Suffering in this world is inevitable but it need not be meaningless, something stoically endured at best, railed against at worst. United with the suffering of Our Savior, suffering can become a source of joy and the path to salvation.
I have experienced debilitating migraines since I was twelve. As an older teenager, I became afraid that these were symptoms of some deadly disease, and I was terrified that I was going to die. Even though these thoughts were irrational, they were significant because they revealed that I saw death as the greatest evil that could befall me and I couldn’t square dying young with the notion of a good and loving God.
This is why Blessed Chiara Luce Badano made such a lasting impression on me. I don’t remember when I was first introduced to her—I just know that I saw a photo of a gorgeous young woman who had died young of a rare form of cancer but left a spiritual legacy of courageous joy. This was so astounding and so contrary to my own experience that I had to know how it was possible to endure a terrible illness and still maintain absolute trust in God’s mercy and love.
Born in 1971 in Sassello, Italy, at the age of nine Chiara joined the Catholic lay movement Focolare, dedicated to spreading Christian unity worldwide. Through the movement’s focus on the image of the abandoned Christ, Chiara had a spiritual awakening and desired to dedicate her life to him. She later wrote:
“I discovered that Jesus forsaken is the key to unity with God, and I want to choose him as my only spouse. I want to be ready to welcome him when he comes. To prefer him above all else.”
In the summer of 1988 when Chiara was 17, she experienced intense shoulder pain. At first, the doctors prescribed pain killers thinking it was a pulled muscle, but when the pain persisted, they performed further tests and made a bleak diagnosis: Chiara had osteogenic sarcoma with metastases.
Chiara spent the next two years suffering the excruciating pain of an aggressive and rare bone cancer. Astonishingly, Chiara remained supernaturally joyful, so much so that she was given the name “Luce,” “light.”
A friend of Chiara’s recalls that “at first we thought we would visit Chiara Luce to keep her spirits up. … We soon realized that in fact, we were the ones who needed her. Her life was like a magnet drawing us towards her.”
On the day of the diagnosis, Chiara’s mother reports that when Chiara came home, she fell on her bed for 25 minutes. She recalls: “from the expression on her face I could see the struggle she was battling inside. She had said her Yes to God many times … now she had to say it in her greatest suffering. … After twenty-five minutes … she turned to me. … It took Chiara twenty-five minutes to say her yes, but she never turned back.”
This was Chiara’s own Agony in the Garden, the moment in which she prayed, struggled, and sweated spiritual blood. Like Christ, she handed herself over to God’s will. She endured all as Jesus had endured all.
Whenever morphine was offered, she refused it, explaining that “it reduces my lucidity… there’s only one thing I can do now: to offer my suffering to Jesus because I want to share as much as possible in his suffering on the cross.”
Miraculously, it was here in the depths of her suffering that her joy was most evident. One of her doctors remembers, “through her smile, and through her eyes full of light, she showed us that death doesn’t exist; only life exists.”
Chiara Lubich, the founder of the Focolare Movement, wrote to Chiara:
“God… wants to penetrate the depths of your soul in order to allow you to experience heaven on earth.”
Chiara’s heaven on earth was not made of physical or even emotional bliss. It was the result of her complete acceptance of God’s will and her encounter with the suffering Lord. Remarkably, Chiara clearly understood St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s claim that “when our Savior offers us His Cross in any way, it is Himself.”
Elizabeth herself was no stranger to suffering. She lost her husband and several children to an agonizing disease. She too spent an extended period bedridden with an aggressive terminal illness.
Through it all, she came to understand that, “if sufferings abound in us, God’s consolations also greatly abound.”
Chiara died on October 7th, 1990. For me, her life and death suggest the possibility of a profoundly meaningful and fulfilled life on earth through union with Jesus. Chiara inspired me to begin offering my migraines to Christ, confident that life would be worth living.
During this time of Covid, witnesses like Blessed Chiara Luce Badano and Mother Seton show us that trusting in God’s love, especially during times of extraordinary suffering, leads to a peace “that passeth all understanding.”
Through the intercession of these holy women, may we all learn to surrender our lives to God by uniting our suffering with that of Jesus.
With Blessed Chiara and Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton let us say:
“One Communion more – and then eternity.”
Christina O’Brien is a student and employee at the Augustine Institute in Denver, CO, where she is studying for an M.A. in Theology. Her writing has appeared in VIGIL Magazine, the Young Catholic Woman, The Catholic Woman, and America Magazine. After moving from her home state of Maryland to California, she taught middle school science and religion for three years at a Los Angeles Catholic school. She now works in Denver for the Augustine Institute and Ignatius Press to develop catechetical resources.