Saturday morning got off to a grim start. As soon as I stepped into the girls’ bedroom, my sense of smell told me that my day just took a turn for the worst. Sure enough, my two-year-old had had an accident before she got out of bed. Though it was nothing close to the wrath of the poop fates, there was still quite a mess to clean up. I am not a morning person to begin with, so dealing with human waste before eight o’clock in the morning is pretty much my idea of hell.
The girls were unphased by the biohazard, and happily made their way downstairs to wait for breakfast. I stepped out into the hall to inhale one last long breath of clean air, then marched back into the room to begin the drudgery. I tossed the throw pillows into two piles that I mentally labeled “safe” and “needs to be burned,” then gingerly leaned forward to loosen the edges of the fitted sheet from the corner of the bed, every movement making me more acutely aware of just how much I hated this. (I know, nobody likes to change soiled sheets, but when you’re the kind of person whose idea of a good life would be to be a brain in a jar, it’s really not your thing.)
All that is to say: I was suffering. Granted, it was because I’m spoiled and lazy but, nevertheless, my discomfort at that moment was great.
After a few minutes, it finally occurred to me that I should “offer it up” for someone else. I’ve talked before about how I came to understand that idea of uniting your suffering with Christ’s for the sake of others, and now that I’ve been Catholic for almost five years I’m finally at the point that that’s only a slightly delayed knee-jerk reaction. And so I paused, closed my eyes, and tried to think of whom I’d offer this up for.
An image came to mind immediately and clearly of someone who is currently caring for an aging loved one. Though I don’t personally know anyone in that situation right now, I just knew that that’s whom I was supposed to be thinking about. So before I returned to my work, I said a prayer. I told God that I was uniting this suffering, as small as it was, with the sufferings of Christ on the cross, for the sake of all those who are caring for ill or aging loved ones. And then I returned to work.
As I threw sheets and pillow cases onto the floor and made trips back and forth from the linen closet, I thought of the woman doing the same thing at this same moment because she was cleaning up after her elderly mother. My heart went out to the man who was getting his washer started for soiled sheets, just like me, only the cause of his mess was illness or physical decline, not the blessing of young life. Lost in the images of these other people, I stopped thinking about myself and my inconveniences altogether. Each movement became more careful, more loving. My actions felt less like work and more like a sacred sacrifice, once I considered that they might open a channel of grace in the life of someone who needed it.
It was a tremendous moment of understanding on a visceral level what Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross did to change human suffering. Without Christ, suffering is all bad. It has no redeeming qualities. Its effect is to isolate, leaving us in prisons of our own pain. But, through the cross, God took this most awful aspect of the human experience and transform it into a love-generating act. Suffering is now redeeming. It has the power to unite instead of to isolate. The cross took that whole mess of misery and drudgery and pain that plagues our lives, and turned it all into a currency that we can spend on the behalf of others.
When I tossed the last item into the washer, I stood in silence for a while, listening to the machine churn. I prayed again for all the caretakers of the world, knowing that I was united with them in a real and mystical way. When I thought back to how I’d first approached the messy task, it was stunning to witness the extent to which my work had been transformed. It was a moment of appreciating just what Christ does for humanity when he allows even the most spoiled and selfish among us to say, “I am glad for this suffering, if it means that you are no longer suffering alone.”