Suffering, redemption, and standing in the gap
I have spent most of the last twelve months answering the inevitable question, “How’s Oscar?” by trying to put a sunny spin on it. Seizures are controlled! He is fat and happy! We sure are lucky to have this cross! How can we offer it up for YOU?
A few weeks ago, I spent 12 hours at a retreat. And for the first time in a public place, I got to just say, “You know what? This sucks. It actually sucks, and I am suffering greatly.” Oscar is not really suffering most of the time. He has some bad days and weeks. The hospital is never fun. Me? I am suffering.
The retreat’s theme was to remind us that we are God’s beloved. I mostly spent the day bitter and angry about how untrue that feels.
“Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not ‘So there’s no God after all,’ but ‘So this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.'”
– C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
I had fallen into this pit. The Official Christian Story is that God is closest to those who are suffering. Yet I was feeling no consolation, no closeness, no sense of God walking with us through this morass. I had not for months. And so I had stopped believing that God even cared or was listening.
Consequently, I am having a hard time caring right now about the fate of Oscar’s soul, or mine, or anyone else’s. I am focusing on the worldly goals and dreams. I want my son to walk. I want him to say “Mama.” I want him to bring me bluebonnets and tell terrible knock-knock jokes and stay out past curfew. Some of these things may yet happen. Many probably will not. I am so sad, and whether it is true suffering or self-pity is immaterial at this point. I have to live with the sadness, whatever its true character and quality.
Throughout the day of the retreat, I learned two concretely helpful things: first, acknowledge and sit with the pain, and second, invite people into it. One of the speakers suggested that God creates each of us with a unique brokenness, just as he creates us with a unique eye color or list of talents. She suggested befriending your particular brokenness by turning toward it, by entering back into the memory of the pain and asking Jesus flat out: “Where were you?”
When she finished, no one at our table spoke for a while. My head was bowed, and my entire body was electrified, humming, white-hot with the energy of my muffled anger and pain.
The table was composed of many of my closest parish friends. One of them asked me, “Christy, what do you need?”
And that was all it took. The dam that has lived inside me for nearly a year burst open. I wailed out the truth of my sadness and grief and the bitter unfairness of all that has happened. The memories flooded me: the horrible seizures, the hard hospital beds and glaring monitors, the sleepless nights, the gut-wrenching pronouncements spoken blandly by so many doctors, and into each one I screamed in my heart, “Where were you?”
And suddenly, Jesus WAS there, in the arms of my friends surrounding me, in their words of comfort and prayer, like an army arrayed for battle only with shining love, polished and gleaming. The pain was so bright, and their love was so bright, and I honestly wasn’t sure which would win. And I cried—no, I keened—for the next four hours almost continuously, and they held me, and rubbed my shoulders, and brought me tissues, and cried with me.
We attended vigil Mass next. The gospel reading was the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Everyone was so excited about what a great metaphor it was for our day, brokenness and healing, conquering death and the way God reveals His glory and love for us through terrible trials.
But here is where I got stuck:
Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.
So when he heard that he was ill,
he remained for two days in the place where he was.
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus
had already been in the tomb for four days.
Everyone loves to gloss over this part, to get to the good stuff at the end. Yes yes, there was pain, but resurrection! What a miracle!
Lazarus’ family sat with his death for FOUR DAYS, and with his illness before that for who knows how long. Alone. Knowing that Jesus could have saved him, because they recognized Him as the Christ and had seen firsthand what He could do. But He didn’t save Lazarus. And at that point in the story, Mary and Martha didn’t know what was coming. They just knew that they had called for help, and Jesus did not come. He left them alone in their pain. For four days.
He did not come.
We have the benefit of seeing the whole story, just like God sees my whole story from where He is (and someday maybe I will too). He didn’t come *so that* He could work the miracle; we know this now. But four days? I mean, wouldn’t four hours have made the point? These were His best friends, and He just… didn’t show up. He didn’t even show up to sit with them in their grief, and to whisper, “Trust me, it will be okay.” He just left them there!! And I see, yes, it was for the greater good. But that is not actually consolation, in the moment of their pain and not-knowing.
After Mass, the last speaker of the night was Mary Lenaburg, the woman whose blog led me to the Knights of Malta and their Lourdes pilgrimage. She took her own epileptic, profoundly disabled daughter on the pilgrimage. Her daughter was not healed and died in her mother’s arms at 22. Her marriage nearly broke under the strain. Needless to say I spent a good portion of her talk sobbing hysterically in the hallway.
In the closing moments of the retreat, Jesus was literally there, not just among my friends but before us in the Blessed Sacrament. The worship leader began to play a song that I have heard many times before. The bridge goes:
Spirit, lead me where my trust is without borders
Let me walk upon the waters
Wherever You would call me
Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander
And my faith will be made stronger
In the presence of my Savior
I just kept crying, but I wanted to shout to everyone there, “Don’t say those things! Don’t pray that! He will actually make you do it and THIS is where you end up. Look at me!!”
After the whole retreat was over, I waited in ambush for Mary. I had exchanged emails with her before, and introduced myself at the beginning of the day to share the good news of our own upcoming Lourdes trip. But now I cornered her and demanded,
“What would you say to yourself 22 years ago? Because that is me right now.”
And I don’t remember what she said. I just remember that she poured love over me, so liberally and so ferociously, as I sobbed snotty tears on the shoulder of this woman I had just met. She said that I have been chosen, but when she said it, it didn’t sound like it does coming from other mouths: “You’re so special! God is so close to those who suffer! How lucky Oscar is to have such a special mother!” No, she fully understood the terribleness of being chosen in this way. She made me look at her, and listen to her stream of words, and keep breathing, all while she put steady pressure on my shoulder and reminded me that I have both body and soul. I knew I was looking at Christ and listening to Him, that here before me was at least a part of His answer to my many, many, many prayers.
She spoke my pain aloud and made me face it, and she and He embraced me in the gory, awful middle of it.
It gives me hope to see someone on the other side of this marathon. Mary is so fully alive and radiant with love when she tells her daughter’s story. I know, on paper, that it is possible to get from here to there. But I am here, and I will be here, and it will take as long as it takes for me to not be here, and in the meantime, I’m just… here. In the suffering. What else is there to do but endure it, to wait my four or ninety-nine or innumerable days until He decides to come in His own good time?
Taking all of this to church during the Easter Triduum was illuminating, as you might imagine. On Holy Thursday, Jesus ate with His disciples, and He knew great suffering was coming. He prayed in Gethsemane for it to not happen, and it happened anyway. His crucifixion was heinous beyond imagination. His mother and beloved John stood by the cross and bore it all with Him.
It happened, it happened, it happened, despite so many fervent prayers to the contrary.
And then, for three days, he was gone. He did not come. And oh, how they must have suffered in confusion. Where were you? My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?
At the Easter Vigil, Stefan (on crutches) and I waited inside while the priests and the entire congregation blessed the fire and the Paschal candle outside. We sat for almost an hour in the nearly empty sanctuary, hollow and dark as a tomb. As the procession entered, the light returned. And at the Gloria, when every bell rang out and every voice shouted songs of praise and every light was thrown on and every candle burned with fierce flame, my heart actually lifted, like the tiny flutter from the wing of a butterfly you thought was dead on the sidewalk.
The darkness never wins. The suffering cannot prevail.
But that does not mean the suffering is not real, that it did not happen.
This has been my Good Friday year. And so many well-meaning people, in an effort to cheer me up, insist that I shouldn’t dwell on the hard stuff. This is akin to telling me, “Don’t think of an elephant.” The elephant is real. In fact, it is standing on my foot. Telling me not to think of it, or pretending it’s a mouse instead, or telling me about the elephant in the zoo that once trumpeted so loudly it scared your toddler: those things are not only pointless, but callous in their disregard for the truth of my pain.
Instead: “I know this hurts. Someday it will not hurt as much as it hurts right now. That day may not come on this side of heaven. In the meantime, I will console you and love you in your hurting. I will stand with you in the gap between suffering and redemption.”
This is why we pray Stations of the Cross. This is why we venerate the cross on Good Friday. Because until you have acknowledged the pain in its fullness, borne its truth and finality and undeniability, you cannot have the glory of overcoming it at Easter.
But oh, we can never, never bear it alone.