A blessed Holy Week to you all! Today I cover Our Lady of Sorrows in the next episode of The Saints and the Cross. Let us turn to Our Lady of Sorrows to help us unite our will fully to Christ’s and to allow ourselves to be pierced with the agony, mystery, and love of the Cross.
Suffering agony in this life isn’t easy. It doesn’t matter if that agony is our own or our neighbor’s. All of the calls to radical individualism and self-reliance are lies in the face of the ontological reality that we are all bound to one another. God has created us for union with Him and communion with one another.
This truth has unfolded in my life in a variety of ways, but one of the earliest and most visceral was through my experience as a 9/11 relief worker. I didn’t dig in the rubble. Instead– without fully understanding the long term impacts–I walked into the depths of human suffering as a relief worker to the bereaved. At 20-years-old, I felt rather helpless, but I knew that I wanted to do something, so I went
There is nothing that could fully prepare me for that level of suffering in others. I was a nominal Catholic at the time, so I didn’t understand our call to endure the agony of the Cross alongside Our Lady and St. John as much as I do now, but I lived it and embraced it even in my ignorance. The weight of it all nearly broke me because I didn’t yet understand that I could not carry such things without a total reliance on Christ, and it was Our Lady, Our Sorrowful Mother standing at the foot of the Cross who stood by me throughout it all, since like most 9/11 relief workers, the horrors stayed with me–and still do to this day–for years afterwards.
The strongest memory I have of the deep suffering of those grieving the loss of their loved ones through an act of cowardly violence, was during my first visit to the crash site with 400 family members. My friend and I were tasked with setting up a memorial table where the loved ones could place pictures and items in remembrance of their loved ones. We were still in rescue mode at the time, but one look at the crash site and we all knew everyone was dead.
As I stood beside this table in my dress whites, each person would come up to the table to set their item down. Many were sobbing uncontrollably. A woman, probably only 3-4 years older than myself, collapsed on the ground in front of me in agony. Her fiancé had been on flight 77. There was nothing I could do to distance myself from her agony. I was plunged into it with her and began to cry all while trying to be a strong military woman…whatever that even means in these circumstances.
As I stood there trying to keep it together with tears streaming down my face with each new family member’s suffering, the three star general I was directly working for, walked up to me and said: “Are you alright, Sailor?” I told him yes. I’d never seen so many stars on a shoulder, so I was trying to keep my military bearing while also grieving alongside the families. He himself had lost his best friend, had smoke inhalation from trying to save others, and was now tasked with the awesome responsibility of helping all of the grieving families.
The Cross does something to us. It’s supposed to. It cuts us deep. It opens up depths within our souls we didn’t know were there until moments of agony occur. It is through this deep penetration of suffering that we are opened to love. If we avoid it, then we cannot love as we are supposed to. We cannot love expansively. We become closed in, or caved in on ourselves, when we avoid our own suffering or the suffering of others.
The Apostles, save St. John, fled the Cross. They ran from the agony, but St. John was opened up to the mystical depths of union with God precisely because he stays with Our Lady and the other women at the foot of the Cross. He suffered in love. I didn’t know what I was doing in my desire to run to the foot of the Cross on 9/11, but it forever changed me. It opened me up to the willingness to suffer in love for others and to use my own suffering for the good of others. It paved the way for the path I’m on now.
Love requires fortitude. True love is not easy. It is agonizing at times, but it is what we were made for. The happiness we seek is intermingled with joy and sorrow in this life. We are a selfish lot. Suffering is the single greatest tool that God uses to teach us how to love as we ought to. If we want to see as Christ sees, to love as Christ loves, and to forgive as Christ forgives then we must be willing to embrace the Cross in all of its horror, awe, and joy.
The Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross is this coming Saturday. Through this feast, we lift high the Cross as the answer to all that ails this Fallen world. It is not a sentimental action, far from it. It is a call to love through the sorrow, sin, and suffering of this life, because it is through the Cross that we are transformed. The happiness we seek is found in an ancient instrument of torture, where the Son of God conquered sin and death. It is in self-emptying love that we become who we were created to be. Christ calls us to follow Him to Calvary and to endure its agony, so that we can become radiant in love. This is the very meaning of our lives.
I fully intended to take a break from writing. I thought that my anguish would keep me from putting down a single word, but the opposite has happened. I have written and submitted two articles on miscarriage in the past 48 hours and written 30 pages in a journal I purchased for this trip into grief. Countless people have asked me to write a much needed book on miscarriage. Perhaps it will come out of this fourth loss and perhaps not. All I can do is scribble in my journal what feels like the ravings of a person detached from myself.
For the writer, pain tends to bring forth work that is more real, raw, and intense. It is as if we can see the human condition more clearly through the haze of our grief. It is the only clarity given as all else appears a dull gray. There is beauty all around, but I cannot touch it right now. I sense it from memory, but there is no deep connection to it at present. This is typical of the grief stricken.
I am re-reading C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed. In my view, it is the most honest look at grief that has ever been written. I largely skipped over the Introduction. I have been a Madeleine L’Engle fan since childhood, but her theology always leaves something wanting and is too relativistic. She is a much better fantasy writer. I recommend skipping straight to Lewis’ work if you have the same volume as I do.
While some of the experiences of grief may differ from person-to-person, Lewis looks at every aspect of grief in relation to himself, his lost wife, and God. He freely admits the struggle between believing in a benevolent God and a malevolent God. The problem for a Christian is that we tend to no longer be capable of atheism. Once we have met the Living God, even our grief doesn’t fully send us into an existential crisis that ends in materialism. We may have an existential crisis, but we usually end up in the Father’s arms once the intense pain and anger has subsided. No. The battle wages over God’s goodness.
I am thankful that Lewis delves into this struggle. It is one I face, and have faced, through all of my losses. A pregnancy feels like a promise and a miscarriage makes it all seem like a lie. The heart beating on the screen is the definition of hope and then that hope and joy is stolen. Instead, my heart is ripped from my chest and I am left reeling. I am turned into an empty shell that has to be filled up again. My previous joy and excitement over the coming of another child is taken away and I am left sobbing in front of an ultrasound picture and the onesies I picked up to celebrate the new baby.
The problem with the grieving is that we are a bit inconvenient for everyone else. We are a reminder that death is real and that deep suffering and agony await all of us. We don’t know when that time will come, but we don’t like to be reminded of it, especially us Americans with our keep-insanely-busy-in-an-attempt-to-outrun-fate-or-destiny-or-whatever-we-imagine-is-really-in-charge. Pain makes people scatter and only the truly brave are able to stick around and enter into the suffering of others. This is an experience that I have been through four times, as well as in the grips of PTSD and post-partum depression, and as a 9-11 relief worker.
In truth, it has made me more patient with the weaknesses of others. I know that most of my friends will run away during this time. The truly close ones will stick it out, but others will wait until I am less likely to break into uncontrollable sobbing or when I can at least hide my pain better. My suffering makes people uncomfortable and I know it. What they don’t realize is that I am not looking for them to fix it. They cannot fix it, nor can I. All that is needed is authentic compassion, but even that is hard for people to summon. We assume because we have never been through something that we cannot be compassionate. I didn’t lose anyone in 9-11, but I rushed in to help as a relief worker. My presence was enough. Your presence is enough to the grieving people in your life.
Platitudes get the grieving nowhere. It is useless to tell us that they are in a better place, something was clearly wrong with the baby, or it was God’s will. How is that supposed to take away our pain? Somehow the loss is supposed to be assuaged by this knowledge and yet the ache still remains. The grief doesn’t lessen because somebody tries to tell us something that makes them feel better in that moment because they are not the grieving. In reality all we can say to someone who has lost a loved one is “I am so sorry for your loss”. That’s it. Nothing else will help or matter to the person who is mourning for someone they loved. Nothing will bring my child back. Something being wrong with the child does not take away the pain of lost motherhood. Even though A Grief Observed is about his wife, Lewis has the clearest understanding of what miscarriage or the loss of a child means, and why theological platitudes are unhelpful to those in the grips of early grief:
If a mother is mourning not for what she has lost but for what her dead child has lost, it is a comfort to believe that the child has not lost the end for which it was created. And it is a comfort to believe that she herself, in losing her chief or only natural happiness, has not lost a greater thing, that she may still hope to ‘glorify God and enjoy Him forever.’ A comfort to the God-aimed, eternal spirit within her. But not her motherhood. The specifically maternal happiness must be written off. Never, in any place or time, will she have her son on her knees, or bathe him, or tell him a story, or plan for his future, or see her grandchild.
C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed.
We have a tendency within the Church to not allow people to grieve. We think that theological explanations should be enough. This is an utter denial of the human experience. It is to ignore the horrendous reality of death and the toll it takes on all of us. The separation between a mother and her lost child is an infinite chasm on this side of eternity. The pain of never hearing the child’s first cries, or seeing their first steps, or witnessing the man or woman they would become renders a mother heartbroken in ways previously unimagined. I cannot make you experience my pain, but the level of its intensity on certain days almost makes it seem like it will kill me, but it won’t. Grief takes us to the outer reaches of suffering. It takes us to our limits, but we survive it, even if we don’t think that we will in certain moments.
So why is it that we try to brush this pain off and pretend that the tenants of our Faith are enough to take away that grief? This isn’t even a Catholic approach, for Pete’s sake! We are body and soul and our bodies and souls grieve. We do not pretend that death isn’t real. We do not pretend that grief is not crushing. It is soul-crushing. It is a journey that must be walked. No amount of exegesis is going to remove the suffering that must be experienced when a child dies. The theological and spiritual answers and eschatological hope are only healing after the deep pain has run its course. I am a theology graduate student. I know what the answers are supposed to be, but that doesn’t take away the intense agony and grief. The hope of Heaven cannot shorten the journey that must be walked through this grief.
The Cross comes before the Resurrection and the Cross must be endured first. I once again must walk to Golgotha, to the foot of the Cross, and take the agony I feel to His feet. I must cry out “why” and endure the pain of loss. And, yes, I will wonder if God is good or not. It is hard for a mother to imagine why she got to see a strong heartbeat two weeks in a row only to have it snatched away from her days later. It makes a person question, but God makes us stronger through the questions and the suffering. At least, that is what I remember even though I don’t “feel” it right now. My faith isn’t dependent upon my feelings. If it was, I would have left after 9-11, or during the PTSD, or when I lost my first child in miscarriage. Thank God my feelings matter so little.
- Some of the resources for Catholics who have suffered from a miscarriage are dreadful. I think this is a cause of frustration for so many families. I know it has been for me and my friends who have suffered from miscarriage. The resources are sparse and some of the ones that are available are inaccurate or do not clearly understand Church teaching. The concept of unbaptized babies is a gray area theologically, but the nature of the Sacrament of Baptism is not.
There is no doubt that a devout Catholic would have Baptism in mind for their lost child; however, a miscarriage means the child has died. We do not baptize the dead. Sacraments are reserved for the living. There may be a rare case when the child is born from induced labor and may take a few breaths. That child can be baptized. Those of us who have suffered from 1st trimester miscarriages are not able to baptize our children. By the time the baby’s body passes out of our body the child is dead. More often than not, we are not even able to find the body for burial. I have never gotten a funeral for any of my miscarried babies.
Even though we cannot baptize them, we leave our children to the mercy of God since He knows we most certainly would have baptized them had they been full-term. In the grips of grief with my second one, a priest had to kindly remind me that I could not baptize my dead children. This realization was painful, but I appreciated his willingness to be honest and remind me of the nature of the Sacraments. This in no way lessens God’s power or mercy. Grief does make us grasp at straws….
Today I am waiting for my dad to undergo some medical tests to see why he is so sick and whether or not it is life-threatening. Ever since I got word last week that my dad’s chronic illness was not the cause of his weakness and he is bleeding internally, I have been thinking and contemplating the Agony in the Garden.
Agony is a part of the human experience and it comes at unexpected times. My dad is only 59 and while he has had rheumatoid arthritis since he had rheumatic fever as a child, I am struggling to be ready for whatever comes next. Today we will find out why he is bleeding internally, whether it is cancer or something else. Please pray for him and for all of us who love him dearly.
So it is that we are faced with the terrible and beautiful paradox of the gift of suffering. The Agony of the Garden goes into the depths of human experience in all of its pain, horror, suffering, and death, but it isn’t the last word as we know living through this Lenten season awaiting the joy of Easter. Pax Christi.