“With or without our permission, with or without our understanding, eventually suffering comes. Then the only question is how to endure it, how to accept it, how to cope with it, how to turn it from dross to gleam.”
Joan Chittister, The Liturgical Year
A saint (noun) is a virtuous person, particularly good or holy, or one who is exceptionally kind and patient in dealing with difficult people or situations.
I’ve been angry. And it is passing.
I’m embarrassed about my anger being a person of faith. I’ve been wide-awake, tossing in the Dark of the Night.
It’s a level below wakeful consciousness.
Hardly daring to speak of it because mature followers of Jesus should know ahead of time that people suffer and life is hard; all the clichés rattling round in my skull late at night and in the early morning, sitting at a red light, during the stretches of waiting in my day. I do a lot of waiting.
There are so many moments when I have tried to pray and my consciousness hits my anger hard. That is where I got stuck.
My heart’s gone stony.
Examining my heart dispassionately, I hear a gusting and desolate wind howling, see whirling tumble weed. My emotions are hard and gritty. (Antidepressant medication ironically stops almost all sensation.)
This is the state of my heart, mind, and body, until recently.
“Suffering experienced leaves us crushed in despair – content to survive and endure, to switch off from the life of the world beyond our pain, to allow darkness to fill our horizons and hide our hope – rather than continue to love our (equally hurting) friends and world in whatever ways are left to us.”
Joan Chittister, Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope
My doubts tell me my spiritual path is probably not worth writing—elusive, brittle, and often overly bleak. My pain is at times far too precious. And yet I’ve been sanctified by reading Saints attentively. So perhaps the inverse could be true.
But I’ve struggled against my anger and disappointments with life to the point of spiritual torpor or inertia.
I am no saint.
To be sure, as a teen I had flashes of spiritual sincerity mostly through vigorous questions and an appetite for scripture. The “mountain top” was climbed infrequently but often enough to be certain that God was doing the stirring in my squashed shattered heart. (I’ve written about that heart ache on this blog enough times to leave it for now.)
Life is full of spiritual spaces described by Richard Rohr as “the spaces in-between forged by a stinging ache of pain.”
There is a dying inside with spiritual movement in the heart, which includes darkness every time. “Darkness and not knowing—then surely an even larger letting go is necessary to move from one spiritual stage to another… Without great love (of someone beyond yourself) and great suffering, where there is a major defeat, major humiliation, major shock to the ego, very few people move [spiritually].” From Richard Rohr, The Art of Letting Go: Living the Wisdom of St. Francis.
The shock of suffering and grief can catch one in its slow surprise. It is a relentless beating. As frequent and steady as the rain drumming outside is mesmerizing on the senses. That’s what it is like to watch someone you love stagger under the weight of unfair and ruthless mental illness.
That is what it is like to feel wounded by life’s sting. Your humanity departed, stones weigh you down.
For months all I could think to pray was: “This is too much.”
Not even able to whisper the usual question of how a good God would allow an innocent child to feel so much pain? That came later but didn’t last long. Accepting that sh*t certainly happens. And those that know me, know, that I’m no optimist, generally. I expected life to be tough; it’s been hard for me, but not for my babies. Damn you, not my babies my heart screams.
I don’t believe that pain is FROM God. Or that God punishes us with suffering.
I believe that with everything I am. Though I am angry, there is no one to blame. I have come to see with startling clarity that life will be hard and pain will eventually come for most everyone. What’s most important is how we respond.
When I became pregnant I hadn’t given much thought to whether my children would eventually suffer.Yes, I was that naïve. They were born healthy and I was pleased, as if I had anything to do with it. I thought if we do a good job parenting, our babies would grow up to be happy and carefree.
I hadn’t prepared my heart for the powerlessness of watching a child suffering. And didn’t realize how much I had bought into what the world considers to be kid’s perfections or imperfections, much of it utterly out of anyone’s control.
When everything began to crumble for us nearly two years ago the first thing I did was question what’s wrong with us as parents. Then, what’s wrong with my child? Eventually I had the thought: how can we “fix” this? I hadn’t seen it before but I guess I believed children could (perhaps should) be perfect.
My daughter’s health was someone’s failing. This illness could be, must be fixed. I was caught in this thinking. A different doctor, a different medicine, a different ANYTHING would be the answer and I would find it. I would do anything for my child!
One day seeking yet again “The Answer” we met with another specialist, a good, gracious and brilliant doctor. He was probably the fifth or sixth doctor that had tried to help us through more than two years of hard work of therapy, hospitals, dozens of variations of medications. Not to mention all the feelings of grief, failure, desolation, loneliness, rage all processed mostly in solitude or between Tom and me.
Finally, after lots of conversation this new doctor asked the most incredible question.
“What if you could see that she’s perfect the way she is?”
I’ll be honest I laughed out loud, more like snorted, choking back my scorn. Still so caught up in grief I sputtered: “Perfect like this? She’s broken…” Yes, I said it out loud. My child is broken. She had recently been discharged from the adolescent psychiatric hospital. We were once again in crisis management after the short reprieve of hospitalization.
That’s what people convey with ideas of Tiger Mothers and Helicopter Parenting, with the ugliness of genetic testing, and the standards of a perfect GPA and natural athleticism, and in the church expecting us to raise Velcro children that are attracted to our Sticky Faith. What? With the stigmatization of mental illness everywhere it is lound and clear: the mentally ill are broken. And in the Church, If our children no longer believe, we should feel shame and be blamed.
“Your child is perfect” he said, again.
My anger wakes me in the murky, shadows of the night causing frantic, fearful anxiety. I’ve faced my anger with the maturity of a petulant teen. I’ve tried to understand suffering standing on the edge of a cliff considering a jump.
Standing at the top of that very high cliff looking down, I hear God gently saying, “Steady on, I’ve got you.” Abysmally, I know that I will eventually believe. Still angry. A bit sulky and disappointed by it all. But I will come to a change.
Today is a cold blustery and snowy winter morning. I find I can suddenly pray more than “This. Is. Too. Much!”
Somehow in some way something is different. Then I remember. This week I reached out to a band of women from several continents and dozens of walks of life, each knowing me in different contexts and decades of my spiritual progression. Some know me well, we’ve got flesh history. Others I’ve met online. The relationships bound by our writing. Some I know peripherally. It doesn’t matter to me how I know them or how long, because they are praying for me.
And into the faith of many good women, I lean.
I let it all drop. Like heavy stones I’ve been carrying stuffed into my pockets, clenched in my tired hands. I hear each one fall to the ground. Soon they are behind me. I keep walking forward.
I looked back this morning to see the stones are smaller in the distance. Still there, still on my spiritual path with me, but each step takes me farther from their weight.
That’s the case for my heart, mind, and body now. I am lighter.
I begin a new prayer:Lighten my load, oh my God, it is still just a few words. I find I am carried along by the faith of more than twenty saintly women of great faith and prayer. Right now, they are far stronger than my solitary heart.
I’m still burdened if I turn around and lift those heavy stones back up: Worry. Fear. Anger. Doubt. Lack of trust. Disappointment. Grief.
I whisper the words of faith, growing within. Finally, I have a few more words.
Give me faith, love, patience and kindness. Give me the strength to continue on.
Give me a love that always protects, always trusts, always hopes, and always perseveres.
Give me new prayers. Give me renewed hope.
Today I believe it. Today I’m certain. All shall be well.
Not perfect, but well.