The Mystery of Suffering
During the summer of 1958 I lay in my bed praying and sobbing into my pillow for my sister who slept next to me. Night brought both of us blessed peace from her frantic slaps, nagging pinches, and repeated questions generated by her illness-induced hyperactivity. As I cried to Jesus, begging Him to heal my sister, to keep her safe from more sickness and give her peace, I did not know my deep sorrow was part of the unfathomable mystery of suffering.
Now, decades later, my sister is completely vulnerable and helpless. A childhood illness coupled with encephalitis has locked her into the mental capacity of a six-month-old. It has robbed her voice of words. Her hands do not move to her will, and caregivers must position her in bed and wheelchair.
That traumatic event more than fifty years ago compounds the grief we still feel as a family. But her condition never prevented us from our commitment to her well-being. We love Jan, and do our best to ensure she has every opportunity to remain healthy and happy. She is our flesh and blood. She is family.
Yet, our mother’s heart still aches with deep regret for her daughter. Our father’s heart was squeezed by anguish into silence much too soon. And my sister’s illness altered my life, and that of my brother. We did not realize it at the time, but Jan’s illness enriched our lives with a sense of mercy and gratitude.
And I have learned Christ’s love is present in the midst of any difficult situation.
As baptized and blood-bought Christians, we are all members of a family – the universal Church. Christ shares His mercy and tender love through our members. His love fills us with the desire to be together, to pray with each other, to look deeply into each other’s eyes and find the Spirit of Christ looking back. The Blessed Holy Spirit puts within us a need to lean close and hear what our brothers, sisters, mothers, and fathers in Christ are saying.
In the summer of 2006 Rich was invited to teach a home Bible study. Some of the people who attended his study on the Lord’s Prayer had, for several weeks, engaged him in friendly discussion over lunch. Both Rich and I enjoyed getting better acquainted with these wonderful people. The opportunity to continue to meet and talk about Christ and the Bible was very pleasing to us all.
As we met each week at the Bible study I came to consider these people family, so I was taken aback by some of the discussion as we studied through 1 Peter. Many of the bible study members began speaking of encounters they’d had with Protestants – encounters that deeply offended them, encounters typically rooted in false perceptions of Catholicism.
As devastating as the unseen illness that sapped the life out of my sister’s limbs and erased the words from her brain, the suffering of division has devastated Protestants and Catholics alike.
As I paid attention to the family, I heard stories that embarrassed my Protestant sensibilities. These Catholic Christians shared their wounded hearts. They told how Protestants had demeaned Catholic piety by asserting that Catholics tried to earn their way to heaven. I heard the crass way the Blessed Virgin Mary is attacked, and how some Protestants believe Catholics are impure pagans and idol worshipers.
As I listened, I was reminded that on any given day, Protestant radio, calling itself “Christian radio,” encourages listeners to share Christ’s salvation with Catholics – in other words, to “get them saved.” Rarely, if ever, did I hear radio preachers encourage their listeners to share Christ’s love with Catholics, or to search for unity and fellowship with their Catholic brethren.
No wonder Catholics back away from me when they learn I am a Protestant. After all, you never know when a Protestant will attack your life in Christ, or the Blessed Virgin, the Mass, or even the Holy Eucharist – and in so doing, violate the very Christianity they claim to represent.
On the other hand, I have experienced a version of misinformation and misperceptions about Protestants from some Catholics.
It does not edify my spirit to be dismissed as someone who could not possibly understand the deep mystery of the Eucharist, or of the Mass. It hurts me when some of my Catholic family consider me a Schismatic, or perhaps even a Heretic. It wounds my heart to know some Catholics don’t consider me a child of God on my way to heaven, just as they are. And like Catholic Christians, it hurts me to realize some do not consider my devotion to Jesus, to the Scriptures (which is His holy Word) and to my (Protestant) Christian traditions as valid expressions of my love for the Savior.
It is as much a mystery that the family continues to choose the suffering of division, as it is that our Father permits us to do so. Perhaps He is waiting on us to choose aright. Unfortunately Protestants and Catholics (and Orthodox) seem determined to hold on to their misperceptions.
I wonder sometimes if we are as helpless as my sister.
And then I remember our Lord can bring healing and life out of disease and death. The One who touched lepers also went out of His way to find those rejected by family and friends. The One who washed the dirty feet of His disciples, and prayed that we would be a united family, is able to bring us into accord.
Jesus has ever opened to us the mysterious grace of His suffering. Here we see our sin actualized upon “Him who knew no sin; who became sin for us.” How undeserved, how marvelous is Christ’s love for us as He prays for His Mystical Body, His family, to be united. Facing the monstrous weight of our sins, our loving Lord called upon His Father to keep us together, all of us, united, one with Him and each other.
“Holy Father,” the Lord prayed as He prepared for His crucifixion, “keep them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one just as we are . . . .I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me” (St. John 17; Italics mine).
That same fervent petition for unity comes in prayer raised to the throne of Grace each Sunday during Mass. My heart yearns after that desire, and calls out a fervent, “Amen…so be it “each time we pray.
As did Mary, let us accept the sufferings that come when we embrace truth. Christ is truth. Our reasonable service is to lay down our lives for Him. Before our Father a great cloud of witnesses renews their petitions for us to persevere. This moment – this time – is our opportunity to be the answer to our Lord’s petition.
The Holy Spirit ever calls unto our hearts to seek unity. Have we turned up the volume of our iPod to block His voice? Our Father’s hand remains out-stretched to heal. Why do we refuse to grasp it? Our Elder Brother even now intercedes for our unity. Have we forgotten His reminder that godly sorrow leads to the mystery of repentance and renewal?
Perhaps out of the suffering and difficulty of the past, all baptized believers of today will allow the risen Savior to heal our wounds of division. In response to the Holy Spirit’s tug on our hearts, may we seek the Father’s will, spoken through His Son, Jesus, and be restored to family once more. When that happens, like the difficulties that took place in my own family, Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox will find family means acceptance, and compassionate care of our imperfect members. Through that recognition we – and our world – will be inexplicably changed for the better by the ordeal.
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