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As it turns out, I have more to shake off than I realized. And what I expected to be a refreshing rest has been more like lying on an operating table. Once again, I should have known better–for it often happens: I reach a point where I myself cannot loosen the things that immobilize and bind and mar me.
So now, God has His chisel in hand and is slowly but surely chipping away at all the pieces that still need dislodging, chipping away at things that hold me captive and mar my form, chipping away at the barriers I’ve thrown up myself.
It’s a painful process, and difficult to remain still and be utterly trusting in God’s sure hand and eye. The baser parts of my nature resent it and cry out, “Why are You doing this to me? I’ve turned to You for help, and yet You cause me such pain!” But the higher parts of my nature understand perfectly. After all, what am I but a clump of earth that God has seen fit to fashion in His own image and–wonder of wonders–to love? And if He is willing to work, again and again, to bring forth the greatness He sees in me, to liberate and purify and beautify me, then why should I complain?
It reminds me of one of my favorite passages from C.S. Lewis’s The Problem of Pain:
One can imagine a sentient picture, after being rubbed and scraped and recommenced for the tenth time, wishing that it were only a thumbnail sketch whose making was over in a minute. In the same way, it is natural for us to wish that God had designed for us a less glorious and less arduous destiny; but then we are wishing not for more love but for less.
(HarperCollins, p. 34)
Or, as St. Augustine said, “The doctor doesn’t stop cutting just because his patient is screaming for him to stop.”
There are many, maybe hundreds, of other sayings to express the idea that pain is sometimes necessary and beneficial for us. It is one of those timeless and universal human experiences. That gives me a little comfort. Just a little! So does looking forward to the final result. It is always worthwhile. But for now–just gotta be still and be trusting!
This feast day is a much-needed spirit-lifter for me, and it came just in time!
Last night, I was feeling so much sorrow and pain, over various things, but especially the loss of my dad and of my once-fiance, Patrick (I’ve been thinking about Patrick much more since my dad died–both of them so important to me, and both of them sorely missing in my life). I was praying and begging for relief. I told God that I felt like I was dying a slow, agonizing death. That was all I could make of the pain I felt at the time–death.
Today, however, I am reminded that suffering gives life as well. The Cross of Christ bears witness to that.
To destroy the power of hell Christ died upon the cross; clothed in strength and glory, He triumphed over death.
The Lord hung upon the cross to wash away our sins in His own blood. How splendid is that blessed cross.
How radiant is that precious cross which brought us our salvation. In the cross we are victorious, through the cross we shall reign, by the cross all evil is destroyed, alleluia.
We worship Your cross, O Lord, and we praise and glorify Your holy resurrection, for the wood of the cross has brought joy to the world.
(Antiphons from Morning Prayer of the Divine Office)
I heartily recommend reading “The Dream of the Rood” on this feast day.
Here is my favorite previous post on this feast day: The Tree of Life
Tomorrow will be 2 months since my father passed away. It’s been just a little over 5 years since my fiance passed away. I knew that the two griefs would be very different, just as the two men and the relationships I had with each of them were very different. But I’ve been pretty amazed by just how vastly different the experiences have been.
The diversity of grief is quite impressive. I say this in the same way that I say I was impressed and fascinated by the power of the shingles virus as the disease wreaked havoc and pain on my body. If you can just distance yourself a little from the situation, even the worst, most painful things can fill you with wonder. I’ve always been rather reflective upon my sufferings.
One thing I’ve been reflecting upon lately is the difference that faith has made in my experiences of grief. When my fiance died, I was without faith–but in fact, that loss gained faith back to me. In grieving my father’s death, I have found myself faced with a far greater challenge: maintaining my faith.
The work of grieving can always be likened to walking through a dark valley. Back then, my faith was like a glowing torch, suddenly burst forth in the darkness. It was something new. Now, my faith has grown and matured, and at its center is the Cross. And it’s heavy. And Satan is working very hard to get me to drop it. He’s trying very hard to convince me that God is not with me. “If He were with you, you wouldn’t be suffering so much.”
What a conniving and sometimes strong temptation that is. But how false! How false it is to assume that God exists to take away our pain, and that if He doesn’t then He either doesn’t exist or is a big old meanie. We are not ourselves without pain. And the reason for that is not that God is a sadist who created us to suffer. The reason for that is that we allowed ourselves to be destroyed by Satan.
No, God does not rid us of pain. But He does free us of it. There’s a big difference between those two. We each carry our cross because God has given it to us. Not because He’s a big old meanie, but because He first carried His for us. That we must carry our crosses, that we must experience pain and suffering, are simply a matter of justice. He willingly experienced pain and death because of our wrongs. But justice demands that we each also bear the consequences of our wrongs. There is nothing mean or unfair about this demand. Understanding this simple principle of justice can take a lot of bitterness out of our sufferings… if we let it.
But what really frees us from pain is the perfect mercy that balances out God’s perfect justice. He is never more merciful to us than when we attempt to suffer pains patiently and humbly, as He did. How do we suffer well? First of all, we don’t give into that dreadful temptation to blame or to dismiss God. Rather, we spit in Satan’s eye and tell him we’d much rather suffer under our crosses than to lounge beside the lake of fire! (Note: getting angry at Satan and telling him where to go is a great stress reliever.)
We simply have to refuse to reject God. That’s all we may be able to do during painful times. And it is enough. God doesn’t ask more. He is never unfair, never unreasonable, and certainly never cruel. He never exploits our weaknesses nor demands the impossible, but rather understands and has compassion for our weaknesses. He always bears the brunt of our burdens–here and now as much as at Calvary all those centuries ago.
So, while I am undeniably experiencing pain, I am also experiencing God’s mercy and love. While I sometimes feel tempted to reject God, I am blessed with the freedom to say no to Satan. Really, why on earth would I go groveling after the one who brought ruin upon our race in the first place? I much prefer to walk through the dark valley with God.
It has been over three years now since the great tragedy, and I am still astonished by grief. By its weight and power and gravity. Over three years later, I sometimes find myself like a small boat suddenly caught up in a hurricane that’s materialized out of nowhere. I am helpless to ever be prepared for it or to evade it. Then it dissipates just as suddenly to leave me in peace until the next seemingly capricious onslaught.
Years ago, well-meaning people were already telling me, “You’ve grieved long enough. Just let go of the past and you’ll be fine.” Oh, but I am fine. I am fine in the only way one can be fine when dealing with such a monumental and enigmatic force: by living with it, knowing my place and giving it its place, pleased to offer up any pain that may be associated with it.
This past Saturday, my Lay Dominican community had its annual retreat, led by the wonderful Father Philip Powell, OP. Of all the important and enlightening things he said during the day, one thing has played over and over in my mind this week. The subject of suffering had come up, and he told us that suffering is not pain; rather, suffering is what we do with pain. To suffer means “to allow.” We suffer well when we allow pain to be in our lives and when we do all we can to make the best of it. The best thing to do with pain is offer it up, put it to work toward some purpose, give it meaning. Human beings can put up with just about anything as long as there is meaning.
That has proven very true in my life. If I have anything to say for myself, it is that I generally suffer well. That doesn’t get rid of the pain, but it does make it more bearable, and even beneficial.
What do I offer it up for? Honestly, I tend to offer it up for myself. I offer it for my continued growth and maturity and conversion. I offer it for my current relationships, that I will never take for granted the people in my life, and that I will always love them to the best of my ability–and show them as much. I offer it for the growth of my faith and my trust, and for the deepening of my relationship with God. I offer it for my perseverance in pressing on toward my sanctification and ultimately toward my heavenly homeland. Pain has a most important role in this journey. It is like kindling I burn for comfort along the way, or like oil I burn in a lantern to illuminate the way.
I usually have more than enough to offer up for others as well. I offer it up for people who may not be suffering so well. I offer it up for those who are suffering their own great tragedies. I offer it up for those who have not experienced such tragedy but also have not experienced the great joy and love that came before the tragedy. I offer it for all who are complacent and naive and believe that grief is something that can be mastered and manipulated… I offer it for those moments of tragedy and truth when those people will learn just how blissfully ignorant they have been… and for their consolation in those dark moments.
Forgive me if this post is not very coherent. Incoherence is a symptom of the considerable pain I’ve been suffering in the last few days. I think it began with a dream where Patrick was vaguely present… just present enough to make me miss him terribly and to feel my loss most acutely. I suppose this will always happen from time to time… but it will never stop me from living as I must: for the future and for the people here in my life, for God and for heaven. Well-meaning people have mistakenly perceived my willingness to live with grief as a desire to live in the past, yearning too much for one who has died, shutting out future prospects. Nothing can be further from the truth. Part of suffering well is having hope. And hope can only be directed at the future. I do have hope.
(Nevertheless, please do send me your prayers.)