When I worked as a chaplain at Georgetown University Hospital, I witnessed among my patients horrific losses, feelings of emptiness and the suffocating aftermath of lost jobs, lack of insurance and enormous medical bills. Most of us know someone who has suffered from cancer or some chronic medical condition. Suffering can also be financial, relational and spiritual. From a Christian perspective, we must attempt to find God’s fingerprints in suffering: where is the grace?
The grace of suffering is often found in vulnerability. Some of my patients, for example, held positions of power at their jobs, but now they donned the same kind of hospital gown everyone else wore. Brought down to a level plane, to where humanity meets its fragility, we often pause and consider powers greater than our own. We seek God in unexpected ways, hoping to find answers. In these times of struggle, we yearn to depend on a God who seems to have betrayed us.
Yet God can make use of our suffering: bringing people together, touching lives and advancing the kingdom. As families visit their loved ones in the hospital, old grievances are sometimes reconciled. Grudges seem foolish in the face of fragile life. I saw the faith of many patients strengthened; a few even rediscovered their desire for God, something they had lost years before.
One young lady in my unit had advanced multiple sclerosis and could no longer feed herself or brush her teeth. Whenever I visited, she would proclaim, “God is so good!” When I asked why she felt this way, despite having a disease that prevented her from holding a job or caring for herself, she said she had nothing to complain about. She had a happy life, a loving family and a strong faith in God. “Everything happens for a reason,” she said.
Oddly enough, the fragile, suffering person comes to notice that he or she is depended upon, too. Just after Daniel Lord, S.J. (1888-1955), a writer from St. Louis, was diagnosed with cancer he wrote this prayer: “For some strange reason, Lord, you depend upon me.... It is a challenge and a trust, an inspiration and a call to character.”
Father Lord also wrote a series of reflections on the mystery of suffering for The Queen’s Work, a Jesuit magazine he edited during the 1930s and 1940s. He identified the puzzlement and hopelessness that characteristically arise. But he also stated a bold truth about how it can shake us out of pride:
The loss of wealth has often jolted a man out of sinful self-sufficiency. The sudden collapse of a woman’s beauty frequently makes her see the ugliness of vice that has been lurking behind the mask of her personal charm. Failure has sent more than one proud man reeling broken into the arms of God.
God depends on us to allow ourselves to be shaken to the bone and broken so we can be rebuilt. One patient told me how his sudden illness brought him and his family back to church and restored their faith in a God who desires the best for them. After years of not believing in God, one elderly patient wanted to give God another chance and “make peace.” Despite such episodes we are left with the inevitable question: why? Why me? Why anyone? God’s blessings do not negate the pain. The most difficult hurdle for me as a chaplain was to accept that I had no answer to such questions. All I could do was place suffering and sorrow in context.
The Suffering Christ
I will never forget one occasion when I contemplated Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane as I made the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. The clarity of it was arresting: Jesus knelt on the ground crying, begging his Father to take away this suffering i f it was his will. The tears were real, as were the fear and the feeling of betrayal. Jesus gripped the dirt and cried out, accepting his fate in obedience.
As a chaplain I knew nothing of my patients’ pain, but I recognized that Jesus knew their pain exactly. The woman with MS understood something of this. She knew that God was present in her life. This recognition does not come easily. One woman in her 70s had broken her hip; the impending surgery was going to be risky. She gripped my hand as she winced in pain. Any little movement in bed was agony. “Why would God allow this?” she asked. “I want to die on the table during surgery.” It was as if she were in the garden next to Jesus, facing a fate just as frightening. Imagine the feeling I shared with her in this moment—both of us at a loss for answers.
Yet I came to understand that as this woman suffered, she felt accompanied by the God of love who knew the pain and hopelessness she experienced, the Son of God who felt betrayed at the cross. “Perhaps sorrow is not the horrible evil that men have thought it,” wrote Father Lord in his reflection. “Perhaps it has some beautiful and deep significance that can be read only by eyes that have looked into the blood-red sun behind Calvary’s hill.”
In this context, our suffering becomes a mutual exchange of compassion. If Christ can suffer humiliation, hatred and physical pain, can we sit beneath the cross and suffer with him? It is not easy. As children we may have rushed into our parents’ arms crying, feeling helpless. Was our suffering removed? If anything, all our parents could do was hold us and feel the piercing of their own heart as they felt our brokenness. But somehow, that softened things.
“Reeling broken into the arms of God,” writes Father Lord, signals a thirst deep within us that arises frequently from an experience of pain. It is the “I-know-not-what” of St. John of the Cross for which we ache. There is a deep need to fill the emptiness created in sorrow and brokenness. It may begin with a loved one’s embrace or word, but it ends with the mystery of God.
Laura Story, in her song “Blessings,” asks one of the greatest what-if questions: “What if my greatest disappointments or the aching of this life is the revealing of a greater thirst this world can’t satisfy?” This lyric hints that our life’s experiences are part of God’s ongoing creation, thirsting more for the kingdom of God, ever leading us closer to the promise of the Resurrection, to the day when all will be reconciled in God and made new.
Pondering With Mary
Whether one is a chaplain in a hospital with patients or the loved one of an ill family member, the feeling of sorrow is universal. Consider Jesus’ disciples and his mother Mary. They endured much sorrow, especially on Good Friday. Consider the pain they felt. Consider the sorrow felt by Mary at the foot of the cross as her son, the Man of Sorrows, died and the life drained from him. Indeed, Simeon’s prophecy of a sword piercing her soul was fulfilled in that moment (Lk 2:34-35). Daniel Lord, S.J., completes the image: “Quietly she waited until, with the first pink light of Easter’s dawn, He stood before her, radiant, triumphant, and holding out His arms to her embrace.” That is the promise of God: joy and redemption. Father Lord says that “Sorrow was for [Mary], in every instance, the prelude to a deeper happiness.”
Like Mary, we must ponder and question in order to seek deeper truth. For some reason, suffering is a path we are sometimes asked to take. And when our humanity meets its fragility, the Lord depends on us to be vulnerable and broken so that we may become empty enough to be filled with grace.