For the past few months, if not longer, I've been contemplating the meaning of "suffering" specifically "spiritual suffering". Like most people, I've avoided this topic as long as I could, preferring to stay in my trial free, comfortable Catholic life, and not have to face it. However, as with all the journeys of life, we must eventually embark upon those "rough waters", and my "time has now come".
Now, it's nothing dramatic mind you. God, in His great wisdom, knew that my Faith was too weak to learn this lesson all at once with some great moment, or catharsis. He's taken me on a more level incline, a slower walk up a gentler plain. It's been long, and I'm spiritually out of shape, so I've been carried by Him more on this journey than I've cared to walk it alone.
Let me first give a little background. My husband and I had our first baby girl last February. She was born into a family with three brothers to welcome her. She was brought home to a 900 sq ft, 2 bedroom home in which we've been living in ever since. My husband and I quickly realized that we needed more space, and mostly a third bedroom in order to comfortably house us. After preparing our house, we put it on the market last July. We had a few people walk through, some who expressed interest, and we began to pray. But as the weeks extended into months, I began to wonder when the time would come for us to be rid of this house. A friend suggested to me that I pray the St. Joseph Novena (30-day), and after 3 tries, I finally made it through. We received an offer on our house, and "knew" it was an answer to our prayers (Mike at this point had done a Novena to St. Joseph as well). The offer fell through. I began to pray again, and began my 30-day Novena to St. Joseph once again. More people began to come and look through our home. My brother in law approached us about going in on a property with a home on it. Again, I had the assurance that God was in this, and that we would be able to sell our home and secure this home that would meet all our needs (6 bedrooms, more space, and more land attached to it). We were able to find a way to finance the house, and be able to move even in the event we had been unable to sell this house first. We worked with our broker, with my brother in law, and kept praying and hoping that this would come together. It didn't. Last week, the owners of the home and parcel rejected our offer and decided to pursue other venues to sell it. This was the second time when I was sure that God had lined things up to say "yes" that it came back "no". This is pretty much where we're at in our journey to find a home, here in our house, waiting. And I find myself at a crossroads. I'm not upset with God, and I'll get into that in a minute. But I began to wonder what to do when God's answer comes back "no". What then? Do I continue to pray and persist in asking Him to change His mind? Or do I pray for the grace to accept His will? My husband is convinced He will answer our prayers, and that He knows we need a bigger house. But the "what ifs" and "whens" abound in my mind. And I'm at a loss as to what to do spiritually from here.
Other things have since come on the horizon in the meantime. My daughter will be a year old next month. My maternal instincts have kicked in once again, and I am feeling that "itch" to be pregnant again. This month, when I missed my period, my heart skipped a beat upon the recognition that I might be pregnant. After five days of still no period, I knew I was pregnant, and my husband and I had begun to rejoice and make plans secretly. We were going to wait to take a test and confirm that we were pregnant until after the March for Life, and announce it once we got home. I was devastated when I got my period - a feeling that I know other women who have been there understand. I had been so happy, an inner happiness that radiated with the potential life that I perceived inside of me. Every time I thought of that little babe, I thanked God. I didn't know what we were going to do with a fifth child, but I didn't worry about it. I was happy to have a life, and to be a steward to it. The realization that my perceptions had been wrong left me in the dark. Again, another moment in my spiritual life where I was left wondering what to do spiritually from here.
And all this is happening on the eve of the March for Life. Every year, our family attends the March for Life. My husband and I are both adamantly pro-life, and find this to be a charism of our vocation. We've been attending the March ever since my son was 8 months old (he's now 5), and we've been bringing all of our children with us. Last year was the first year I missed, due to my pregnancy, but I went to a local March in our state capitol with one of my girlfriends instead. I decided that it was important for me to prepare for the March this year spiritually. I've been attending daily Mass since Wednesday in a self-made Novena, and have been bringing my children with me. I'm planning on making it to Confession and at least one Holy Hour before we leave to further prepare myself for the pilgrimage that we're about to make. The storm clouds are once again gathering...My husband and I have had some financial difficulties come up, and it may not be possible for us to attend the March this year. It is another prayer that I've lifted up with a very real possibility that it might not come to fruition. I've begun another Novena to St. Joseph (9-Day this time) to help us find the way and the means to get there, despite the odds. And I'm going to continue my "spiritual exercises" in the hope that we can still attend this year's March in Washington. That is where I received grace this morning, at the 8:00 Mass at our Parish. I've been contemplating something, all the above somethings, and would like to expound upon it here.
My "suffering" as outlined above, is nothing compared to the great tragedies around me, and I don't even know if I would consider it a "suffering" so much as "struggling". If it was to be considered suffering, I would say that it was caused by expectations that I had that were not met. Prayers and petitions that I had that were not answered. At least this was my first reaction to it, and its been my prayer focus for a while now. I feel, in my very small and limited way, akin to what the disciples might have felt as they waited in the Cenacle. What now? Where do we go from here?
Initially, I thought there were only two possible answers or responses to those questions. When God does not answer prayer, one can be tempted to despair. But despair is not an option, in fact, despair - a self made vacuum in which God cannot exist - is a sinful act of the will, and one that I pray I will never be tempted into.
And of course, there's the response of feeling deprived. But that also does not quite fit the bill, for in feeling deprived, there's a subtle sense of being victimized (whether by self or circumstance), as well as a sense that God is unaffected by our suffering. And that's not necessarily the Christian response either. If my response of feeling that God was somehow "depriving" me of the graces for which I petitioned Him, then "suck it up" would be an appropriate response to me. Indeed, I would give me that advice too!:) But as immediately effective as "suck it up" is to those of us who are shallow in our Faith roots, its not always the best answer in the long run. It leaves the soul actively working to "fix" the immediate problem of dealing with the situation, of rationalizing away the pain, either through humbling oneself or disregarding that there was ever a need for the pain in the first place. But just as physical pain is present to the body to make us aware of an otherwise unknown physical condition, I believe that suffering can be a grace allowed by God to help us recognize an otherwise unknown spiritual condition. And upon recognizing this readily apparent concept, I happened upon a lot more this morning, that I'll try to flesh out.
I began to wonder if suffering, when caused by sin, could be redemptive. I used the analogy to Anonymous Catholic Housewife, that if God and I were walking along, and God warned me not to run into the street, and I disregarded Him and ran into the street anyway, that it would be that act of will (to run into the street) that would cause me to get hurt (e.g. when I got hit by the oncoming car). But as I was in the hospital, laying there in traction, and in pain, I would nonetheless be suffering. And even though that suffering came as a direct result of my sin, could I still offer up that suffering to the Lord for redemption?
I wondered if God was not answering my prayers from the above mentioned life circumstances because of my sin. And while I don't have a direct answer to that, because I'm not really sure that that's not the case, I think suffering, whether caused by sin or not, can be transformative. Indeed, I think the only outcome to suffering, is for some form of transformation to occur. For instance, when we diet, we are allowing ourselves to suffer through not eating an abundance of food in order to transform ourselves into healthier beings. When God allows suffering in our lives, the only grace filled response we can have to that is to unite our will to His in order to allow that same applied suffering to transform our lives. If the suffering comes as a result of sin, then it will help to keep us from sinning again. But if the suffering comes from life's circumstances, we are called to do more through our Christian lives, than to just "suck it up" and deal with the life's circumstances. That's too one-dimensional, and there's still that "more excellent way". Of course, we can deal with the life circumstance, I'm not in anyway trying to advocate irresponsibility. I'm just saying let's look beyond that into the lesson therein contained. While we'll never in this life, understand God's will, we can nonetheless ponder this great mystery and "reflect on it in our hearts." Therefore, I found through much prayer and contemplation (as well as help from the spiritual greatness that is Anon. Cath. H.W. and Mike, thanks guys!), that my response to God's "no" should not be one of finality. For God's "no" is never "no" unto itself. God's "no" to us is actually a veiled "yes". And soemtimes, with His grace, He allows to see a little more of that "yes", that can only come to us through our own transformation.
What if at the end of our lives when we are called to our Judgement its not like we thought it would be? What if its not a Judge so much as we're standing on trial...What if Christ is standing there waiting to say "Well done, my good and faithful servant" while holding up a test? And on that test is every life circumstance for which we've been through. And its multiple choice in accord with our free will. Maybe redemption comes not so much on account of our need for it by our actions, but in our need from it on account of the circumstances, our actions and/or reactions, and further need of transformation. If God allows suffering in that we need to be transformed, and we don't respond to it by transforming, then maybe that's where Purgatory comes from?
So my immediate response to these "lessons learned today" will be applied directly to my prayer life. When praying for a need, a want, or a desired outcome, I will also conclude and try to focus my entire prayer around God's will. Then will I truly unite with Him in the endeavor, and seek not to do my own will but His, for after all isn't that how Christ taught us to pray? And when I truly believe that God came that we "may have life and have it to the full", I don't think I'll be "suffering" nearly as much as I've let on;)
So those are my pondering to date.