At only eighteen years old, Blessed Chiara Luce Badano was dying of a rare form of bone cancer. She spent the last year of her life in a hospital going through round after round of chemotherapy and radiation. Her beautiful head of hair and healthy figure were quickly replaced with a buzz cut and an emaciated body. To make matters worse, it soon became clear that the cancer was inoperable and terminal. Her friends and family looked on in utter helplessness as the beautiful teenager before them prepared for her departure from this life. Yet, through it all, Chiara maintained a soft glow in her eyes and a sense of joy that inspired those who visited her and continues to inspire folks who read her testimony to this day. When a lock of hair would fall out, she would hold it up and pray, “For you, Jesus.” She was so sure of Jesus being present with her in her sufferings that she would frequently pray, “If you want this, Jesus, I want it too.” On October 7, 1990, she passed away with these final words to her mother: “Bye mum, be happy, because I’m happy.”
I’ve recently been reflecting on the decision she made, in the midst of her great emotional distress and physical agony, to refuse morphine throughout her treatment. Her reasoning? “It reduces my lucidity and 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.” For many, this reasoning of hers can sound naïve, misunderstood, absurd, and even downright insane. I, for one, question whether I would have this desire and this courage in such a situation. However, I believe this decision and the rationale behind it can teach us at least two valuable lessons as we enter into the Lenten season.
First, Chiara’s peace in this time of vulnerability serves as a great inspiration for us. These days the word “vulnerability” is generally equated with “emotional vulnerability” and typically evokes the image of a support group sitting in a circle passing around a box of Kleenex’s. I’m not knocking support groups, but this is only one manifestation of vulnerability. The word “vulnerable” comes from the Latin word “vulnerare” which means “to wound.” Thus, vulnerability literally means “able to be wounded.” A common example of vulnerability involves opening up about something you have a strong emotional attachment to, but there are other examples. For instance, a man who gets down on one knee to ask a woman for her hand in marriage places himself in a vulnerable position. In that moment on one knee, the man is opening himself up to the possibility of rejection; that is, the possibility of being “wounded.” He could avoid the possibility of being wounded with rejection by never asking, but that would also mean he’d have to avoid the possibility of rejoicing at hearing her say “Yes.” This is precisely the point: we cannot experience true, lasting joy and fulfillment if we are not willing to embrace moments of vulnerability.
We may be able to acknowledge the truth of this maxim in theory, but many of us still struggle with putting it into concrete practice. If you’re wondering how well you embrace vulnerability, ask yourself, “In what ways and how often do I numb myself from facing the harsh truths of reality?” When pain (physical or interior) rears its ugly head, we very often turn to some degree of numbing. Even something like grabbing a bag of Sour Patch Kids at the checkout lane because it’s been a bad day (speaking from experience) is a minor form of numbing. Numbing or “taking the edge off” in and of itself is not always a bad thing, but it can escalate into a big problem. Such numbing outlets that have become pretty commonplace in our culture are excessive alcohol consumption, recreational pot smoking, excessive gambling, obsession with social media, viewing pornography, and other sources of obtaining a brief dopamine high that may bring temporary relief. The problem, as we all know, is that this temporary numbing never fully satisfies us or gets rid of the problem we’re trying to run from, which is a realization that discourages us, which causes us to numb the pain of that realization, which doesn’t fully satisfy us, and the vicious cycle continues. What most people don’t realize (or, if they do, they don’t want to admit) is that numbing ourselves from a vulnerable state (that is, facing head-on the opportunity to be wounded by the harsh truths of reality) numbs us from the possibility of attaining the joy and fulfillment we’re longing for.
Research professor Brene Brown, known for her world-famous TEDTalk on vulnerability, flushes out this observation in her book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. In her section on numbing ourselves from vulnerability, she writes, “Numbing vulnerability is especially debilitating because it doesn’t just deaden the pain of our difficult experiences; numbing vulnerability also dulls our experiences of love, joy, belonging, creativity, and empathy. We can’t selectively numb emotion. Numb the dark and you numb the light.” If you still need convincing on this point, just watch Disney Pixar’s Inside Out.
When Chiara came face-to-face with excruciating pain and the foretaste of death, she had a decision to make: numb the pain with morphine, or embrace a painful and vulnerable state. As we know, she chose the latter. She courageously embraced the state of vulnerability not because she particularly enjoyed suffering (none of us do), but because she must have known that numbing her suffering and avoiding a state of vulnerability would somehow prevent her from experiencing joy and love at the deepest level of their being. Had she been doped up, the final words to pass her lips, “Be happy, because I’m happy” would have lost some of its credibility.
This leads to the other point that Chiara demonstrates through her heroic virtue: her decision to embrace this state of vulnerability was firmly rooted in love for another person. There’s something about suffering that has the capacity to draw us closer to others and, conversely, there’s something frightening about the idea of suffering alone. There’s a special bond that can be formed between two people who love one another when one or both persons are suffering. As I wrote in an earlier blog post What Refugees Taught Me About Love, Part One on the descending nature of agape love: “Love impels us to cry out to the suffering beloved, ‘I will take your place! I will take your sufferings upon myself.’ What mother would not look upon her cancerous child and say, ‘Lord, spare his life and take mine instead!’ What husband would not look upon his wife while she’s in great pain and say, ‘If only I could take on her sufferings and give her my own health.’” Chiara had such a great love for Jesus who suffered on the cross out of love for her that she desired “to share as much as possible in his suffering on the cross.”
Now if Chiara had this beautiful desire to avoid numbing her pain in order to share as much as possible in the sufferings of Christ, how much more should we expect Christ, who is Love, to avoid numbing his pain in order to share as much as possible in our sufferings? The reality is that he was presented with that very opportunity. In the first place, God becoming Incarnate and taking on the weakness of human flesh was the ultimate act of vulnerability (that is, allowing oneself to be wounded). In that state of vulnerability, he was eventually arrested, beat, spat upon, scourged, humiliated, crucified, and pierced with a lance. “Ability to be wounded” here would seem to be an understatement. As he dangled from the Cross, the crowds urged him to miraculously “come down from the Cross” so they could believe that he truly was God (Mt. 27:42). The irony was that he is God, and God is Love, and descending agape Love does not come down from crosses, but “comes down” precisely for crosses.
Throughout His Passion, Jesus was offered the chance to numb his pain. St. Matthew recalls, “They gave Jesus wine to drink mixed with gall. But when he had tasted it, he refused to drink” (Mt. 27:34). St. Mark also attests, “They gave him wine drugged with myrrh, but he did not take it” (Mk. 15:23). We can infer that this decision was an act of great love on his part, just as Chiara’s choice to willing embrace the sufferings that came with vulnerability was an act of great love.
This Lenten season, don’t settle for just giving up chocolate. This Lent, we have the chance to “give up” being wimps who constantly numb every source of suffering. We have the chance to embrace rather than avoid vulnerability and lovingly share in some of the sufferings Christ underwent for us on Good Friday. We will no doubt be wounded in this state of vulnerability, but we must cling to the hope that this will lead us to a greater rejoicing in the reality of the resurrection. I pray that, whatever you do (or don’t do) this Lenten season, you are able to draw nearer to the pierced side of Christ’s flesh. For it is in contemplating the pierced side of Christ that, Pope Benedict XVI writes, “the Christian discovers the path along which his life and love must move.” May the beautiful witness of Blessed Chiara Luce Badano inspire us in walking this path of love- a path of love that is not for the faint of heart.
“At this point I have nothing left, but I still have my heart, and with that I can always love.”
-Blessed Chiara Luce Badano