes you run away, sometimes you have a big, dramatic wedding, sometimes you have amnesia, sometimes you flirt with someone else, sometimes you say you’re done forever, and then you come crawling back. That’s a pretty typical relationship to have with the cross, and good friends will not be shocked or outraged to find you working your way through these shenanigans.
By praying for them. We may have no idea how our prayers work or what God does with them, but when we hear that someone is suffering, we should always take a second to place their sorrows before God and ask Him to show love to them. And tell your friends you’re doing so, if it will be received well. This can be more comforting than you might imagine. And I have seen true miracles happen when a group of friends prays together.
By reminding them they’re not alone. Your friend has you, and she also has the Lord. This sounds like a queasy kind of platitude, but that’s because we forget that, when Jesus suffered for us, he really, truly suffered. Here’s an anecdote my sister recently shared, that shocked me out of some triteness that had crept into my spiritual life:
My friend G.’s mother died when G. was an infant, and G. was raised by her grandparents until she was six. Then her father, who she barely knew, remarried and came with his new wife to get her and bring her to his house to raise her, a thousand miles from the only home she’d ever known.
As a child, she was not allowed to grieve this loss, because that would have been ungrateful. It was only much later, as a mother, that she understood how traumatic the experience was.
She was talking through it with a wise friend, who told her: “I want you to imagine and remember yourself at that age. You’ve just gotten into the car, and started to drive away from your grandparents’ house. Where is Jesus?”
G said: “Well, He was there, I know. He’s everywhere, after all.”
Her friend said: “OK. What was He saying and doing?”
G: “Well, I guess He was saying, ‘Hang in there, G.! You’ll get through this.'”
Friend: “No! No, no, no. He was beating on the windows with His fists and shouting ‘No! Don’t let them take me away!'”
He wept with her, because he suffered with her. Christ’s brotherhood with mankind is no mere simile. On the cross, He truly felt what we feel, knew what we know, suffered what we suffer.
The cross was a lonely place for Christ. He even felt abandoned by His Father. But the cross does not need to be lonely for us. That was the whole point of the cross: That we would no longer be alone, consigned to the darkness of sin and death and solitude.
We have no right to mutely point to the cross and let other people hang there alone. All humans must suffer, but all humans must also help each other bear that suffering. Love and the cross go together. Bearing your cross should not mean being alone.