Back in seminary, as we were coming close to ordination we were exhorted by the spiritual director of the Seminary to find a spiritual director in our diocese and to be faithful in meeting with him. I remember well being surprised at the main criteria we were told to look for. I expected to hear that he be orthodox, wise, prudent, and so forth. And I am sure our seminary director of spiritual formation presumed we knew that, for he did not list any of those as the main criteria. No he said something far different than I expected. He said, “In looking for a spiritual director I would counsel you, above all, to strive to find a priest who has suffered. Such a one will be a surer guide for you.”
I suppose it is hard to simply define what it means to have suffered. Here in America there are not many priests who have recently come from a gulag. But suffering comes in different ways and I have found it is possible to tell those who have been tempered by its schooling. There is a true wisdom that comes from suffering.
In the reading from Sirach, in Wednesday’s Mass we read this:
Wisdom breathes life into her children and admonishes those who seek her….She walks with him as a stranger and at first she puts him to the test; Fear and dread she brings upon himand tries him with her discipline until she try him by her laws and trust his soul. Then she comes back to bring him happiness and reveal her secrets to them and she will heap upon him treasures of knowledge and an understanding of justice. (Sirach 4:11-18 selectae)
Scripture also says,
- Sorrow is better than laughter, because when the face is sad the heart grows wiser. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. (Eccles 7:4)
- With humility comes wisdom. (Prov 11:2)
- Before I was afflicted I strayed, but now I obey your word. (Psalm 119:67)
- Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God (2 Cor 1:3-4)
Perhaps we wish it were different but most of us know that our sorrows and crosses have usually been our best teachers. There is a test in every testimony. The text above says wisdom puts us to the test, fear and even dread are brought upon us and discipline is insisted upon. Only then does wisdom open her treasures and reveal her secrets.
Where would I be today without my crosses? What knowledge and wisdom would I lack without the challenges and difficulties that caused me to ask questions and passionately seek answers. When you suffer, platitudes aren’t enough, slogans won’t do. You have to go deeper, search for real answers and often learn that there are no simple answers. Suffering also unlocks an acceptance of paradox and an appreciation that all is not as it seems and some of God’s greater gifts come in mighty strange packages. Suffering can also teach silence and waiting. Great wisdom is found in these virtues. Suffering bestows insight, trust and serene peace. Only after years of suffering could Joseph stand before his criminal brothers and say, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.” (Gen 50:20). Suffering does that, it teaches the deeper things, the harder things, the better things.
In seeking counsel, look for those who have suffered. It is not the only thing, to be sure. For some have suffered and only grown resentful and despairing. But there are those unique and beautiful souls who, tempered by suffering, and steeled by faith have come to a place where wise counsel has found a stable home. Seek them. And, dare I say, seek to be among them, as one of their number.