Excerpted from The Sign of the Cross: Recovering the Power of the Ancient Prayer.

Christians attempt to comfort sufferers by touting the benefits of suffering. "Suffering builds character," we say. "I don't want character," says the sufferer. "I want relief." Then come the inevitable questions: "Why does God let bad things happen?" and "Where is God when it hurts?" The care that parents give their children suggests answers to both questions. For example, suppose a seven-year-old girl is taking her first ride on a bicycle. Her father, running alongside her, sees that she is about to hit a rough spot on the road but restrains his impulse to reach out and steady the bike. The dad wants his little girl to learn how to ride with confidence, so he does not prevent her fall. When the bike bounces off the bump, the girl panics, tumbles to the pavement, and scrapes her elbow and knee. The dad scoops her up into his arms and comforts her. Then he carries her into the house, cleans and dresses her scratches, holds her on his lap, and tells her a favorite story. God is like that dad. He lets us navigate our way, but he stays alongside us. He does not prevent bad things from happening because he wants us to learn to deal confidently with hardship. But when we suffer, God scoops us up and stays with us. He shares our pain, sustains us, and consoles us.
That's the message of the cross, and signing ourselves opens us to hearing it. God's only Son became a man in Christ. In his human nature, God himself suffered rejection, humiliation, ridicule, abandonment, buffetings, scourging, crucifixion, and death. He embraced suffering as a man so that he could comfort us in our suffering. When we make the sign of the cross we invite the Lord to join us in our suffering. We touch our forehead and move down to our breast, telling the Lord with this gesture that we want him to bend down to us. Then we cross our shoulders in a movement that asks him to support us-to shoulder us-in our suffering. In many psalms, David sings of taking refuge beneath the Lord's wings, which the Church Fathers understood as a prophecy of our finding safety in the shadow of his crucified arms (see Psalms 17:8; 36:7; 57:1; 61:4; 63:7). The Lord's outstretched arms pledge that he understands our suffering and shares it with us. Today we see the cross clearly as a sign of God's mercy and consolation. I take advantage of the grace and support the Lord offers me with his outstretched arms. When trouble strikes, I sign myself often, saying, "Lord, scoop me up in your everlasting arms, carry me through this trial, and comfort me." Strengthened by his response to that simple gesture and prayer, I find the hardship endurable. Sharing in Christ's Suffering for the Church In signing ourselves, we not only ask Jesus to share in our suffering, but we also declare our willingness to participate in his. As St. Paul tells us, "You have been granted the privilege for Christ's sake not only of believing in him but of suffering for him as well; you are fighting the same battle which you saw me fighting for him and which you hear I am fighting still" (Philippians 1:29-30). Peter says we should be glad about this, because entering into the Lord's suffering now will bring us a great reward in the future (see 1 Peter 4:12-13).
We face adversities every day because we are engaged with Christ in his spiritual combat for the Church. We easily lose sight of this reality and view our troubles and tragedies as inconveniences, bad luck, calamitous accidents, or "just the way things are." But from the beginning Jesus conscripted his followers to join him in waging war against enemy forces, the evil spirits who resisted his effort to bring men and women into his kingdom. And this activity results in an experience of suffering on our part, as we are fighting a powerful foe. Our patient endurance of hardship in itself can contribute to Christ's work for the Church. It can become a prayer that touches the lives of others. Elizabeth Leseur (1866-1914), a French woman who suffered from cancer for many years and is currently a candidate for canonization, taught that our suffering can become an opportunity of grace for others:
I know by experience that in hours of trial certain graces are obtained for others that all our efforts had not previously obtained. I have thus concluded that suffering is the higher form of action, the best expression in the wonderful communion of saints. . . . Through it God consents to accomplish everything. Suffering helps Christ to save the world and souls. When I am overwhelmed by the immensity of my desires for those I love, . . . it is toward suffering that I turn. It is through suffering that I ask to be allowed to serve as an intermediary between God and souls. It is the perfect form of prayer, the only infallible form of action. . . . Through the cross to the Light.
After Elizabeth's death in 1914, her husband, Felix, an atheist, read her journals. He discovered there that she had offered years of great suffering for him. Felix was so moved that he not only embraced Christ but also became a Dominican priest and traveled throughout Europe speaking about his wife's spiritual writings.

A right and healthy perspective on suffering comes down to this: Christ won the war for our salvation on the cross, but he has called us to apply his victory in our daily lives. He has enlisted us as collaborators in his effort to draw people into his Church and defend it, and our collaboration with him opens us to suffering. "Trouble," said St. Ambrose, "comes only to those on their way to glory." Making the sign of the cross over our body is a way of saying yes to the battle and of accepting hardship as our share of Christ's suffering.

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