By Renae Kranz
Suffering is a fact of life. It’s a hard fact to explain and endure, but it’s a fact we all face. Some of us suffer a little here and there, seeming to skate through life mostly unscathed. Some suffer greatly and suffer often.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t like to suffer. I imagine no one likes it. The best we can do is bear it and desperately swim to the other side. Thankfully we don’t swim alone.
One saint suffered greatly throughout her short life and in more than just physical ways. St. Anna Schäffer’s story is one of great faith and trust in God’s goodness and in the power of the Eucharist.
Anna Schäffer was born February 18, 1882, in Mindelstetten in Bavaria (Germany). Her family, already poor, found themselves in dire poverty after her father died at age 40. Even though she got good grades, Anna dropped out of school at 14 and worked as a maid to help her family. They still struggled to make ends meet. Anna hoped to enter a religious order, but her family’s situation made that impossible for the time being.
At age 16, Anna had a disturbing vision. Jesus came to her in this vision and told her she would experience great suffering in her life. She was so upset by it that she left the place she worked and couldn’t be convinced to go back.
Certainly she was terrified and probably confused as to why she should suffer. She and her family were already suffering due to their poverty. Why more?
If there is anything I’ve learned in my life so far, it’s that we can’t understand why some suffer more than others. I feel fortunate to have been relatively healthy and comfortable. Most of the suffering I’ve endured cannot be seen outwardly. I think that is probably the case with most people. We just don’t know what other people are going through, do we?
For Anna, one fateful day would change every bit of her life. On February 4, 1901, she had a terrible accident while working at her job. She and another employee were washing linens which was done with boiling water in a large kettle. When the stove pipe came loose, Anna climbed up and stood on the edge of the kettle to reattach the stove pipe. She slipped and fell into the boiling water, scalding her legs to the knees.
She was taken to the hospital, but there was little hope of helping her. Everything the doctors tried only seemed to make things worse. They weren’t even certain she would survive her injuries. After three months, more than 30 operations and many failed skin grafts, Anna’s doctors released her to the care of her mother. She was bedridden and in great pain.
At this point in Anna’s life, things were looking pretty bleak. Her dream of becoming a religious sister was gone. She was in constant pain and would be confined to her bed for the remainder of her life.
When I imagine myself in the position Anna was in, the picture doesn’t look very good. The devastation and despair would be crushing. Anna struggled with her fate for about two years, fighting depression and likely feeling angry about what had happened.
I think if she would have lived during our time, she might have lost herself in television or online and shut herself off from the world. I could see myself doing that. Just giving up.
Thankfully, Anna eventually found her strength in the Eucharist and in the Sacred Heart of Jesus. She often couldn’t sleep, which led her into deep prayer in adoration of Christ and in devotion to Mary. An abbot brought her the Eucharist daily. It sustained her in her suffering, and she wrote a moving description of how it fed her:
“I cannot write by pen how happy I am every time after Holy Communion. Ah, I forget my earthly suffering and the longing of my poor soul draws me every moment to adore my God and Savior hidden in the Blessed Sacrament!”
The gift of the Eucharist sustained Anna and can sustain us in our struggles in life. We shouldn’t underestimate the power of the Lord’s body and blood to lift us up and strengthen us for our journey, whatever the journey is.
Now that Anna had accepted and abandoned herself to her suffering, she focused her energy on three things she felt were her keys to entering heaven: her suffering, her writing and her ability to knit clothes for her friends. Many people came to visit her for comforting words and to ask for her prayers, which she always gave. She became well known for her patience and kindness, especially in the face of her situation.
In October of 1910, Anna had another vision of Jesus. In this vision, he told her she would feel the pains of his passion in atonement for his Holy Sacrament. When she took communion that day, she was touched by five rays of fire on her hands, feet and heart. The stigmata lasted the remainder of her life causing her pain in those areas, especially on Thursdays and Fridays, Sundays and feast days.
Anna wanted nothing more than to emulate the suffering of her Lord, accepting it patiently and without rebellion. She united her suffering to His rather than fighting against it. This unification made her prayers for others all the more powerful.
This is a difficult thing for even the best of us to do. We have all heard that the best way to handle suffering is to offer it to God as atonement for our sins and the sins of the world. We are to use it to be fruitful for the greater good.
That’s a difficult ask. Anna surely prayed constantly for the strength and grace to bear it. We must as well.
When faced with suffering, the best we can do is pray for God’s graces and ask him to help us offer it up. Anna couldn’t do it alone and neither can we. Even if your suffering is all internal, it’s a burden that is crying out for the Lord’s help. Don’t turn away from him in despair. Give it to him. Let him carry you.
In 1925, Anna learned she had colon cancer which turned into paralysis of her spine. She died October 5 of that year only minutes after receiving the Eucharist. Since a few years after her death, over 15,000 miracles have been attributed to her intercession.
St. Anna Schäffer was beatified March 7, 1999, by Pope John Paul II and canonized October 21, 2012, by Pope Benedict XVI. Her feast day is October 5. Pope John Paul II had moving words about her during her beatification:
“If we look to Blessed Anna Schäffer, we read in her life a living commentary on what Saint Paul wrote to the Romans: ‘Hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us’ (Rom. 5:5). She most certainly was not spared the struggle to abandon herself to the will of God. But she was given to grow in the correct understanding that weakness and suffering are the pages on which God writes His Gospel…Her sickbed became the cradle of an apostolate that extended to the whole world.”
St. Anna Schäffer, pray for us in our sufferings.