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Suffering, Death and Happiness

June 2, 2011

By Sister Michelle

I recently had the unexpected gift of an unplanned, free weekend. In the midst of it, I developed a craving for a dish from my favorite Vietnamese restaurant. I gratified that craving and, ironically brought a book by Pema Chodron, a Buddhist monk, with me to read. The book reminded me that I could have stayed with the experience of desire and what I might be avoiding by gratifying it. It made me reflect on the overlapping wisdom in the life of Mercy foundress Catherine McAuley, the teachings of Jesus and the teachings of Buddha.

When she was 18 years old, Catherine cared for her mother while her mother was dying. This experience of her mother’s terror made Catherine severely frightened of death. But what was her response? She spent increasing amounts of her time caring for the sick and dying, comforting them and helping them face their fears. In this practice she she gave a concrete example of Catholic spiritual wisdom.

Jesus’ Beatitudes teach that by willingly embracing what we would naturally avoid we (paradoxically) discover happiness. He has other similarly enigmatic sayings: “if they force you to walk one mile, go with them two”, “Take up your cross daily”, “turn the other cheek”, “if you die to yourself you will find yourself”.

Pema Chodron, a Buddhist monk, writes: “When we touch the center of sorrow, when we sit with (our) discomfort without trying to fix it, when we stay present to the pain … and let it soften us, these are the times that we connect with bodhichitta.” Translated as soft or open hearted/open minded, “it is equated with our ability to love”.

Catherine began with the fear of and experienced the reality of poverty, death, sickness and shame. Because of her love of God, she moved toward these very realities as she used her unexpected inheritance and her whole life to serve the sick, the poor, and the ignorant. In the end, she died with full consciousness, profound peace, and evident joy.

I have noticed that most of our mistakes and all of our sins are the result of attempts to avoid pain. I may be avoiding disappointment of not getting something I want or the pain of something I don’t want to feel or face; but it is my fear of pain which leads me to sin and to my failings in love. My sins and failure to love always increase my suffering.

What daily practices do you use to help you live the Beatitudes and embrace the Cross in your life?

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