The National Catholic Review
Persevering in faith in the midst of suffering

When my cell phone rings early one sunny fall morning, I reach for it groggily, see that the call is from my mother and know that whatever she is about to say will be heartbreaking. I am still in bed in my pajamas, and my mom tells me that Marian Elizabeth has been born. Everything else my mother says is drowned out by the roar in my brain that tells me that I must see my new niece. “Call me back on FaceTime,” I say interrupting her. A moment later, the video call comes through.

Marian Elizabeth, named for two women with difficult and miraculous pregnancies, is wearing a hat that is way too big for her tiny body, two months premature. My sister, Elizabeth, is holding her daughter both gingerly and with such strong love. And I just keep saying over and over again, “She’s so beautiful, I love you both so much. You are both so beautiful. I love you. I love you. She is beautiful,” even though I know my niece can’t fully comprehend it, while at the same time trying to understand it all myself. And then a few minutes later, somehow, I tear myself away from the phone, and I head off to work and I wait.

I am waiting for the next, inevitable call. The joy of seeing my niece alive is accompanied by the heaviness of knowing that what we had expected had, in fact, come to pass. Marian, facing a host of health problems, will only live for a few hours. This first time seeing my niece will also be my last. During those hours of her life, Marian is baptized in a tiny white garment that swims around her, while I pore over manuscripts at my desk until I get a message telling me that my niece has died.

•••

We first learn about the complications with my sister’s pregnancy on Mother’s Day weekend. My sister is rushed to the doctor, and the doctors think she may be having a miscarriage. She is put on bed rest until she can go back to the doctor on Monday to find out if the baby still has a heartbeat. “All we can do is pray,” my family keeps saying, though I am not always sure if saying such things means that we’re resigned to our seeming helplessness or attempting one last-ditch effort for control. I know that prayer can change the way we look at a situation, but I don’t care about that at the moment; I just want my prayer to change the outcome.

I pray that her suffering, her child’s suffering, be transferred, in some material way, to me. I want this all to work like it does when I go hiking and my boyfriend offers to carry more of our supplies because then we can walk farther together.

Monday morning comes and we learn that the baby’s heartbeat has been found. And then we learn the rest. We learn, gradually, of the numerous, potentially lethal developmental and health problems that the baby faces or will face if she makes it into this world. The doctors still are not even sure the baby will reach full term. And if she does, the doctors are increasingly certain she will not live beyond a few hours. The situation seems like a cruel response to my prayer, a kind of bait and switch. My sister and her husband decide that they will love this kid for whatever time they’ve got. And again, we wait.

•••

In early September, my sister is hugely pregnant, due to complications, even though the baby is still so small. Every time I look at her, I am reminded anew of what is and what likely will be soon. And life and death seem so close, and her whole house seems pregnant with both terrifying ambiguity and unlikely hope.

In the Letter of James we read (1:2):

Consider it all joy, my brothers, when you encounter various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. And let perseverance be perfect, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

This phrase—the testing of your faith—can be an odd one to parse, implying, it seems, that God sits on some gilded throne in a heavenly science lab taking notes on how we react to certain stimuli. I can’t believe that. Yet there is no doubt that suffering does test us. It forces us to figure out why we keep going, what we should rely on. And I have to believe that while God is not making clinical notes, God is taking note. Even when it feels as though we are alone, God sees us being changed by suffering. And even more than that, God accompanies us. God accompanies us through that pain, through the numbness, through the disbelief and the unbelief.

The natural question when we encounter suffering is: Why? But sometimes the more helpful one is: Where? Where am I being called by this suffering? Where can I find a supportive community? Where is God in all of this? Because, as James suggests, we have to persevere.

So often we tell ourselves that we should not complain about the minor inconveniences or even significant trials in our own lives when so much “real” suffering is going on in the world. It only seems right to persevere in our lives grateful for what we have, even if that means being grateful for calm and beautiful deaths. As a wise priest once said to me: “All suffering is real.” Every life is precious. The grief caused by the death of one child is not immediately alleviated because we know that elsewhere, in places of war or poverty, thousands of others have also died. And the suffering of those children has weight far beyond its use in putting our own seemingly more fortunate lives in perspective.

Yet when we hear or tell of others’ suffering we experience a little bit of it. We suffer with, as Christ did for us, entering into our imperfect world. St. Ignatius calls us, in the third week of the Spiritual Exercises, to consider Christ’s suffering from the Last Supper through the Garden of Gethsemane. And in doing so, he says that we should want, even ask “for grief with Christ in grief, anguish with Christ in anguish, tears and interior pain at such great pain which Christ suffered for me.” This isn’t easy.

•••

Marian’s funeral is one of the most horrible and beautiful experiences of my life, at once tragic and grace-filled. I arrive at the small, familiar chapel with my parents, and Elizabeth and her husband arrive separately, a reminder that as much as my parents and siblings and I are still family, my sister now is a part of her own little family. She looks so somber and so strong and still young but wears a more weathered expression, like someone who has been at sea for a long time and is still getting used to land again. The casket is tiny, maybe 2 feet long, and white, and it has a heart embossed in the top, and it sits in the front of the chapel covered by the tiny baptismal garment that once enveloped Marian’s body. And as heartbreaking as it is to see the casket carried in by the man from the funeral parlor, it is more heartbreaking to see it as my sister and her husband carry it out together after the liturgy, walking while swaying with grief, and singing and crying. The casket looks so light, not like the heaviness we expect on that final journey out. But by far the most heartbreaking moment comes early in the Mass, as I watch my mother looking at my sister looking at that casket, both faces stricken with grief on behalf of their daughters.

•••

Perhaps God does not bargain with our lives the way I had tried to. Perhaps my prayer should not have been to suffer instead of my sister but to suffer with, to truly exist compassionately, to have asked for “grief with her grief and anguish with her anguish.” We cannot always take away someone’s suffering, but we can walk beside them, help them carry their burdens and in that way be able to walk farther together.

And, if I cannot always, as James asks, see all of it as joy, perhaps I can at least find a way to see the moments of joy in the pain, the grace and kindness of the doctors who treated my sister, the priest who slept in the hospital waiting room in order to baptize the baby at a moment’s notice.

Painful suffering, monumental moments, can divide life into a before and an after. Yet we must persevere; we continue on, if differently. It takes time to process suffering. Hope and joy look different. In Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians we read:

We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained; perplexed, but not driven to despair...always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body.

How miraculous, how perfect, that in each of us we harbor both the living and dying Christ. In each of us, at all times, a million Good Fridays and Resurrections. And maybe those days in between, as well. We forget about those days sometimes, days during which the apostles must have been afraid and alone and the world seemed dark and no one knew what would happen next.

During times of suffering, no matter how many times we are told that a resurrection is coming, it is tough to believe that we will emerge from the darkness, that we will eventually find that tomb empty and hear our equivalent of “He is no longer here!” How hard it can be to believe that eventually we will find a new moment when hope and joy look different, yet again.

And so, instead of wondering why, we simply persevere, we try to find that joy, to let it transform us and to simply love our way through it all. Because even in our worst moments, this is what God does for us. God loves us back from the edge. God looks at us and says, “You are so beautiful, I love you so much. You are so beautiful. I love you. I love you. You are beautiful.” Even though God knows we cannot fully comprehend.­

Kerry Weber, managing editor at America, is author of Mercy in the City.

Comments

BRUCE SNOWDEN | 9/15/2014 - 11:50am

As an addendum to my post below, let me add, today is the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows. If ever there was a Mother who experienced the worse of what could happen to her child, it was Mary. At least we have the consolation of knowing through Revelation that, no matter what life throws at us, offered in union with the sufferings of Jesus makes us a type of "co-Redeemer" something that Mary didn't know about, barring a special revelation from God. Assuming that the Mother of Jesus didn't know about that teaching, it seems to me her suffering was all the more tremendous, in that she didn't have the consolation of knowing that she was suffering "redemptively" with her son, making her as the Church now acknowledges Co-Redemptrix with Christ her son. O Blessed Mother , thanks for putting up so valiantly with unbelievable suffering!

BRUCE SNOWDEN | 9/16/2014 - 8:21am

Wrenching and mysterious are the vicissitudes of life and in the light of Faith strangely beautiful but no less painful. I have not read the book, but reviews of, “Where The Hell Is God?” by Jesuit priest Richard Leonard speak of the grind of suffering he and his family have endured, samples of which Kerry has spoken about in her life. In the midst of dreadful travail, no wonder at times it may seem that, if there is a God He’s just too busy being God to “give a damn” about human suffering! That is, until one remembers the Cross with its wisdom, succinctly expressed by the holy Capuchin Brother, St. Conrad of Parzham who said, “The Cross is my book. One look at the Cross and I know what I have to do!” Apart from the mystery of the Cross there’s no “getting it.”

Our family, like everybody’s experience, has not escaped suffering I’d say of the worse kind, like a mother burying children. There were six of us, but over her life that lasted 87 years, our Mom buried three of her children, one sister and two of my brothers, one through accidental drowning, the other two through heart attacks. And there has been additional traumas, like my wife and I now 47 years married losing early on a child through miscarriage in the third month of the first trimester, still not forgotten and the loss still felt. I asked the attending nurse at the miscarriage to baptize the fetus and she said she did, holding the little one in the palm of her hand. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the presence of mind at the time to ask for the dead child so as to properly bury him/her. So the dead baby ended up in surgical trash to be incinerated I guess with other hospital “trash!” Yes, all of this connected to the mystery of the Cross without which life becomes chaotic and utterly meaningless, simply a matter of “eat, drink, be merry, for tomorrow we die!”

Thank God for our Catholic Faith linked to St. Paul’s assurance that, through our sufferings we “make up” whatever is “lacking” in the sufferings of Christ. This speaks to us about the intimate connection of the Mystical Body of Christ the Church (Us) to the Christ, creating “Oneness” soul-boggling, but so very comforting!

Abigail Woods-Ferreira | 9/13/2014 - 2:25pm

Thank you for such a beautiful reflection. My prayers are with your sister and your family. I have never lost a child, but as a mother the thought of it makes my whole body hurt. I don't think there can be any greater suffering than burying one's own child. I hope your sister finds comfort in Jesus and his sorrowful mother.

LAWRENCE DONOHUE MD | 9/13/2014 - 11:51am

I pray not to change God, but to change me.

LAWRENCE DONOHUE MD | 9/13/2014 - 11:52am

Thank you for sharing your family's grief story. We have lost two daughters so I know some of what you are and will be experiencing.

Re your statement, "I know that prayer can change the way we look at a situation, but I don’t care about that at the moment; I just want my prayer to change the outcome.", I do not subscribe to the theology of "God as Headwaiter", where if you tip enough (pray enough) all will be well. Because I reject that my two daughters died because we didn't pray enough. We prayed plenty.

I do pray for acceptance of what life is throwing at me and I pray that I will set a good example to family and friends as I struggle to cope and to grow. I pray not to change God: I pray to change me.

JIM GROGAN | 9/12/2014 - 3:44pm

Dear Kerry,
Having, along with my wife, suffered through three miscarriages, the emotional pain that tugs at our hearts during a problem or risky pregnancy can feel like torture. Years later, as a widower, I share a different sense of grief and joy, believing that my wife has already met these three children. How do you find the joy in the midst of sadness? Our baptismal faith is a central part of that joy, whether the death we hold close is a child, a too-young spouse, or our elderly family members. Your story of Marion Elizabeth has touched me, and I am certain many other readers; it reminds me of the child of my good friends, Emily, whose genetic difficulty led to a life of only a few hours, too. The fact that Emily continues to shape the lives of those who hold her family dear, just as Marion Elizabeth has a story to be told again and again, stands as proof that these children continue to help in the unfolding of God's creation, sacramentally transforming those who pause to consider their short lives and the profound love of these parents for each child, and of Jesus for these parents who held their daughters but briefly, but forever in their hearts. Thank you for sharing this poignant love story.

Deacon Jim Grogan, Freehold, NJ

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