Search This Blog

Thursday, January 17, 2019

The Universal Call to Suffering

"A voice was heard in Ramah...Rachel weeping for her children."
 Massacre of the Innocents by Rubens
If there is one vocation shared by everyone (in addition to the call to holiness) it must be the call to accept and embrace suffering. I have been thinking about that almost daily for many months. When we started attending Grief Share two weeks ago, I remembered all the people I know touched by tragedy and loss. No one gets out of life without paying a price in suffering, often a high price.

My family lived for about thirty years in a small dead-ended community of about fifty homes in Alexandria, VA. We knew many of our neighbors, some more than others. Our children went to school together or played at the community pool and participated on the swim team or community sports teams. Some neighbors were my walking and sidewalk buddies. We would chat as we walked the neighborhood or I'd stop and visit with folks working in their yards. Almost everyone I knew more than casually had a tremendous grief to bear.

Our next door neighbor on one side was diagnosed bi-polar. After her doctor husband left her she moved away and I heard later that she committed suicide. On the other side lived a woman with two teenage children, a son and daughter. Her husband left her shortly before the holidays. On Christmas eve I went over with a plate of cookies. She was all alone sitting in her unlit kitchen grieving that she would be all alone on Christmas day. She later moved south to be closer to family.

Across the street an older couple lived. One of our daughters loved to go over to play with their two Siamese cats. He was a minister who taught at the Episcopal seminary on Seminary Road. One day after we'd known them for several years, the husband shared that his teenage grandson had committed suicide. I never would have guessed they experienced such a deep sorrow if he hadn't told me.

On the cul de sac catty-corner from our house was a family with two children, close friends of two of our own kids. One day the husband said he didn't feel well, lay down, and died of a burst aneurism. He was, I think, in his early 40s. Our babysitter lived on that same street. Her mom, only a few years older than I was, got a terminal diagnosis with a rare disease. When she said to the doctor, "Maybe they'll find a cure," he dashed her hopes by replying, "It's too rare; there's no research being done." She and her husband went out for a last steak dinner with martinis and then radically changed their diet and habits. She lived about four more years.

One of my walking friends, a widow and a Catholic, lived on another cul de sac. She was old enough to be my mom and was not only a friend but a wise mentor. How many times she listened to me moan and groan and gave me good advice. She shared with me that her husband died of a massive heart attack while he was shoveling snow. He was in his 40s. On that same street lived a retired general and his wife, a schoolteacher. They were devout Lutherans whom I admired very much. One day he told me his dad was Catholic but didn't practice, so his mom formed the religious values of the family (and did it very well I might add).  But I couldn't help saying, "Oh, Marvin, you should have been a Catholic." He and his wife were grieving the estrangement of their daughter who didn't want anything to do with them and blamed them for everything, but he carried that burden with such cheerfulness and always had a smile and friendly remark for everyone he met.

Down on the corner lived another Catholic family, parents of many children, all teenagers and adults. One of their sons was involved in drugs. One night he went for a buy and the "sellers" who were there to relieve him of his wallet chased him out onto U.S. Route 1 where he was hit by a car and seriously injured. He was brain-damaged and wheelchair bound as a result. The upside of the tragedy was that he returned to the faith. The family later suffered the loss of their youngest daughter. When I went to the wake and looked at her in the coffin she was so lovely I thought of Sleeping Beauty and prayed that Jesus would come and wake her with a kiss. The mother, a daily communicant, became my icon for Our Lady of Sorrows.

Behind us lived a lawyer couple with a sweet little girl. Our youngest child and she played together occasionally. One day her husband announced he was leaving for another woman. The mother was heartbroken not only for herself, but for her little daughter. I was baffled. Her husband was as homely as mud. She was beautiful and sweet and kind. I have a picture of the Blessed Mother over my bed. I pray for that dear woman every time I look at it, because Mary wears her face.

On that same street lived a man whose wife was an alcoholic. One day she went into cardiac arrest from a chemical imbalance missed by the doctors she was seeing for a myriad of ailments. She ended up on a ventilator diagnosed as "vegetative." I visited her in the nursing home. Her eyes were open although she wasn't responsive. I always wonder in those cases if a person is in a "locked in" state. Her husband was thinking of withdrawing food and water. I urged him not to, that dehydration was a terrible way to die. I don't know what happened, but she died shortly after.

And this litany of sorrows and suffering doesn't include any of my friends who didn't live in the neighborhood, the many who lost infants to SIDS or children or siblings or spouses to traffic accidents or diseases, even murder. I suspect if you scratch the surface of anyone's life, you find a soap opera scenario.

There's a poem by Edwin Arlington Robinson about Richard Cory, the man with everything:

And he was rich—yes, richer than a king—
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

And yet Richard Cory "one calm summer night, went home and put a bullet through his head."

Simon and Garfunkel turned the poem into a song with the refrain, "I wish that I could be Richard Cory." It's a reminder to be careful what you wish for.

Appearances are often deceptive. Suffering is universal and outward looks and attitudes never tell the full story of a person's journey. I think it's important to reflect on the universal nature of suffering and to wonder as we look at others, what their story really is.

None of us knows what's in the heart of another person, the burdens he carries that may make him hard to be around or unlikable. And so I try to remind myself to practice patience and charity, sometimes not very well. But, when I fail, being a Catholic, I can go to confession, hear Jesus through the priest say, "I absolve you of your sins," and start again. It makes me grateful to be a Catholic who has the confessional for my "couch."

C.S. Lewis showed a psychological wisdom when he made this observation in Mere Christianity:
Some of us who seem quite nice people may, in fact, have made so little use of a good heredity and good upbringing that we are really worse than those whom we regard as fiends. Can we be quite certain how we should have behaved if we had been saddled with the psychological outfit, and then with the bad upbringing, and then with the power, say, of Himmler? That is why Christians are told not to judge. We see only the results which a man's choices make out of his raw material. But God does not judge him on the raw material at all, but on what he has done with it. Most of the man's psychological makeup is probably due to his body: when his body dies all that will fall off him, and the real central man, the thing that chose, that made the best or worst out of this material, will stand naked. All sorts of nice things which we thought our own, but which were really due to a good digestion, will fall off some of us: all sorts of nasty things which were due to complexes or bad health will fall off others. We shall then, for the first time, see every one as he really was. There will be surprises.
Suffering is a vocation that no one can avoid, no matter how much we would like to. Death, the final suffering, touches everyone. And the grief it brings is often hard to bear for those left behind. The Grief Share program my husband and I are attending advises those grieving to "lean into it" rather than running away. You can't stuff grief without it coming out in all kinds of unhealthy ways, and no one can tell you how to grieve or for how long. Each of us has his own grief journey and walks it alone even when we are accompanied by others along the way.

I like this quote from Zig Ziglar: "It's okay to grieve. Don't try to keep your tears in check. 'If there were no love, there'd be no grief.'" Life is worth living even if it's painful and short. And with love there is always hope, as the Apostle Paul reminds us. "...we will not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning them that are asleep, that you be not sorrowful, even as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died, and rose again; even so them who have slept through Jesus, will God bring with him." 1 Thessalonians 4: 13-14 Amen.

1 comment:

Mary Ann Kreitzer said...

God has a way of knocking on the door when we are low. Spurred by a comment I received today on an old article about St. Joseph, I went to visit the site of the

Reading their latest newsletter, I came across an article titled "Can Suffering and Dying be Useful and Fruitful?" by Fr. Franklin Michael. It was what I needed today and I cried my way through it.

For anyone suffering at this moment I urge you to read it. Perhaps it will be a comfort to you as it was for me.