PHOTO: SIMA GHAFFARZADEH, PEXELS
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‘There was Tommy Carthew, a farm labourer whom I visited almost daily during the last months of his life when he was slowly dying of cancer in the face … I taught him as best I could of how God had entered the arena of human suffering and what He had accomplished in His passion and through His death on the cross and how he, Tommy, might avail himself of His suffering. When I read to him of how a grain of wheat must fall to the ground and die if it was to become fruitful, it was as if I was asking him to do something about the farm; a hard thing, true enough, but a job that had to be done … Sitting with him in that darkened room, I would at times be overcome with a sense of the terrible intimacy that existed between the figure on the cross and the body distorted with pain lying on the bed – an intimacy which reduced to nothingness all our human activities. Pointing to the crucifix, he said to me, “I feel Him working powerfully in me. He must have his way before his work is done.”’1
This passage was one of the first things I ever read about pastoral ministry when I was a teenager, from the autobiography of a legendary Anglican priest of the last century. It captures the claim of Christianity that those who suffer are joined in a particular way to the sufferings of Jesus on the Cross. Perhaps few of us have the confidence to minister in the way Father Walke did, but the theological truth remains important. The Incarnation means that God is joined to humanity in a completely new way through Jesus; he is joined to humanity in our suffering. The Church in its sacramental ministry affirms this belief above all in the Sacrament of the Sick: many readers will recall the celebration of this by Pope St John Paul II in St George’s Cathedral in Southwark forty years ago this summer.
This in itself might be demanding enough, but there’s more. The motto lex orandi, lex credendi helps us see how the Church’s liturgy can guide us in unexpected but challenging ways. So the collect for the Roman Missal’s Mass for the Sick says: ‘Father, your Son accepted our sufferings to teach us the virtue of patience in human illness. Hear the prayers we offer for our sick brothers and sisters. May all who suffer pain, illness or disease realise that they are chosen to be saints, and know they are joined to Christ in his suffering for the salvation of the world.’