Thursday, March 1, 2012

The mystery of suffering and a personal story

I've written about suffering before, offering both a secular view of suffering and the Catholic understanding of suffering. (And this week many of us were struck by Simcha Fisher's stunningly powerful piece on the subject.)

To live is to suffer. No matter how hard we try to avoid suffering, it's not going away. Sometimes we will suffer to the limit of what we can bear, and at some point we may ask God, Why?

We should get one thing straight up front: Man's Original Sin introduced suffering into this world (read more about how that happened, here). But though we humans brought suffering upon ourselves, God remains a loving Father. He allows suffering, yes, but not for our harm; He allows us to undergo suffering so that we might be healed.

Here's my real life experience to help illustrate the concept:

When my fourth child was 21 months old, a large metal toy truck fell off a bed and struck his mouth, resulting in a deep gash above his lip. After the initial injury and tears, he recovered his composure and was feeling fine, even as I drove him to the hospital for stitches. My father met us there, and my son played happily with us in the ER waiting room, having no idea what was to come.

When we were finally brought to an examining room, my baby began to get a bit uncomfortable. The lights were too bright, and a strange lady was in his face, pushing around near his wound. He became increasingly upset and signaled to me and grandpa that he wanted to get down. We wouldn't let him.

I held my baby down while the doctor injected his lip. I felt sick when I saw the panic in his eyes, yet I continued to pin him firmly to the table as the scary woman forced a sharp, hooked needle in and out of his flesh. He was screaming and could barely hear my soothing words. But worse, he was pleading to me, repeatedly calling my name and begging, "Mama, no!!"

As I facilitated this torture, my baby became more and more frightened. He cried out to grandpa for help, and none came. Grandpa stood by with gentle words and concerned eyes, but he did not rescue the grandson who trusted him and expected protection. My boy's tear-choked words were limited by his age, but his terrified expression spoke directly to me: Why are you helping her? Why don't you make it stop? Don't you love me?

Yes, I loved him, and yes I had the power to end his suffering, but I wasn't going to do it. I knew something that he couldn't have known then: I was allowing this suffering for his healing and restoration, not for his harm. I could be trusted. His toddler mind, of course, didn't understand.

Now that dear son is fourteen years old and his mind has expanded. He has heard the story, even smiles at the retelling, and he understands. What was a dark mystery to him then makes perfect sense to him today.

Thanks to Jesus and His Cross, Christians have a glimpse into the mystery of redemptive suffering. God knows what our souls need to be restored, and even in the midst of our greatest trials, He can be trusted. He is a good Father and He loves His children. We may not fully understand why a particular cross was given to us, but we trust that it's for our healing. And when all is revealed in Heaven one day, when our minds are expanded and our Father shows us how our sufferings worked for our good, we will joyfully understand.

"It is in suffering that we are withdrawn from the bright superficial film of existence, from the sway of time and mere things and find ourselves in the presence of profounder truth." 
+ Fr. Yves Conger, French priest-theologian. 

"Life is like a bad night in a bad inn."
+ St. Teresa of Avila



  1. Leila, I have a question about this. If God knows when our souls need to be restored then why do people commit suicide or murder or any number of horrible things? Certainly their souls are not being restored. What obligations do people have to fulfill for "God" to give meaning to their suffering and restore them.

    Were the souls of the victims of the holocaust restored? I'm really asking.

    There is a popular new-age expression "whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger." And what you're saying reminds me of this. And I don't believe it at all. People are destroyed by things that happen to them and they never recover--they're certainly not stronger.

    Thank you.

  2. Johanne, I know you're question is directed to Leila, but until she answers, I hope I might help a little.

    For almost 15 years, I was trying my hardest to get back to God, a good Christian life, the life I knew when i was growing up. I had gotten off the beaten path, and though I went to confession did the best I knew how to redeem my relationship with God, I was not able to establish it. My relationship with him felt very forced.

    Then I had a heart attack that nearly killed me. Six months after that, my Dad died. About another six months after that, I learned I was pregnant with my 5th child. This was a scary thing as I had been told that a pregnancy could kill me, as my heart attack had happened because of my 4th pregnancy. (Aortic dissection caused by pregnancy hormones.) And if it didn't kill me, the strain of the pregnancy would weaken my heart considerably. Now I have found out that my unborn nephew as a rare condition of encephalocele ( do not click on the link if you don't want to see the pictures.)Encephalocele is a rare condition where the brain is coming through the baby's skull. Very rarely do the baby with this condition live. My sister was told to abort but she chose to keep the pregnancy going. Now, four weeks later, after seeing specialists and the head doctor of Operation Smile, she is being told that there is no reason her baby can't live and that reconstructive surgery can't be done.

    I am alive today by the grace of God. My father died a happy and joyful death, after being depressed and rather difficult to live with all his life. Because of my sister's courage to rather hold her son and let him die in her arms rather than die by a doctors knife, her son has a chance to live because she took the time to research her son's condition and seek out professional help who knew about this rare condition.

    You talk about people who commit suicide. After my heart attack, I struggled with this. Depression is common after a heart attack and I struggled very much with fear of going through death all over again. With the pregnancy, this fear was renewed, and I had to go through that all over again. I guess you could say I have PTSD. Every heart palpitation, every wave of weakness, every menstrual cycle (it's different now since the heart attack) I have to cope with this anxiety. I do know what fear and the temptation to "get it over with" is.

    More in the next comment, sorry this is so long!

  3. My soul was "restored" in what it was lacking, which was a trust in God. Mother Theresa once said, "You cannot trust who you do not know." I really didn't know God, or totally believe in Him because I didn't trust Him. And so my relationship with Him was limited.

    I can't speak for my sister or Dad, but the suffering that they went through has restored something in them, as I have seen nothing but the positive in them (speaking past tense for my Dad, of course.)

    As for suicide, without meaning disrespect to those who struggle with it, they didn't have enough trust in God and they succumbed to despair. I'm sorry for them, because I understand depression and fear; it's a horrible thing to live in such darkness and not have a faith to support you. I was lucky.

    The answer is actually pretty simple. But if you don't have faith or a belief in God, then I don't believe any answer will satisfy you.

    Sorry for the long drawn out answer. I'm a little distracted by my baby who is calling for me. Hopefully someone else can answer you a little more clearly.

  4. Johanne, only a quick moment here, but I will come back with more when I can (Becky, thank you for stepping in!).

    First, the quote about "that which doesn't kill us makes us stronger" should be put in the context of its author, Friedrich Nietzsche. He was most definitely not a Catholic, but in fact was very much anti-Catholic: An atheist who very much despised religious morality and Christian "weakness".

    As for suicide, here is the official teaching from the Catechism of the Catholic Church:


    2280 Everyone is responsible for his life before God who has given it to him. It is God who remains the sovereign Master of life. We are obliged to accept life gratefully and preserve it for his honor and the salvation of our souls. We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of.

    2281 Suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life. It is gravely contrary to the just love of self. It likewise offends love of neighbor because it unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation, and other human societies to which we continue to have obligations. Suicide is contrary to love for the living God.

    2282 If suicide is committed with the intention of setting an example, especially to the young, it also takes on the gravity of scandal. Voluntary co-operation in suicide is contrary to the moral law.

    Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.

    2283 We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.

  5. Leila, I love the subject of Redemptive Suffering. I named my whole blog after the concept! LOL It is painful, and terrible and yet it is the means of wonderful change. You just have to learn to lean into it.

    Thanks for writing this today. It so nicely mirrors the happenings in my own household for the last few months. I know all this, but it's nice to hear the reminder.

  6. From Abigail, who cannot get this to post:

    Johanne, I'm a sensitive girl and the facts of the Holocaust REALLY disturbed me. I don't pretend to be an expert, but here are some things that I've discovered through my Catholic faith.

    First, I went to the Holocaust museum in D.C. as a Protestant high school student and also visited Hitler's Rally Grounds in Nuremburg, Germany. Both visits disturbed me for a long time.

    Recently, I went back to the Holocaust Museum as a new Catholic with my two very young children (age 3 and 1). The experience I had was totally different. In my heart, I knew that out of such evil came the shining lights of three saints and one beloved Pope. Pope John Paul the II, saw his Jewish friends humiliated and ultimately killed. He fought it as a young kid. He decided to become a priest in Nazi occupied Poland, even though it met death if he was discovered. He ended up becoming one of our most important Pope, ended Communism with our prayers, and one day will become a saint!

    St. Edith Stein, was a Jewish convert, became a nun, stood of up to Hitler by making her German convert vote against his crooked election, ultimately she and her sister were dragged out of a convent in Holland and killed in Auschwitz. As she left her convent she bravely told her sister Rose, 'now we need to go suffer with our people (the Jews)." She knew she was going to die when she got on that train, yet the last letters she send home to her Carmelite convent are beautiful. She forgot about her own death and comforted the abandoned children who were in the death camps with her. Her strength was unbelievable, supernatural. I don't know how many souls she saved with her prayers, but it was a lot. We'll find out the full extent in heaven.

    Maximillian Kolbe, a Catholic priest, imprisioned in Auschwitz because of his religious beliefs. In an incredible act of charity, he traded places with a father who was picked out to die. St. Kolbe led a small group of men in prayer and song for something like over a week, during a dreadful hunger fast enforced by the Nazis. No one in that camp could believe that Kolbe was still alive. Finally, the frustrated guards decided to kill him with a lethal injection. Kolbe cheerfully handed himself over to death saying "I forgive you my friend." He knew from a young age that he was going to be a martyr for Christ and he was happy to accept death for another. "No one has greater love than one who would lay down his life for another."

    Finally we've got our current Papa, Pope Benedict. His father was a police man who objected to the Nazi regime. The family kept getting punished more and more for their Catholic beliefs and opposition to Hitler. Pope Benedict was forcibly dragged into the German army as a teenager, then left to starve in the open air for months as a POW. Every day his father prayed to the Virgin Mary for his son's protection. She answered his prayers. Both sons lived AND both became priests. Much of the wisdom of our current Pope comes from staring evil in the face, and choosing to go another way-the path of God.

    Also, those horrible, horrible gas chambers? They were necessary because the German army soldiers literally went crazy after shooting so many innocent men, women, and children in the head as a part of the Holocaust. The horrible army engineers had to come up with a way to kill massive amounts of people while minimizing the direct contact of the army officers. The gas chambers let a single german toss in some poison at a safe distance from the victims so that he could last at his job as long as possible.

    I know this is a horrible, horrible evil--but somehow that fact brings my heart comfort. No matter how much our mind is clouded by Satan, God made our hearts for good. At the end of the day, the human mind can NOT engage in massive acts of murder without going completely mad. We all have God's mercy and laws inscribed in our hearts.

  7. One more quick thought, Johanne. It's grace, i.e., God's life within us, that makes us able to suffer well and efficaciously. Grace is what allows us to act above our fallen nature and achieve heroic virtue. Grace, grace and more grace.

    For a deeper understanding of sanctifying grace please go here:

  8. Here is my shorter answer:

    Redemptive suffering--as Christians we have an opportunity to take part to suffer and offer up our suffering for others just as Christ did on the cross. Jesus came to the world not just to save us from our sins, but to be the example to us on how to live, and also how to suffer, because as Leila said, living and suffering go hand in hand.

    He suffered and died for us and we were redeemed. Since we suffer anyway in an imperfect world with imperfect people who causes us to suffer anyway, we can take part in union with Christ, and offer our sufferings up for our own sins and for one another.

    In the Old Testament, sacrifices used to be offered through the killing of animals and offered to God for atonement; then Jesus came, the sacrificial Lamb, offered His own sufferings for us, and sacrifices became different. We can now choose to use our sacrifices for something positive; when it's used in this way, people do not end up killing themselves out of despair. They become better and holier people because they are acting in union with Christ.

    I could go on and on but now I will back out as there is a busy day ahead of me; I'm sure that Leila and other Bubble members will have many examples to give.

  9. Sort of off-topic (but not totally).

    I cannot get Oliver off of my mind, so I am doing something about it (yes, I have gone over the edge).

    Look at this angel:

    Here's what I posted on my facebook this morning:

    Dean just agreed to my crazy idea. We will match any donation, dollar for dollar, which you give to Oliver's adoption fund. We do have an upper limit, but I believe it will get sweet Oliver to the "sizable grants" page so that potential parents can see him. He started today with $13 in his fund. If you donate $5, it will automatically double to $10. If you donate $50, it will double to $100. And so on.

    Oliver is turning five years old soon, and he has been stuck in a crib all those years. He has dwarfism, a club foot, and complications from encephalitis. He is likely cognitively NORMAL, but probably with delays from being in the crib. When he turns five, Oliver will be transferred to an adult mental institution and be stuck there for the rest of his life, bedridden, unless a family comes forward to bring him home. He lives in Ukraine, and his total costs for adoption/travel will be about $25,000. My understanding is that Ukraine adoptions are fairly quick, about seven months. Two trips are required. If anyone makes the commitment to adopt, I will make sure the fundraising continues till he comes home.

    Thank you and God bless you!

    In the past few minutes, his fund has shot up from $13 to (when I match the donation) $324. Thank you, thank you!

    Okay, back to our regularly scheduled program….

  10. The references about suicide are timely - thanks for sharing. The young daughter of a longtime family friend has suffered from mental illness for her entire life and is now worse than ever. She has been hospitalized under 24-hour suicide watch for a few weeks now, but is due to be released very soon, because I guess insurance will cover that sort of care for just so long. It is likely that when she is released from 24-hour watch that she will run off from the facility where she will be placed, and try to kill herself. I've been praying the Divine Mercy Novena for her, in case that happens.

    1. I'm so sorry to hear that, TGNY. I will include her in my prayers as well. A close friend of mine in high school killed himself shortly before his 16th birthday. It was such a shock. He was a brilliant intelligent guy and had been depressed with his complicated family life. I never imagined he would take such a drastic step, and I felt guilty for backing off on our friendship when his depression deepened beyond my ability to handle it. I saw him the day before his death at school, and he was so happy and peaceful. I thought, "Wow, he is doing so much better! I'm so glad to see things are turning around." Yeah...I learned later that people often seem "happy" prior to suicide because they finally think they have an out to their pain. Anyway, I do understand on some level the pain you speak of.

  11. Your posts always come at the perfect time. Thank you. In tears.

    Love the comments about the holocaust. So amazing.

  12. Perfect post, yet again. The story illustrates the point really well...we can't always see how what's happening is what's best for us.

  13. Leila,
    I have been waiting for a little over a year for you to go over the edge... :) Thanks for helping Oliver and Malcolm. This Lent, please join me in praying for more Catholics to discover this great pro-life cause and to be moved to prayer and action.

  14. Oh Becky, please post those two comments on your own blog. What a beautiful testimony.

    This really is a beautiful post. The analogy of the injured toddler is perfect. Thank you, Leila.

  15. Robin, who knew how quickly it happens once it takes hold?? His numbers are rising, as are Malcolm's! Pray!

  16. Beautiful analogy Leila. I have so much to say but can't really get it all out. Thanks for your wonderful post.

  17. Thank you to everyone for your thoughts.

  18. What a great post. I have been struggling with how to deal with the current suffering in my life and what you wrote has helped me frame it better in my mind.

    Thank you Leila!

  19. Like so many others who have posted, the particular blog had the effect of perfect timing. Thank you, Leila, and everyone else for their responses.


  20. Beautiful analogy. I struggle with feeling neglected and forgotten often... today being one of those days. Your post reminds me that in obedience, I can help God bring lightness out of the dark.

  21. Definitely a timely post and example you gave. :-)

  22. That is a terrific analogy and personal story! Poor baby boy. I'm so sorry that happened to you all. :(

  23. Thank you so much, Leila. You have no idea how I needed to be reminded of this truth today.

  24. Our firstborn was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at 9 months of age. My husband was a pentecostal protestant pastor. The Church's teaching on redemptive suffering saved my sanity and we are now converts, thank God. We've also had 6 more children, with that 1:4 chance (I think my newborn also has it, but none of the others do.)! So glad to have "found" you, Leila!

  25. Re: the Holocaust saints. You forgot Stanislawa, the midwife in Treblinka who delivered (and baptized!) 3000 babies and did not lose a single mother or baby. She also tattooed the children so their mothers could find and identify them after the war.

    Along the same lines, though, I often wonder if all suffering is in fact redemptive, at least for the person in question. I can't imagine how one could make the case that a six-year-old suffering the horror of the cattle cars and the death camps and disease and eventual horrific death is somehow being taught a larger lesson. Sometimes evil is just evil, because man was given free will, and suffering (it seems to me) doesn't always have a purpose. Sometimes it's just awful. Maybe the lessons of the Holocaust were for humanity at large, but it doesn't seem that we've learned anything at all from it in the end. Can't we say that some suffering we will never understand, and may not have a purpose? I think that categorizing all suffering as redemptive sometimes obscures the fact that evil does exist and can't be ignored. It must just be borne. Not to say that redemptive suffering doesn't exist; of course it does. I just don't think that ALL suffering is redemptive.

    But this post was really lovely. Thanks, Leila! I hate those horrible hold-you-down-and-watch-you-scream moments. They're the worst.

  26. Calah, there are two kinds of suffering: Wasted suffering and redemptive suffering. Everything that happens to all of us, all the time, has a purpose. Nothing is meaningless. But some people reject the grace that comes with suffering (not children of course!). I would need a lot more time to dive into that, and yes, we cannot understand why certain sufferings happen, but we can be absolutely sure that those sufferings are not in vain, and that all suffering leads to a greater good. That does not mean that every individual who suffers will go to Heaven (that's that free will thing). Evil acts are real and so is mortal sin. The fact that you said some evil must be borne is exactly right! Evil must be borne, and by undergoing that evil, with love and in union with Christ, that is exactly what makes the suffering redemptive. Christ underwent the greatest evil on the Cross. He didn't make it go away, He didn't crush His enemies. No, He (Love itself) underwent the evil. He bore the evil. And He redeemed it! That is exactly it. He took suffering and made it redemptive.

    Out the door, but I had to throw that out there.

    But nothing is "by accident" or has no purpose. All is providential, either actively or permissively willed by God. Sometimes he allows evil and suffering, but only to bring about a greater good.

    Only then.

  27. Clarifying: Redemptive suffering does not just apply to the soul who is suffering, but it can merit grace for other souls as well. Think about Christ: His suffering was for the salvation of OTHER souls, not His own. And the saints are so holy, but suffer so much: Their suffering is offered for others' souls.

    Also, we do not seek cause others to suffer (I think I put that in my previous post, linked in this post), so that's not it, as some people have accused the Church of teaching. We undergo our own suffering, carry our own crosses, with love, and offering up those sufferings in union with Christ's sufferings. His sufferings redeemed the world, and we are members of His body, so we share in that redemptive power. I love that the cloistered nuns through the world, and the monks, are praying for the world. That is all they do. They suffer and pray for us, so that we might be lifted up. It's a beautiful calling.

    Okay, I am sure I left a lot out and this is probably confusing, and opening up a bunch of new discussions, but I am out the door, ack!

  28. First, the quote about "that which doesn't kill us makes us stronger" should be put in the context of its author, Friedrich Nietzsche. He was most definitely not a Catholic, but in fact was very much anti-Catholic: An atheist who very much despised religious morality and Christian "weakness".

    Just because Nietzsche said it doesn't make the quote untrue. Yes, sometimes we grow and do become stronger through difficulties. Sometimes we learn to cope and learn to deal with new situations. We develop new skills. Often we grow through discomfort. I hate that though. I usually want to lie on my couch. Then when the difficult time is past, we can think, "If I can get through that, I can get through anything." I'm not saying we ignore God or discredit HIm. We can still throw ourselves at God's feet, yet do what we can with our limited human capabilities.

    Hmm, I'm thinking At God's Feet as a good blog name or book title. Can I trademark that phrase?

    Here, I am thinking of trademarks while other have commented on serious subjects like CF and heart attacks and suicides.

  29. Lena, I get what you mean, but I worry about using Nietzsche quotes. His idea of being "strong" means crushing the weak. Our Christian idea of strong means heroic virtue. And sometimes, death does result when we suffer for Christ. So, I would just use a more accurate quote: "Profound suffering can test our character, give us moral strength, and ultimately makes us holy." Jesus said "Take up your cross and follow me." It is only through the Cross that we can be made like Christ. No way around it. Where as Nietzsche despised the weak, hated the Christian message, and advocated use "strength" to gain power over others who are deemed less worthy.

    Hope that makes sense! I've been reading more about Nietzsche lately, so that's why I even mentioned it. :)

    But I am like you: I'd rather lay on the couch in life, too! :)

  30. Too bad it was Nietzsche who said this popular quote. No, we certainly don't advocate crushing the weak and powerless. Here are some variations on the quote I thought of while I was lying on the couch.
    "What doesn't kill us, makes us stronger in faith."
    "What doesn't kill us, makes us stronger to stand up in the face of people like Nietzsche."
    'What doesn't kills us, makes us stronger so we can help others."

    Then I fell asleep on the couch. Now that I'm awake, but groggy, I am thinking
    Nietzsche is dead, and Christianity is alive. Someday, we'll be dead, and the Church will still be alive. (And yes, I did attend Mass between my earlier comment and this comment.)

  31. It's very interesting to note Nietzsche and the Little Flower were contemporaries. I'd recommend reading this Doctor of the Church to counteract any angst from Mr Nietzsche's ideas.

  32. In another strange coincidence, St Eliazabeth Stein was working on a very important scholarly work of St John of the Cross (a church doctor who was all about embracing God through suffering and the Dark Night of Soul). She couldn't finish it because the Nazis kidnapped her from her convent cell and ordered her death.

    I sort of figure God was like "you've got this intellectually Edith! Now go live it."

  33. Finally, I just don't think we can dismiss even young children from being powerful martyrs and saints. Spiritual maturity has nothing to do with chronological age.

    I once saw an incorruptible body of a four year old martyr from Roman times. I know there is already a saint who was four, right, who accepted her fatal bone cancer as redemptive suffering for Christ.

    In my own circle of friends a Mom last her nine year old son to

  34. She was telling me that the way her son dealt with pain and the intensity of his piety so so different from her other children, even when he first got sick at age 3. The grace connected to redemptive suffering is so great if you let it in.

    "In my body I make up for the lack of the suffering in Jesus Christ." St Paul

  35. Faith like a child is a really beautiful thing, and we know God asks us to have faith like a child. I still have distinct memories of my childhood spirituality that I carry with me to this day.

    When I see the faith of my own children, I am always in awe. They know about death, suffering, loss. They even know that other beloved family members aren't Christian, and they understand the world has a natural order. They are accepting of all of that and ask questions, but their faith is so completely unwavering. I hope these lessons and memories stick with them as they get older and endure their own life challenges.

  36. Coming back here and reading this post and comments again on Oct. 22, 2013, is comforting. Also, Becky wrote of Baby Dominic Pio when he was just a little fetus, and look at all he and his family overcame with the Holy Spirit and great doctors.


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