Lent/Liturgical Seasons/My Faith

There’s Beauty in the Struggle

On January 19, 2015, a tragedy struck my closest friend group: our friend and sister in Christ died unexpectedly at the age of 21. The shock, the pain, the disbelief, the questioning… It all flooded my head and heart upon minutes of hearing the news on that night.

The next 24 hours are a blur. I hardly remember going to my parents’ room and telling them what my friend had just told me on the phone. I hardly slept that night; calling and texting with friends, seeing the news spread on social media, and trying to make sense of what had just happened. The next morning, our group attended daily Mass. We sat in the very back, crying and holding each other the entire time. Our former youth minister texted us to gather in his office shortly after, so we went and continued to cry together for hours. We didn’t know what to say, and we probably wouldn’t have been able to say it if we could.

I had so many conversations in those days with people asking how I was, how the rest of the group was doing; they told me that they were sorry, that they were praying for her and for us, that Christ would see us through…

But I have to be honest: in those moments, I didn’t believe it.

The Dark Depths of Suffering

There was this place of suffering, this very dark and deep void, where the Lord I so wanted to worship and honor for my whole life suddenly felt very, very far.

In this place, I was left to face not just my own pain, but that of everyone else: her parents, her brothers, our friends… And many of them looked to me for hope, since I was the one who worked for the Church after all. What was I supposed to say? And what could I possibly say to Jesus on their behalf?

In this place, despite knowing I should pray, I had absolutely nothing to say to Him. So then it got really silent. And that silence only hurt more.

In this place there was also a guilt — for not trusting God more, for thinking of Him as so distant, for thinking it impossible that anything (not even He) could pierce through that dense cloud of struggle. There is defeat, a sense of being overcome, brokenness, loneliness… and then shame for feeling all of those things.

Beauty in the Struggle

Yet, it was in this dark place that God spoke to me something new.

One night I was scouring through social media, desperately trying to cling to the memories with my friend in pictures across Facebook and Instagram, when I ended up on another friend’s page. He had recently led a retreat and had shared the Scripture verse that had been the theme of the weekend in a post the days before. I had read it then, but seeing it after what had just happened to us, it was like reading it for the first time:

We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul,
a hope that enters into the inner shrine behind the curtain…

Hebrews 6:19

The suffering of that place hadn’t allowed me to see how Christ had already pierced through its density and was on this side of it with me. But it was true: Christ is not limited by suffering, pain, or death because He has lived it and conquered it. That’s the “anchor of the soul:” that when we experience darkness, we can be assured that Christ is not far because he has already gone “behind the curtain.” He knew defeat, He Himself was broken, and He knows loneliness. And not only did He know it, but He chose it for my sake. Could I choose my suffering for the sake of Him? For the sake of my brothers and sisters in need?

Christ was closer to me than ever, and it was only through this suffering that I was able to experience His nearness in a way I never had. Unable to hold myself up, I leaned into Him, as He leans into the cross. Feeling like I couldn’t keep going, I endured it with Him. Even more, I also chose to embrace this suffering for love of Him, and for those who found themselves in a similarly dark place.

This. Is. Beauty.

Give it Meaning

As I begin Lent and take on prayer, fasting and almsgiving to offer up in these solemn 40 days, it is easy to forget their purpose. I’ve done these things my entire life and am tempted to not think twice about them. But the penitential practices that the Church invites us to in this liturgical season are not far removed from the deep experiences of suffering that life brings. In fact, when approached intentionally, they become extensions of that same kind of suffering; a suffering that allows us to fully embrace the suffering of Christ for love of Him and others.

Think of it this way: struggle, suffering, pain, hurt — while these words represent experiences that we dread, they are crucial to living a life with Christ. It is only in realizing how powerless I am in the face of struggle that I am in absolute awe of the omnipotence of God. It is only in realizing the little I offer when dealing with death that I completely rely on the immensity of the Father. It is when I am in overwhelming pain that I turn with a whole heart to the infinite benevolence of the Lord. Through hardship, I am close to Christ and my fellow brothers and sisters who bear their daily crosses.

This is not in any way an easy place to arrive — while I was able to discover a greater sense of peace in my heart with each day, there were definitely moments when it felt like the sorrow wouldn’t end, that the burden would never let up, and that Jesus was still so far. But that’s where the season of Lent is such a gift, because it teaches us to suffer well.

In their own way, the small suffering that comes with the sacrifices we make in Lent begin a transformative work in our hearts so that we may better face the greater sufferings that life will inevitably bring. In choosing sacrifice when things are going great, we become equipped to choose our Lord and His mission of universal salvation in the more difficult seasons of our lives. The seemingly small practices take on a much deeper meaning when we are able to do them willingly for Christ and for the redemption of the world. The struggle, then, has purpose, and, in turn, is beautiful.

This Lent, let us make our prayer, fasting, and almsgiving opportunities to find beauty in the struggle. Let us pray that we might be humble before the Father, fast that we depend only on the Word, and offer alms that we may trust in His providence — not just for these 40 days, but for our whole lives; especially in the periods of suffering. Yes, it is a struggle. But, thanks to Jesus, it is beautiful, because it draws us nearer to Him. Thanks to Jesus, it is beautiful, because it is for others.

About the Author

Stephanie Espinoza

I unpredictably fluctuate on a sliding scale between April Ludgate and Kelly Kapoor. I am either holed up in my room reading a book too long for my own good or engrossed in hours of podcasts, or I am screaming my head off playing friendship-testing board games and having passionate conversations with my loud Hispanic family. Though I am constantly trying to figure out who I am and where I fit in this world, I have a God who knows exactly what I am about - and I am grateful to spend my life asking Him to show it to me.