A simple interaction recently reminded me of a forgotten Catholic art: that of “offering up.” A student standing at a public computer spotted me and beamed her usual smile. “Hi, Sister! Gosh, these computers take forever to log in!” “Well,” I responded, “you can probably do something positive with your frustration.” “Yes. I know: I can…” and we both filled in the blank. She said, “Pray while it logs me in,” and I said, “Offer it up.” Her quizzical look indicated that she had never heard the phrase.
If you were raised on “offer it up,” you might regard it as anything but an art. Perhaps your complaints, justified or unjustified, were regularly dismissed with precisely this saying. When someone voices a suffering, the charitable response is probably not, “Well, offer it up!”
However, in pursuing our own interior life, offering suffering is indeed a joyful art. St. Paul writes: “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake: I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of the church” (Col 1:24). Of course, nothing was “lacking” in the redemptive power of Christ’s afflictions. But we are meant to contribute to the world’s salvation by uniting our sufferings with His. In this sense, if I fail to offer my sufferings, they are indeed lacking. How, practically, does one “offer things up”? One simply wills to do so; one whispers a prayer asking God to accept the suffering of the moment in union with Christ’s.
William Ketteler, bishop of Mainz, Germany, from 1850 to 1877, encountered firsthand the efficacy of offered suffering. A promising young lawyer, he switched careers abruptly after experiencing a vision of a nun kneeling in prayer before the Sacred Heart and hearing Christ say, “She prays unremittingly for you!” He entered the seminary and always attributed the success of his ministry to this anonymous nun’s prayers.
Thirty years later, visiting a convent, he was shocked to recognize the very nun from his vision. In a private meeting, he asked whether her work — she kept the livestock — was difficult. She replied that, while she did find it unpleasant, “I grew accustomed to facing [difficulties] with joy out of love for God, and then I offer them up for one soul on earth. [Who it is], I have left completely up to [God].” Von Ketteler asked if she had any particular devotion. “To the Sacred Heart.” “When were you born?” He gasped at her response: the day of her birth was the day of his conversion.
“Don’t you want to know whether your sacrifices have been successful?” “Our dear God knows, and that is enough.” With great emotion, von Ketteler blessed her in farewell.
Let us never waste our sufferings but instead, in Venerable Fulton Sheen’s words, say to and with Christ, “Here is my body, take it! Transmute the poor bread of my life into your life; unite my broken heart with your Heart; change my cross into a crucifix.”
Sr. Maria Veritas Marks, OP, is a member of the Ann Arbor-based Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist.