Saturday, January 16, 2010

"...And I shall show you a still more excellent way." (On Hardship and Suffering)

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.


  1. Patty,

    Wow! Lots of deep stuff there. Thanks for sharing. I'm very interested in an elaboration on the "suck-it-up" mentality vs. the more excellent way. I consider myself a logical person - or I try to be most of the time. So rationalizing things sometimes helps me a lot. Ie. it sucks that I have a cold, but things could be worse. By the more excellent way, do you mean "offer it up"?

    Also, I've never understood the meaning of prayer. Christ told us to pray, so we do. You make a great point about the Our Father near the end - that we ask for God's will to be done. For example, we would like more children, but have trouble praying for them, because we want God's will to be done more than we want our will. So we usually just pray, "God, send us more kids, but Your will be done."

    But it seems odd praying for His will to be done. I guess prayer is meant to change us, more than anything.

    Any insights?

    Andrea (A.C.H.W) :)

  2. Hi Andrea,
    In talking to Mike last night, he helped me to clarify by the concepts of struggling and suffering. And I think this ties into your question on suffering v the "more excellent way". I've highlighted some of my life circumstances that we've been struggling with as of late. But I realized that my suffering comes more from the feeling that God has distanced himself from me. I don't know if this is my "footprints in the sand" point, or if I've become "Much Afraid" and am looking for my Shepherd on the mountaintops (I'm paraphrasing from Hines Feet on High Places, a great book and a fast read if you've never read it.) No one denies the value of the struggles of life, JPII gave them a purpose and a dignity with his theological insights on work. But I think my "ah hah" moment from yesterday came from focusing not so much on the struggles of this life, but to focus in on my relationship with God and what aspects of that may have caused suffering. Why is God silent? That is a great mystery, and the one I'm contemplating at this time in prayer. I came to a realization yesterday that suffering can be a gift in that it can be, indeed it has to be, BOTH transformative and redemptive.
    Let me highlight with another story, a witness that hopefully will help you in your prayer for more children. (Continued below)

  3. I had all three of my boys within 30 months. And the third boy was a "surprise" that came at a very difficult point in my life. I didn't feel prepared to receive another child financially, emotionally, or spiritually and I resented God for His timing. But my third son is so special to me and our family. In watching him grow, I've grown to see that God's wisdom is beyond our comprehension. God knew that I'd need that little boy far more than I'd need to be selfish. And as the weeks turned into months, and the months turned to years, and I was still not pregnant, my self-centerdness faded away to a desire to become pregnant. And as the desire in me grew to become pregnant I began to suffer more with each passing cycle. I began to wonder if God was punishing me once again for my sin of pride and selfishness with my last pregnancy.
    It came to a head one day, the Saturday before Mother's Day actually. I was setting up in Church for our Pentecost celebration and was alone at the time. I kept passing back and forth in front of the Pilgrim Statue of our Lady of Fatima (who was there for the weekend, visiting our Parish), and at the prompting of the Holy Spirit, I paused to look at her. There I literally fell on my knees, begged her for another child, and she delivered to me the grace to accept God's will for me, and to allow a share in His Suffering through this time. Well the next day, Mother's Day, I got my period. But the following month, Father's Day, we found out we were pregnant with my beautiful baby girl. I know she is a gift both from our Blessed Mother, and also from my Heavenly Father. But I had to give that suffering a chance to transform me, my will, from one of stoic resistance to one of acceptance of God's grace. It came down to a lack of trust for me, I didn't believe that God could really give me the best for my soul, a weakness of Faith in His divine Love for me, as made manifest in His will for our lives.
    I can't explain to you why God is allowing you and your husband to experience this infertile time in your life. But know that I am praying for you, and that as much as you may feel sometimes like you are not "bearing fruit", you are indeed bearing immense spiritual fruit. What a witness you are to life! As you struggle to carry that cross, many look to you, to your struggle, and are shown the great desire for life and what a gift it is to a family. Just know that...
    Anyway, sorry for my verbosity, but I hope that helps your questions? And in praying, allow the Lord to always see the desires of your heart. But don't do what I've been doing: don't allow those desires to become declarations:) Show God that inner sanctum and bury that intention there, and God will allow that to grow and will strengthen both you and your husband with His grace. And ultimately, that is God's will, to call us all back to Himself and draw us ever closer to Him.

  4. Hi Patty,
    Thanks for your insights. This is something I will be thinking about for a while yet, as it may apply to my own life: "But I had to give that suffering a chance to transform me, my will, from one of stoic resistance to one of acceptance of God's grace. It came down to a lack of trust for me, I didn't believe that God could really give me the best for my soul."

    I KNOW God knows what is best, but it's a different thing for that knowledge to plant itself in the heart - to really believe He knows what's best.

    I'm rereading "Hinds Feet". Thanks for the prompt. I read it ten years ago and loved it. It's time for a reread. I'd just gotten it out the day before you mentioned it, so I think Holy Spirit was trying to tell me something. ;)

    Oh, and "MikeinCT" is your husband! Duh. I'm so slow. :) :)

    If you want, email me at


  5. Glad to have found your blog. I came via your husband's. I've long been a fan of his and after reading this post I am now a dedicated and loyal reader of yours. This post speaks right to my heart. I was thinking the other day, "does anyone else feel like this?". Then I read this post. It has given me much to pray about. I can't put things into such eloquent words but what you've said here is what I have been thinking and praying on for the last year. I am so very impatient and share the same woes as ACHW. I actually threw a bit of a spiritual fit the other day when a home test came up negative. Akin to laying on the ground and banging my fists! :) I realized the next day what I had done and immediately fell to apologizing and laughing at myself. I did to God, exactly what my kids have done to me..I just thought, He must be throwing up his hands saying "She's never satisfied!" Anyhow, before this gets too long..thank you for this post. I will keep you all in my prayers for a new home and your travels to DC. We are leaving on Wednesday to head up. I have gone the last 4 years and look forward to it immensely. I never thought about "preparing" spiritually though. That is a very good idea. Hope to see ya there!

  6. Wow, thanks Dawn and Andrea for your insights. Andrea, I'm going to dig up my own "Hind's Feet" as well:) Online book chat! woo hoo!

    Dawn, I will continue to pray for you as well. I know it is so hard to stand for life, but know that your prayers are not in vain! I've seen many instances where God uses his "broken vessels" to accomplish major works, even miracles. Don't lose sight of the "great work" that is being "accomplished in you".

    You're in my prayers:)

  7. Dawn,

    Sounds like I'm in good company, then!

    I think saw that someone referred to your recent blog posting on suffering. I tried clicking the link and could only find that "Dawn Eden" had stopped posting last July. Is this you?

    If you have some thoughts on suffering, I'd be very interested to read them. You can leave a message on my blog under one of the comments, or leave a message here - if Patty doesn't mind. Or you can email me at the address I left above in a previous comment.

    Andrea (ACHW)