Freedom in the Midst of Suffering: The Meaning of the Passion
By Paul Coutinho
From How Big Is Your God? The Freedom to Experience the Divine
Anyone who goes through St. Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises begins with the exercise on sin. I, the retreatant, through examination and reflection, try to uncover my relationship with God. In that context, I discover myself. I discover who God is, and in that discovery, I experience who I am.
And who am I? I am the image and likeness of the Divine, created good and beautiful. Who am I? I am the one who hears God’s voice, loud and clear, saying from the heavens, “My beloved, I am pleased with you. My favor rests on you. My delight is in you.” That is who I am— important, precious, and beautiful. I discover myself, my true identity, in my relationship with God.
Become Assimilated into the Mystery
After I have found my identity, St. Ignatius continues the exercise by having me reflect on the Gospel and enter into the life and person of Jesus, who is Emmanuel. Emmanuel means “God with us.” Jesus, the Divine, becomes human so that the human becomes divine. It is at this point that Ignatius introduces contemplation as a form of prayer. In Ignatian contemplation, we allow the divine mystery, the incarnate Son, to fill us and transform us into him. We watch Emmanuel like a sunflower following the sun and get soaked in the mystery of his person. When Ignatius comes to the story of the Passion, I become assimilated into the mystery. The heart and the spirit of Emmanuel become mine as I go through the painful passion and death that Emmanuel goes through.
It is here that I encounter freedom of spirit in the midst of the most excruciating pain: physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual. I come out of the exercise on the Passion like that tribe whose people are tattooed with the Divine, and with them I can say, “You can take away all my material goods. I can still sing and dance. You can still hear the sound of my laughter. You can beat me, you can be unjust to me, you can take away all my rights, and I still will be free.”
The Passion and the Cross of Jesus Mean Two Things
Having gone through the Ignatian Exercises many times, I find that the Passion and the cross of Jesus mean two things. First, they are a consequence of living my relationship with God. A consequence of my life with God is essentially a dying, a giving up, and a self-emptying. If I have been listening to what Jesus says and following Jesus’ teaching, I will be like him. I oftentimes resist being like him, because to be like him is to go through the Passion. To be like him is to be at Calvary in order to experience resurrection.
The second meaning of the Passion is Good News in action. The Good News that Jesus came to give us is freedom—not freedom from suffering, sickness, and death, but freedom that we experience in suffering, in sickness, and in the face of death. Jesus never promised to get rid of suffering. He never promised to get rid of sickness. He never promised to get rid of death and dying. Jesus promised to give us the peace that the world cannot give. Jesus promised to give us the inner freedom, joy, and happiness that no one and nothing can take away from us, even in the midst of tremendous pain, suffering, sickness, and death. That is the Good News of Jesus, and that is what we see in the cross. That is what we see in the Passion. That is what the mystics found when they read the Passion and prayed the Passion. The Passion was the favorite prayer of most mystics. They loved the Passion. They enjoyed the Passion. They prayed the Passion over and over and over again.
When you read the Passion according to John, beginning with the washing of the disciples’ feet in chapter 13, try to capture the heart and the spirit of Jesus. If you do, like the mystics, you will be transformed. Jesus will give you strength, and you will find meaning in the suffering and pain of your life. You will find meaning that allows you to live through difficult times. The Passion is powerful. The Passion is an invitation to empty self to be a part of the divine self.
Excerpt from How Big Is Your God? The Freedom to Experience the Divine by Paul Coutinho.