Today I am six months pregnant with my third child. The pain and discomfort of pregnancy at this point is nearly unbearable. My back aches from the toll of carrying a small, forming human within. The aches are exacerbated by the countless number of times a day I walk up and down the stairs to put away laundry, to pick up toys, and to put toddlers into time-out. These bodily pains are further heightened and intensified by bending down to clean the house, unload the dishwasher, or lift the groceries. Throughout it all, I remain mindful that I made a choice to enter this pain;  just six months ago, my husband and I happily contemplated the joys of having a third child. Today, as I find the task of getting up off the couch one almost too great to bear, I find that the only source of coping available to me is the hope that a tiny and precious baby will soon be in my arms.
And I realize, I long for her. I long to hold her, to care for her, and to know her. In the midst of my suffering, I find I am deeply connected to what I long for most, the baby growing inside me.
It is as if in the very act of suffering, I find I am connected to my greatest longing.
This has caused me to ponder – where does suffering fit in living the spiritual life?
Julian of Norwhich, a mystic who wrote in England in the 14th century, is a wise guide for those of us pondering suffering and the spiritual life. Julian had a near death experience in which she recorded various Revelations she had of Jesus Christ. Throughout her writings, Julian revealed an obsession with the physical sufferings of Jesus. In one Revelation, she described in discomforting detail Jesus’ bleeding head and rotting flesh.
At one time I saw how half his face, beginning at the ear, became covered with dried blood, until it was caked in the same fashion, and meanwhile the blood vanished on the others side, just as it has come. 
Julian saw the suffering of Christ on the cross and she longed to experience the suffering herself.
I wished that our Lord, of his gift, and of his grace, would fill my body full with recollection and feeling of his blessed Passion, as I had prayed before, for I wished that his pains might be my pains, with compassion which would lead me to longing for God. 
Julian understood that suffering produces longing for God in a way that nothing else can.
Perhaps this is what Paul is getting at when he writes,
We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Rom 5:3-4 ESV)
The word produces in this passage literally means,
- to effect by labor
- to achieve
- to work out
- to bring about
The suffering of Paul, of Julian, and of a mother carrying an unborn child are all sufferings that can “effect by labor” deep spiritual longing. And this labor of longing gives birth to hope.
As an infant is formed in a mother’s womb, we are invited to believe that something is being formed in us in the midst of suffering. It is only this hope of beautiful formation that could allow us to welcome suffering as a companion, to embrace it as a means to connect to that which we long for the most.
In the spiritual life, that which we long for the most is God. The life of God formed in us is what we long for. Therefore, suffering is the labor by which God’s life can be more fully formed in us. Perhaps this is what it means to suffer while living the spiritual life.