The via dolorosa. The way of suffering. Though the adjective meaning “of suffering” is rare and occurs only rather late in antiquity, I have thought about this phrase many times. One such occasion occurred, I can recall, when I was a graduate student in Philadelphia, walking well beyond University City near West Catholic Preparatory School toward the Holy Apostles and the Mediator Church on 51st Street.
There are row homes all around, and some of the surrounding neighborhoods were then and still likely are starkly poor. I was young, and though I had no money myself, my heart went out to those living in what I then perceived to be poverty, because I knew that for me, in the end, there was a pretty good chance, with all the education I was privileged to be getting at the time, life would likely work out somehow; but for many of those living there, it might never change, might never turn out well.
They might in fact be held in a less-than-living wage category for their entire lives, with no hope for a future. Theirs, I then thought, was the true via dolorosa, the true path of suffering. Theirs would most likely be a life of subsistence living.
On the one hand, save one letter, I wasn’t too far off about that being the via dolorosa. Truly it is hard for someone stuck in an impoverished situation to break the cycle of poverty, whether they live here in America or anywhere else in the world. Yet the letter I was missing was a ‘T’, as I was confusing the life of suffering (vita dolorosa) with the way of suffering (via dolorosa). Those row houses, row upon row upon row, had all the earmarks of underprivileged living, poverty mingled with poverty, sadness dripping more sadness. That would be the life, not the path or way of suffering. And that was all merely from the outside. For in any of those row houses, I’ll wager, there could have been, and very likely was, a real home, a place of warmth and care, love and acceptance. And that is real wealth, real prosperity.
On the other hand, no sound-thinking person could say that poverty is a desirable situation to live through year in and year out. And, on that same other hand, one has to realize that poverty is often on a sliding scale. What I was calling poverty in Philadelphia, genuine as it was and still is in that city, is still not the same as poverty everywhere.
I was not too long ago—just two years this month—in a country, Ethiopia, where poverty is much more severe. There we visited a family who lived in a small hut with a small not very private, at best, semi-isolated area alongside of it that served as a bathroom. There was no running water in the hut or the makeshift bathroom and it was a long walk to the nearest well. The floors were beat-down dirt with a rug over a portion of the dirt. The possessions inside the hut were meager. A few pictures. Stick furniture. Something that served as a bed. A very modest life, and no hope, no way out—ever. Not what we in the affluent West call poverty as it most often manifests itself in our culture; something worse.
Yet by the time I got to Ethiopia, all those years after wandering and pondering in West Philly, I knew that what I saw in Africa was not the via dolorosa (way of suffering), which had in fact led me there, but rather the vita dolorosa (life of suffering). The latter can occur anywhere, but obviously can be quite acute in situations that offer no opportunity for improvement, no hope for change for the better. The former is a frame of mind. It is a choice to embrace pain, not to run from it. It is, as anyone who knows anything about Christendom, peculiarly poignant, even palpable, this time of year. It is not the right to bear arms (too often a pet issue for American conservatives), but the right to roll up one’s shirtsleeves and work with those less fortunate. If it is a burden, it is a light one, because it is a choice. It is the choice willingly to give away much of one’s material wealth to help the poor, hopefully empowering them that they may discover a way out, that they may get the opportunity to improve their situation; it is a choice to spend time with the disadvantaged; it is a choice to embrace a friend in need and to help to carry his burden. Even if some Christians might self-effacingly deny that it is a choice—after all, what happened to Simon of Cyrene does not seem to have been much of a choice—it nevertheless can feel like one. In Simon’s case, he bore a small burden for the One who would bear a much heavier burden on that very cross. We can do so, as well.
So I close with these thoughts a day earlier than usual, for I offer this blog not on a Saturday but on a Friday, a very good, if a very dolorous Friday. These reflections about poverty are couched in a discussion of the distinction between the life of suffering and the way of suffering. Though there can sometimes be joy in spite of it, the former is unfortunate in any culture; the latter, by contrast, is desirable, the only truly desirable outcome for a life well lived, at least for those who seek to follow the path that Simon of Cyrene trod. That path led Him, whose cross Simon bore, to the quintessentially heroic, propitiatory sacrifice. For those of us on that path, we shall find that it leads not to but through personal sacrifice surprisingly to joy, and it does so in a relatively short time. Though in this life it may seem to us to take an eternity, it will turn out, in fact, merely to be a span of three days.
As the Devoted Life website says,
“Easter changes everything.”