Dark Devotional: Suffering, Happy Cats, and Packing Peanuts

by Michelle Arnold

While [Jesus] was praying his face changed in appearance and his clothing became dazzling white. And behold, two men were conversing with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem (Luke 9:29–31).

A friend of mine likes to tell the story of her favorite Jesuit, a priest who’d been her spiritual director in college. “Cats are happy!” he’d thunder whenever someone said they were unhappy because of some suffering they were experiencing. “We’re meant to be joyful, and joy can include suffering.”

This old-school, no-nonsense approach to spiritual direction isn’t for everyone—including me. When I sought out spiritual direction, I gravitated toward directors who used a more empathetic, walk-alongside approach, such as the Carmelite religious brother who told me that everyone asks him why he doesn’t become a priest. He’d shrug. “Because I don’t have a vocation to the priesthood.”

Spiritual direction doesn’t require ordination to be effective, and sometimes laypeople can better relate to the spiritual struggles of their fellow laypeople.

When I skimmed this week’s readings though, I noticed the theme of suffering that ran through them and thought of the Jesuit’s distinction between happiness and joy.

Abram and his wife Sarai suffered from infertility for many years. While my Inner Screaming Feminist gave some side-eye to God for comforting Abram instead of Sarai—considering that in biblical times infertility was considered to be a woman’s fault and shame—the promise itself is lovely:

“‘Look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can. Just so,’ [God] added, ‘shall your descendants be’” (Gen. 15:5).

For Abram and Sarai, their suffering was rewarded with their son, Isaac, and through him, Jacob and all of the children of Israel. Sarai didn’t receive the promise, but her son was named for her laughter, which began in bitterness and ended in joy (Gen. 21:6).

I’m less enthusiastic about the reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians, which seems to mock Christians who see no use in suffering and try to live their best life in the here and now:

“[Many] conduct themselves as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction. Their God is their stomach; their glory is in their ‘shame.’ Their minds are occupied with earthly things” (Phil. 3:18–19).

Yes, well, thank you for your opinion, Apostle Sunshine. Sometimes a cup of hot cocoa and a grilled cheese sandwich are how I manage to get through my day.

Nonetheless, I nod grudgingly in the direction of the point Paul intended to make: we weren’t made for this life only. We’re meant for heaven and the road to heaven runs through Calvary.

Catholic writer Frank Sheed once asked his readers (in an era before the wonders of Google) to test their knowledge of the details of the Gospels. His first question, in his book To Know Christ Jesus, was “At the Transfiguration Moses and Elias [Elijah] spoke with Christ: what were they talking about?”

The answer is given in this week’s Gospel reading. They “spoke of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem”—in less flowery language, his upcoming crucifixion. At the pinnacle of his earthly ministry, the moment of his greatest earthly glory, he was speaking with representatives of the law and the prophets of his anticipated suffering and tortuous death.

Jesus’ face “changed in appearance,” St. Luke reported neutrally, but St. Matthew told us “his face shone like the sun” (Matt. 17:2). How could he be so happy to talk about how he was going to die?

But perhaps he wasn’t “happy.” As my friend’s Jesuit liked to say, cats are happy. Give them a warm patch of sunlight or a cozy box, and they’re good. No cares, no suffering. Jesus wasn’t “happy” to die, but he was joyful. Not about the suffering itself. He’d later plead in vain with his Father to remove the “cup” of suffering he had to endure (Luke 22:42). Much in the same way Abram and Sarai’s joy was in their son, the “fruit” of their suffering, Jesus’ joy was for what his suffering would accomplish—our salvation.

In his preface to The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis revealed that he’d initially asked his editor if he could publish this book anonymously. “If I were to say what I really thought about pain,” Lewis commented, “I should be forced to make statements of such apparent fortitude that they would become ridiculous if anyone knew who made them.” Lewis was advised to confess that he didn’t live up to his own principles.

That’s pretty much where I’m at, too. I go to Mass occasionally, to confession a bit more often than that, and I try to pray and often fail at prayer. But two decades of explaining the Catholic faith to inquirers did a lot to form my own theological opinions and aren’t as easily shed as is practice of the faith. I can tell people what the Church teaches, and I still assent to most of it.

But I struggle personally with the value of suffering.

I can share the Church’s understanding of suffering; it makes sense in theory. And I can still appreciate the image evoked of an elderly Jesuit priest bellowing at his congregation that he doesn’t care if they’re happy as cats. What he wants is for them to be joyful.

Then I skim through headlines on the Internet and friends’ posts on social media, and I can’t shake the fear that suffering is worthless.

These days, especially during Lent, when the Catholic hyper-focus on redemptive suffering becomes too difficult, I turn instead to an image offered by a rabbi friend of mine, who died suddenly after he’d seemingly recovered from months of debilitating illness. At his funeral, the rabbi’s daughter said her father once likened suffering to packing peanuts. They scatter everywhere when you pull them out of the box, creating a mess. But you have to dig through them to get to the good stuff inside.

And, now that I’m thinking about it, those peanuts may be a pain to deal with in the moment, but they do serve a purpose.

Michelle Arnold was a staff apologist for Catholic Answers, a Catholic apologetics apostolate in the Diocese of San Diego, California, from 2003–2020, answering questions from clients about the Catholic faith via phone, letter, email, and online platforms. She contributed essays to Catholic Answers’ online and print magazines, and wrote four booklets for the apostolate’s 20 Answers series. Her 20 Answers booklets were on Judaism, the New Age, witchcraft and the occult, and the Church’s liturgical year. Now a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, Michelle Arnold has a blog at the Patheos Catholic channel. A portfolio of her published essays is available at Authory.

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