Monday, April 24, 2017

Suffering

The year 2017 has been a doozy. It's only April, you say. Well let me tell you, this has been the most challenging year of my life, to date. Many unfortunate things have happened in mine and my husband's life. Some of these events have been small and trivial trials, while others have been life-changing events that will have a lasting impact on our closest relationships. In the matter of less than one year, God has completely changed my perspective of suffering and perseverance. He put me in the trenches, whereas before my view of suffering had (more or less) been from the lofty tower of theoretical knowledge. I hope that by sharing some of my thoughts and inspirations from our recent experiences, the Holy Spirit can draw you closer to our Almighty Creator.

The Flower of Carmel
stained glass - Aylesford Priory

Recently, I began wearing my Brown Scapular again. For those unaware of this devotion, the Brown Scapular consists of two pieces of wool cloth that are connected by a cord and worn around the neck. It signifies a special devotion to the powerful intercession of the Mother of God. In a vision, Our Blessed Lady promised St. Simon Stock, to whom she gave the first one, that "This shall be a privilege for you and all Carmelites, that anyone dying in this habit shall not suffer eternal fire."
Essentially, one must be invested into the confraternity and pray certain prayers with devotion every day in order for this promise to be fulfilled (wearing the scapular alone does not suffice for salvation - we aren't superstitious!). For those interested, more information can be found at the Sisters of Carmel website.

Once I began wearing the scapular with devotion once again, my deep sufferings began. I am convinced that the means by which Our Lady draws us closer to her Divine Son is through suffering. At least, that has been the case for me. I have never experienced so many blows of suffering and pain, and yet I have never been closer to Jesus before in my entire life. There is a sweetness in the darkness of suffering. As St. Teresa of Calcutta once said "Pain and suffering have come into your life, but remember pain, sorrow, suffering are but the kiss of Jesus - a sign that you have come so close to Him that He can kiss you."
Crucifixion by Matthias Grunewald
Soon after my son was born, he struggled with colic. I remember one poignant evening when my husband was gone for whatever reason and I was left on my own, in bed, in the dark, while Peter screamed and screamed and there was nothing I could do to soothe him. I remember crying with him, sobbing, wishing I could do something to make his pain stop. I remembered Mary. I entered into some aspect of the phrase "and you yourself a sword will pierce" (Luke 2:35). I could imagine her overwhelming grief at the sight of her perfect, innocent son being tortured and made to endure the weight of the world's sins. It was very real to me as my innocent baby shrieked in agony while I held him and rocked him, powerless to effect any change. It was only a minuscule foretaste of the all the suffering one can endure in this life. This post is not about the details of my trials, however. It is about the meaning behind the universal experience of suffering.

The lightest cross I've ever carried!
Me on left, my friend Hilary on right
American society is obsessed with comfort and happiness. There are seemingly infinite products, programs, and tools that have the end goal of helping their customer find happiness. I'm thinking of self-help programs, diet plans, fitness trackers, coffee machines, dish washers, stand mixers, and the like. If you really stop and consider the man-made things around you, you come to realize that much of it is ultimately geared towards making life more efficient. Generally, the end goal is to maximize our enjoyment of life while minimizing the physical work involved to reach that end. Not only that, but American culture is addicted to improving oneself. We have become products. How many people spend thousands of dollars to get a graduate degree to make themselves more "marketable"? How many people waste endless hours in the gym trying to burn a few inches off their waist to be more "beautiful"? How many people obsessively checks their fitbits to see if they've done enough today to be more "healthy"? We are sadly a product of our consumerist culture. They sell us products so that we can sell ourselves to others, because it's not enough that we have been made in the image and likeness of God. What a deplorable state of affairs.

In the culturally-conditioned pursuit of comfort, leisure, and happiness, even the most well-intentioned, devout Christians can miss out on the beauty of one of the greatest gifts we have been given on this earth: suffering. Here is yet another paradox. Suffering brings great joy. I can proclaim this from firsthand experience. I have been tested in fire this Lent - nearly all of it God's way rather than my own.

Tonight is Holy Thursday. My husband and I were lying in bed discussing our thoughts and meditations. He pondered that, although those involved in Christ's Passion and death could have made it less horrific for him, they did not. His disciples fell asleep whilst he endured his agony in the garden. If only they had stayed awake with him, would it not have lightened the burden of the prospect of his imminent trials and torture? My husband mused that there must be a way for us to enter into that today and be there for Jesus, so to speak.

Immediately I knew the answer. The Holy Spirit inspired me in a profound way - there is no other way I could have reached the following conclusion on my own. We can stay awake with Jesus every single time we suffer by uniting that pain with his. We can make his cross lighter by joining our agonies with his. When we realize our absolute weakness and nothingness, we give the Son of God the great honor of being our savior. I believe this is what St. Paul means when he says, "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church..." (Col 1:24). The sacrifice of Jesus is perfect. The Lamb paid the price demanded of Holy Justice and he paid it in full. There was only one thing that could not be forced: the disciples were not forced to stay awake in the garden of Gethsemane. Peter denied even knowing Jesus, thereby avoiding being scourged and crucified along with his Lord. All but John fled to the upper room to escape persecution. Will we flee too? Or will we stand firm and accept the cross that inevitably rests upon our shoulders in this life? 

Christ bore his Passion on his own; he does not need us. However, when we participate with him it is sweetness to him. It is particularly pleasing and efficacious when we offer up all of our suffering for the good of others. In that way, our pain becomes redemptive rather than futile and pointless. Suffering is awful! But when we unite it to the cross for the intentions of our family, friends, and enemies, we are loving in the most Christ-like way possible. This type of love is true charity. It's the love that hurts, that cleanses, that brings genuine freedom. "Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13). Christ promised us that following him would bring trials and that the way to everlasting life is narrow. The surest way to gauge your actions is by their conformity to Christ's sacrifice. When I am not sure if I am being loving, I always ask myself if I am sacrificing some part of myself for the person in question. Raising children has brought me to a more acute understanding of self-sacrifice - the sharp agony of childbirth to the annoyance of having to reheat my coffee for the 1,233rd time. It's no wonder the vast majority of people are called to sanctity through marriage and family life. Living with other humans that are dependent on you sucks you out of yourself slowly and steadily! I've said it before: us parents have the opportunity to perform most of the corporal works of mercy multiple times per day. Whatever you did for the least of these, Jesus says, you did for me.

Here's some wonderful news, though, which you may or may not already realize: life is short! I studied anthropology in college - I got used to talking about time in terms of millions and thousands of years. Knowing a half-decent amount about stuff that happened that far back really puts things in perspective! Before college, I thought AD 1700 was a long time ago. Now I consider that basically modern times. It underscores just how brief our journey on earth is. Billions of souls have lived and died, the memory of the vast majority lost soon after their death.
Just a friendly reminder of your mortality, brought to you by the Norwich skeleton, Thomas Gooding:
All you that do this place pass bye
Remember death for you shall dye
As you are now even so was I
And as I am so shall you be





Let me tell you this: suffering sucks, but you will not be able to do it once you make it to heaven. If you go to purgatory, you will suffer, but in the grand scheme of eternity even the suffering there will seem laughably finite. Praise Jesus! When I am in heaven, I want to gaze upon the most holy face of Jesus and look him straight in the eyes and say to him that I did not fall asleep, I did not run away, I did not cower in fear. Instead, I took on whatever sufferings that reality in a fallen world bestowed on me and offered them for the conversion of the ones I love (and don't love). Suffering sucks - but it ends, and if we do it right we can help Jesus bring souls to eternal peace and joy, devoid of pain for all of eternity. 

Those who have given birth understand. The weeks leading up to baby's first breath can be agonizing. It was that way with my son. I woke up almost every single morning around 2am with contractions that would increase in intensity, also getting closer together. I knew it was prodromal labor, but I was always unsure when it would really kick into high gear. Also, starting at about 37 weeks, my little boy obtained herculean strength and would toss and turn in my already-too-small torso and would cause excruciating pain in places you don't want know. Excruciating pain. Worst-pain-of-my-life pain. I spent hours in the bathtub begging him to go to sleep or be still. My only thread of light during those moments was the prospect that he would eventually be born and all that pain would be a distant bittersweet memory. This was in late September, before I knew anything at all about redemptive suffering. Lo and behold, he was born and has enriched my family's love greatly. My pregnancy gave me an important experiential understanding of suffering. It always ends. Even in the last moments, when we are dying, the suffering is going to end. Just as a mother will enjoy her child for all of her life, if we've suffered well we will enjoy everlasting glory!

Sadly, not all suffering comes in the form of a tiny little adorable baby. One night, I endured back-to-back debilitating panic attacks. Anyone who has experienced it knows what it's like. You genuinely feel as if you are going to die. I laid in the dark against my husband as my consciousness wavered and envisioned Jesus on the cross. In that moment I could see the blood and water gushing from his side and onto my own head. I meditated upon this sign of love and I realized my utter wretchedness. I was graced with a super quick flashback over the past months and years of my life and realized just how little I had done for Christ when there were infinite opportunities to serve him throughout even one single day! I am not sure how to describe the vision I had. I guess you could think of it like this: imagine each good deed as a luminescent gem. The memories were as if they were in black and white, which each good deed standing out brightly in contrast. This is how I realized that there was so much wasted, dull time where there could be bright gems of self-sacrifice for the glory of my King! 

Recalling this brings to mind yet again my dear St. Therese's little way. I had "filled" minutes and even hours with empty thoughts and idle scrolling on my phone. I had been getting by doing the bare minimum of 1) not committing mortal sins and 2) doing my duty as a wife and mother and 3) doing an act of kindness here or there and 4) praying for a little bit before bed. I arbitrarily thought that was enough, so I was "all good". And yet, Christ gave all for me. Not a single drop of blood was spared. He gave freely and completely, every aspect of himself, to save me. This shocked me on a profound level. I realized that every single moment of every single day can be made fruitful. I don't need to have a reason to pray for anyone. If I see someone walking down the road, I can say a prayer for him. I can offer up every single moment, every single tiny niggle and discomfort of my day can be transformed by God's power into love. No suffering is too small to be united to the cross of Christ. For will a mustard seed not become a great towering tree with the right nourishment? I am already nothing compared to God. I have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

St. Paul looking totally epic.
"I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith. From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me, which the Lord, the just judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me, but to all who have longed for his appearance."
Mother Angelica 1923-2016
Requiescat In Pace
The day after Lazarus was resurrected in the Sunday Gospel readings, Jesus brought me out of the tomb of my anxiety. I begged him to, trusting that he meant it when he said that whatever we ask in His name will be granted. He delivered. Therefore I also believe that He will make me a Saint one day. I trust, because it is not only my greatest desire - it is His too! It hurts though. Everyone says that the path to sanctity is difficult, and you can nod your head with your eyes wide and say "yeeess I know!" ...but you don't really know until you know. Now I know, and hopefully I will be better prepared for the next challenges that the Lord will allow in my life.

One last thought before I end this post. Throughout all the struggles of the past 7 months or so, there has been a sweetness found outside of my faith and in going to Church. Well I suppose it's not completely outside of my faith - the Mystical Body of Christ... that is to say, the relief has been bestowed by my good friends! One friend offered his home and all that was his for my family in our time of dire need. Another friend lent me her ear (on at least 3 occasions) while the rest of the world was asleep and brought solace to me from 9k miles away. Still other friends visit me at home when I'm lonely and do me favors without my having to ask. When they are so good to me, they are being so good to Christ. When I am kind to them (which is not nearly often enough), I am being kind to Christ too. We learn to love Him by loving our neighbors. I shall beg our Blessed Mother to implore her Son to bestow many graces upon the friends of mine who stepped up to the plate when I was beaten down. I love you guys, you know who you are!

If you don't believe that suffering has to be a part of the life of a Christian, you need to read your Bible. And go to Church. Go on! Git!
Also, every single Saint in existence has something fun to say about suffering. Here's something to try instead of scrolling through Instagram and Facebook: Google your favorite Saint followed by the word "suffering" and see what epic ageless wisdom they have to add to my sad, weakling rambles.

Never fear! Everlasting joy is the promise of our crucified Christ! So gird your loins and light your lamps to be prepared for the coming of the King!

The Resurrection of Christ by Tintoretto

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