For whatever reason–one that remains mysterious to many writers–I tend to write more when I experience a period of profound suffering. My heart is cut open again and as the infectious blood tainted by sin and attachment to this world that Our Lord works to clean out of me spills forth, words rush out in torrents. My mind and heart are awakened to deeper truths, while I seek the Lord of peace, comfort, and wisdom in a period of uncertainty and fear.
I’ve been struggling with the superficiality of how certain circles deal with suffering. Anyone who has spent even a moment on social media has watched their news-feed fill with rather superficial sayings that are meant to be uplifting. I know that the people who peddle these overly-simplified, and even, erroneous theological or inspirational messages mean well. The problem is, they do me no good. They are like giving a person a piece of cake and expecting that will solve their problems. If I want to feel a moment’s elation then I can drive down to the local French patisserie and order a piece of their finest chocolate cake and embrace the endorphins and sugar rush for a short period of time. Inevitably the sugar crash will kick in and I will feel awful once again. I have chosen a temporary and lesser good, but it does not help me embrace my suffering.
When a person enters into a period of intense suffering, the superficial aspects of life fall away. Those things which we thought were so important–arguing over the correct way to do the dishes, or fold the towels, or squeeze the toothpaste–dissipate. Suffering is to enter into a deeper reality. The curtain is slightly lifted and we sense the futility and error of our ways before pain visited once again. Suffering deepens love precisely because unimportant, superficial, and sinful things that got in the way before are no longer of concern. All that matters is now, this moment. Love is what matters, authentic love.
My struggle as of late as I walk through this time with my husband is the lack of depth in our culture in relation to suffering and this includes Christian circles. Catholics can be just as guilty of this superficiality as our Protestant brethren. I constantly see the comment–which I attribute to something I call (and others call) Suburban Christianity–‘that God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.’ Nonsense! This is a lie. Of course he gives us more than we can handle. That’s the point! We are not supposed to be able to go it alone. We are not supposed to be able to do it. Have we so quickly forgotten what happened to St. Peter when he walked out on the waves and took his eyes of off Christ? We can’t do it. We can’t handle the storm. It is Christ who calms it. It is Christ who guides us through the storm. We are to fall at His feet and beg Him to show us the way.
In looking at the suffering in my own life, there is no way God has not repeatedly given me more than I can handle. He has, He does, and He does it to test my mettle, but more than anything, He does it so that I stop saying I can handle it. He does it so that I learn to trust Him completely. God is calling me to abandon my own false sense of control. He is calling me to give it all to Him. Let’s briefly look at some of my experiences.
I could not handle standing with 400 grieving family members as a 9/11 relief worker while staring at a flaming gaping hole in the side of the Pentagon where 184 people had been murdered. I cannot handle continuing to watch my own father deteriorate and suffer my whole life thanks to the degenerative auto-immune disease Rheumatoid Arthritis. I could not handle the night terrors, sleep paralysis, and flashbacks of PTSD and the long loneliness of depression, including post-partum. I could not handle the four miscarriages that I have experienced and the agonizing grief that I have lived through.
I cannot handle waking up to my husband yelling out for me because he is about to collapse in our bathroom from a debilitating migraine that may or may not be from brain vasculitis. I cannot handle standing in horror looking at the blood my husband is coughing into our sink and watching his strength and vitality diminish at 40 years of age. I cannot handle the fear I feel when my husband wakes up in the middle of the night because his medication keeps him from sleeping and all he can do is hug me for comfort. I cannot handle discussing his funeral arrangements and our plans should he die now, in a few years, or decades from now from this disease. I cannot handle figuring out what we will do if the disease becomes so bad that he has to go on full-time disability just like my dad. I cannot handle the waiting for a definitive diagnosis. I most certainly cannot handle my 5 year old daughter sobbing in my arms asking me if her daddy is going to die and if that means he won’t be her daddy anymore. The latter is to be gutted so utterly that I cannot describe the level of pain that shot through me at the experience of my own daughter’s fear and grief. No. I cannot handle it. God has given me more than I can handle, but HE can handle it. The Holy Spirit within me can handle it. I don’t give credit to myself. I would be an anxious, paralyzed mess without the grace of Our Lord through the power of the Holy Spirit working within me. God can handle it, not me.
It does no good to tell me that God won’t give me more than I can handle because He does so repeatedly. That’s how saints are made. I asked Him to make us saints and I hear He is in the business of obliging such an earnest request. We have no idea what that means until we find ourselves at least somewhat on the path. Saints are not made from warm fuzzy accolades and watered down pop psychology disguised as the Gospel. This doesn’t work for the mother sitting at her terminal child’s bedside, or the man forced to his knees on a beach and beheaded, or the man who has been abandoned by his wife, or the countless other immense forms of suffering in this life. Saints are made in the furnace of suffering. There is no way around it. The purifying fire is either now or in Purgatory.
God wants all of us, every single aspect of our lives. We cannot hold anything back from Him. Our children, our spouses, our parents, ourselves, nothing can be held back because they are all His. My husband is His. My daughter is His. I am His. He will show me one way or another what love truly means. And love, love is the Cross. It is total self-emptying. It is the relinquishment of our very selves to His divine plan and love even though His plan is mysterious and we experience it as excruciating pain. Perhaps that is because we don’t know how to fully love yet?
I am not interested in the shallow end. I am not interested in feeling warm and fuzzy while I watch my husband and daughter suffer. I don’t want prosperity Gospel heresy. I want truth. I want to swim in the depths. That is the only way I will get through this suffering. I have to give it all to God and say “your will, not mine” and that means I can’t handle it because it’s not about me. It’s about God’s will for my life. His will is to make us saints and that may mean carrying very heavy and agonizing burdens, but on the other side, we will be able to love as Christ loves, and that my friends, is the point. I want Christ, my Lord. That is what I want. If you want to help me through this suffering, first, pray for us, and second, show me the Cross because that is where my hope lies. God bless.
Non Nisi Te: Nothing but You, Lord
St. Thomas Aquinas