It seems like just when I think I’ve learned to trust in God, He says, Oh yeah, how 'bout now? and takes it up another notch.
Or three, ... or five or six.
Yesterday, a priest said that maybe I was going through these things so that I could help someone else by sharing it on my blog. On the way home, I started thinking about what I'd learned about suffering just this week, so here goes...
This past week I saw two daily Mass-goers with whom I'm acquainted, both of whom I hadn't seen in quite a while—say, about a year. In each catch-up conversation, something struck me.
The first conversation was with a British fellow in his seventies. He was a lector at a neighboring parish, where my husband often, and I occasionally (used to), go to morning Mass. (Ever since my recent pregnancy, it's been too early for me.) I didn't know him very well; from my pew, he seemed holy and on the serious side—dignified. I liked his accent.
When I saw him last Saturday, I hardly recognized him. I hadn't known that he had Parkinson’s, but now the signs were obvious: a constant struggle to control his head, his facial expressions, and especially his mouth. Even his delightful accent was lost in the difficulty of forming words.
I immediately felt for him, but every time I tried to express my concern or sympathy, he'd turn it away with a joke. (When I asked him how he was, for instance, he responded, “Oh, you know how it is: one foot in the grave, the other on a banana peel.”) He just told one joke after another—and funny ones too.
How many people in his shoes—having lost exterior charm and dignity—would become reclusive? How many, having trouble communicating, would stop trying? How many, in the face of suffering that was bound only to increase, would descend into self-pity or bitterness?
Not he. Instead he evidently resolved to forget about himself and focus on others. He has a gift for making people laugh, and he's decided to keep on using it. And at the same time, he's a wonderful model of how to suffer gracefully.
The other person is in her sixties (though she looks about 50), whom I got to know last year at the evening weekday Mass at our own parish. She tended to be gloomy and to see things from a sardonic, if not negative, perspective, which I chalked up to temperament.
When I saw her on Monday, she seemed more lighthearted and much more cheerful.
When I mentioned that I'd been going through one thing after another, she replied, “That’s what last year was like for me. I’d feel like I’d just get one nostril above the water then—bang—I’d get knocked back down again. And I'd say, 'Lord, what are you doing?!' ”
Her response stuck with me. Not only was it a humorous rendition of what I felt, but it also made me realize some things. First of all, maybe the gloominess I'd seen in her wasn't temperament, but a reflection of what she'd been going through. Secondly, seeing her more cheerful now and the words “last year” seem to indicate that that period of difficulty is apparently over.
It's so important to remember what St. Teresa of Avila said: “All things pass.”
And the priest yesterday helped too. Not surprisingly, the Holy Spirit used him. He suggested that I picture myself in the lap of Mary (à la the Pietà) and pray a Memorare.
It was powerful.
It was a great comfort to feel the pity and sympathy of our Mother. Even though my sufferings are nothing compared to what her Son—or even she—had undergone, I felt that she still cared, still felt sorry for me.
I realized how comforting sympathy can be—just having someone acknowledge that what you’re going through is hard, and care, can be a big help.
Then I thought about how wise the priest was in having me turn to Mary, as it’s easier to imagine her being compassionate. Then I thought, wait a minute, Mary can’t truly be more compassionate than God—the Source of mercy, whose mercy and compassion are infinite.
I realized that subconsciously I’d been thinking that God did not care about my sufferings; that He was indifferent. As if He were watching me suffer, and just casually shrugging a divine shoulder, and saying, “Yeah, well, you’ve got to suffer. This is good for you. What, you want a different cross?”
As a parent, I sometimes have to let my children suffer, but that doesn't mean I don't care. Just because I let the nurse give my sweet little baby her shots (and even hold her down to help!) because I know that this suffering is less than the illnesses she could otherwise get, doesn’t mean that I don’t care that the shots hurt. I care tremendously, and feel so sorry for her, especially as she doesn’t understand.
Surely God, the Father and model of perfect parenthood, has even more sympathy and love for us in our sufferings.
How can we ever say we've learned any virtue? When will we ever reach a point in our lives when we can say, "Ah, I've arrived. I have a reached the pinnacle of trust [or patience, etc.]"? Never. We'll always have more to learn and room to grow as long as we are drawing breath.
But if the fruits of suffering include learning, coming closer to God, becoming more like Him, and helping others, then it’s all worthwhile.