Monday, May 14, 2012

Finding Joy In Suffering

Not too long ago, a well-known megachurch pastor came out with a book about how to make every day feel like it's Friday. It's funny how my Catholic brain instantly thought, Wow, what a concept. Having a Friday mentality of suffering and sacrifice every day of the week.  This will truly change souls for the better!  Then I read the rest of the cover, and I realized that no, it didn't mean that at all. It's a manual on how to be happy every day. As in TGIF kind of happy.  Every single day. As if that is even possible. This may not be a fair assessment of his book, but it did make me pause to think about people and how we view life.  If we're not happy, something must be wrong, right? Because, darn it, we deserve to be happy every day, don't we?

Sure, it would be nice but...completely unrealistic. And I think that's why people seem so unhappy a lot of the time. Look, we all suffer. We all have our crosses in life. Some are heavier than others' crosses. I don't know why that is, really. I'm no theologian, but I do know that people who wish they were happy all of the time will always be miserable because they are missing the bigger picture here. It's not healthy to expect to be happy all of the time, and frankly, it's irresponsible to be promoting such an idea. Yes, we can make gratitude lists and the like, and those are wonderful things to do to remind us to be grateful for what the Good Lord has given us. And there are other ways to make ourselves feel happy. And of course, God wants us to be happy!

But sooner or later, the good feelings will fade and we'll be right back to being sad again. Those little tips and techniques won't make us happy all of the time. I mean, come on, I'm not happy all of the time, and I'm very, very grateful for all that God has given me, and I tell Him so every single day.  But there are some days that I'm downright sad, to be honest. Is that a bad thing? Should I expect to be happy every day? Should every day really be a Friday?

Suffering is inevitable; we all know that. No one escapes life without suffering. The problem as I see it is that we just don't really know how to handle suffering, or  how eternally valuable it is.

A more helpful, and holy, approach to life? Find the joy in suffering.

I know, it sounds crazy. Who would actually find joy in suffering?

But St. Therese did, and it is described beautifully in a little booklet called Joy In Suffering According To St. Therese of the Child Jesus (Bishop A.A. Noser, S.V.D., D.D., TAN Books).  "Even though a person may feel bad, and even though a person is still plagued by faults and failings, St. Therese shows us how to live each moment such that one's life is immensely fruitful for eternity, and nothing will be wasted." (from back cover)

Last summer,  I, too, learned to find the joy in suffering. I sustained a sharp, although not hard, blow to my head, and while on vacation was hospitalized in a small country hospital with a serious concussion. It was the scariest time of my life. When the ER doctor first came in and saw me, he stared at me with a solemn look on his face. He went over my symptoms and discussed possible bleeding on the brain and what that would mean for me.

"I'm going to be honest with you," he told me gravely. "Judging by your symptoms, I'm very concerned about you." Then he just stared at me.

I looked into the old doctor's eyes and without blinking, slowly asked him a question I'd never imagined myself asking, but the look on his face was so darned serious, I couldn't help myself.

"Wait a minute.  Am I going to die or something?" I was only half kidding.

The doctor was silent for a moment. To my utter astonishment, he did not say "No, of course not." Now I was really getting nervous.  He simply said, "Let's just get some tests done immediately."

As I lay on the gurney in that little hospital in the Finger Lakes in upstate New York, I started to panic. Did the doctor just have a bad bedside manner, or was he really that concerned?  My husband tried to reassure me, but the doctor's stern warning kept playing through my mind.  I'm in deep trouble here, Lord. Deep, deep trouble.


In my nauseated, woozy state, I pleaded with every saint my muddled head could think of, starting with St. Therese, the Blessed Mother,  St. Anthony, St. Michael, St. Anne, St. Joseph, St. Padre Pio, St. John Vianney, St. Philomena, and moving on down the line to those not canonized yet, like Blesseds Zelie and Louis Martin, Fulton Sheen and Fr. John Hardon.


So this is what it feels like, I thought. Now I know.  Soon, however, in a strange way, I became surprisingly calm and still. While not exactly happy, I began to feel at peace. I had all of my friends in Heaven praying for me. It was up to God what would happen to me. And that was sort of freeing, actually.

A nice nurse came in to attend to me.  She told me her name was Mary. I was instantly comforted by her name. She took such good care of me, like a mother would.

We waited for what seemed like hours and the incredible results came back: No bleeding on the brain. I could go back to the hotel and rest, and head for home the next day.

Mary came over to me and patted my hand.  "I'm very happy for you, Nancy. Now you have some peace in knowing that you've had the scan and it says you will be fine."

I sighed in relief. "I prayed to every saint I could think of," I murmured in tears.  She smiled knowingly.  It was then that I looked up and out into the hallway. On one of the hospital door windows were red shapes I couldn't make out at first. Then I knew: roses.  They were window clings of falling roses. I couldn't believe it. But then again, nothing the Little Flower does ever surprises me anymore. I had prayed as hard as I could for her to send me roses to let me know I'd be okay, that God was there, and there they were. I was placed into the wheelchair and Mary wheeled me away. I will forever be grateful to Mary, and to St. Therese.

I was ill for weeks, and spent all of that time in bed because I could not move about. It was quite frightening, having a fuzzy brain like that.  I kept thinking, What if this never goes away?  I had temporarily injured a part of my brain that could do simple math computations and thinking was a bit difficult at times. I worried that I'd never be a writer again. My thinking was a little confused and hazy at times.  It was hard for me to come up with words when I talked. I was completely miserable, and could not even do some of the simplest things for myself. I certainly could not get out to Mass; I could barely even walk and did not leave the house. The only thing that got me through that terrible time was (slowly) reading that book of St. Therese's joy in suffering. Boy, did that marvelous saint know suffering in her life. And she embraced it each time.

During that time, the strangest thing happened to me. I actually found joy in that suffering. It was all being put to good use, you see. I actually felt productive, even though physically I was not.  I was offering up my suffering for something of immeasurable value. For some, it's the end of abortion, for others, the salvation of sinners, for still others, vocations to the priesthood. No suffering is ever wasted in this way. God hears all of it. Ask the Good Lord what He wants you to do with whatever you are suffering with right now.

Thanks be to God, my brain did heal and everything became normal again. But I look back on that time as very valuable for my soul and for my relationship with God. You see, all of our sufferings will be put to good use if we look upon them as opportunities to show our confidence in God, our love for God, and our will to please Him. We know that He sends us these trials out of love for us to test our faith, and to draw us closer to Him.

Please don't misunderstand: Some people suffer such tragic circumstances, and I surely don't mean to imply that it's as simple as "offering it up" or "feeling joy." And I know that my illness does not compare to some that others face. But all I know is that during my own trial, I drew closer to Him than I ever had before. I prayed a lot. I had conversations with God and His saints. It was the most valuable time I've ever spent, and I spent it all with God. Offering up my pain helped me to empty myself of my pain. I can't even imagine the utter bleakness of lying there for weeks, suffering with nothing to show for it.  Yet people do this all of the time. Why? Because they are being told that they should strive to be happy; it should be Friday all of the time.

Is suffering fun? Of course not! But is it valuable? Is it valuable to our souls? A resounding YES!

"There are people who make the worst of everything. As for me, I always see the good side of things, and even if my portion be suffering without a glimmer of solace, well, I make that my joy," St. Therese  once wrote.

Come on: Who else does this but Catholics? Our One True Faith holds the key to living this life and living it with purpose and for the good of souls: ours and everyone else's.

So instead of telling us that we should be strive—and expect— to be happy every day, with a "fun Friday" mentality that everything should be great all of the time, that somehow life is letting us down if we are not happy,  perhaps we should be taught how to learn to live with the suffering that God in His infinite Mercy and Wisdom chooses to give us, and how to put it to good use for our salvation. Life simply can't be a blissful, happy Friday every day of the week. It just can't. And when we expect a book to teach us how to make that happen, we will end up being disappointed, and very sad.

God made us for so much more than that, don't you think?


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. But if any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God who gives generously and ungrudgingly, and he will be given it.
James 1:2-5



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