Purposeful Pain or Strange Suffering—A Catholic Perspective

Famous scientist and prominent atheist Richard Dawkins once declared,

The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all species are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.

What a sad, desolute world outlook? To be honest, looking at the natural world and pondering my finitude and littleness in the universe, I too struggle with seeing purpose in pain and suffering. The end result of reality directly colors whether a person finds meaning in suffering or not. As a cradle Catholic, and a de-vert [a term I made up to refer to a cradle Catholic who experienced a deeper conversion], I learned that while suffering sucks, its strangeness and hideousness of suffering need not lead to the lonely road of despair and meaninglessness.

Through the Incarnation and eventually the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ the bridge between humanity and divinity was created through the means of redemptive suffering. Over the course of my young life, I learned more from suffering and lows points of my life then from my high points. Saint Pope John Paul II plainly summed up the Catholic view of suffering, “Each man, in his suffering, can also become a sharer in the redemptive suffering of Christ.” Offering any trials and tribulations that come my way—whether life-impacting or trivial—allows me to get beyond my limited perspective. Surviving suffering not only builds my character, but I acquire wisdom to learn that in the end God in ultimately in control.

Last night torrential rain poured and I realized that I parked in the back corner of the parking lot. I knew that the walk to my car would drench me from head to toe. My natural reaction normally would be to complain about the situation. Instead, I realized, “Maybe this small, trivial couple minutes of suffering may be an opportunity for me to offer up to grow in holiness and patience!”

Watching my fellow co-workers ran out to their vehicles, I simply walked to my car. The cold, constant precipitation washed over my head and down my body and my glasses fogged up instantly as I entered my car.   “Each man, in his suffering, can also become a sharer in the redemptive suffering of Christ.” My short walk of suffering is nothing compared to the sacrifice my Lord and Savior underwent on Calvary. Seek any opportunity [large or small] to unite your suffering to Christ’s Passion. I will leave you with the following wisdom of saints to reflect today and for whenever you struggle with despairing when life gets you down!

“As iron is fashioned by fire and on the anvil, so in the fire of suffering and under the weight of trials, our souls receive that form which our Lord desires them to have.” –St. Madeline Sophie Barat

“When it is all over you will not regret having suffered; rather you will regret having suffered so little, and suffered that little so badly.” –St. Sebastian Valfre

“If God sends you many sufferings, it is a sign that He has great plans for you and certainly wants to make you a saint.”

–St. Ignatius Loyola

“The road is narrow. He who wishes to travel it more easily must cast off all things and use the cross as his cane. In other words, he must be truly resolved to suffer willingly for the love of God in all things.”

–St. John of the Cross

“Suffering is a great grace; through suffering the soul becomes like the Saviour; in suffering love becomes crystallised; the greater the suffering, the purer the love.”

–St. Faustina

“For Jesus Christ I am prepared to suffer still more.”

–Saint Maximilian Kolbe

Sufferings of a Simple Catholic

To be honest, I did not think I have the strength to even write about anything today. I thought exerting any real mental exercises and strain today would lead to my incapacitation. What am I talking about? Am I being overly dramatic? Perhaps, I probably am not in a good frame of mind at this point of the week. Let me at least try to explain my situation and I can let you be the judge of that.

Over the course of the past week I’ve experienced the funeral of my grandfather and persistent fevers and severe flu-like symptoms from everyone in my family including: my three young children.  I’m nearly exhausted the amount of PTO I’m able to utilize for this month–and possibly the next month. Both my wife and I are sleep deprived. I’m definitely past the point of exhaustion and almost crossed the line of delirium.

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I’ve really struggled in my spiritual life the last week. Frankly, my relationship with God has been fractured and virtually nonexistent. Sure I could point to several valid (but are they truly!) reasons for why I have not relied on God during my time of turmoil. Some of you may be quick to forgive me—others maybe not. Ultimately, I need to ask Our Father in Heaven for forgiveness.

Doubt, despair, hopelessness, destitution, weakness in faith, and spiritual sloth have been the fruits of my suffering. Jesus Christ clearly teaches in Luke 6:43-45,

43“A good tree does not bear rotten fruit, nor does a rotten tree bear good fruit.44For every tree is known by its own fruit. For people do not pick figs from thornbushes, nor do they gather grapes from brambles.45A good person out of the store of goodness in his heart produces good, but an evil person out of a store of evil produces evil; for from the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks.

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My reactions to the suffering I encountered this week are an indictment on my spiritual resolve. The one benefit to my failings in my spiritual life is that one thing is clear – I’m at a crossroads. I can either choose the path of sanctity through redemptive suffering or I let wallowing in self-pity dominate my attitude and view suffering as purposeless.

The central event of human history is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. His redemptive suffering ties together the fabric of reality. Every person is given a choice: to accept the cross gracefully or flee from it. Sometimes people choose the cross during a significant watershed moment in their life – like Saint Paul’s conversion. Most people have to choose the cross of Jesus Christ daily. This choice is the most important choice in our life. This choice determines whether we are a saint, a child of God, or sycophant of the world.

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St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta once said, “Suffering will come, trouble will come – that’s part of life; a sign that you are alive. If you have no suffering and no trouble, the devil is taking it easy. You are in his hand.” I need to be continually reminded that suffering is part and parcel of living. Only by joyfully taking up my struggles and uniting them to the redemptive suffering of Jesus’ suffering, death, and Resurrection will I truly find moments of peace during the storms of life!

 

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Dear Lord,
Help me [us all] to remember in these troubled times
The cross you carried for my sake,
So that I may better carry mine
And to help others do the same,
As I offer up (my sufferings) to you
For the conversion of sinners
For the forgiveness of sins
In reparation for sins
And for the salvation of souls. Amen

 

A Letter to Lucia

Below is a letter I wrote to my unborn daughter Lucia Faustina who we buried on 12/19/2017.

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Dear Lucia,

 

Today, I stood aside a grave of another unborn child. I will never be able to hold you in my arms, or gaze joyfully at your face, or comfort you when you cry. It is not natural for a father to bury his child. This is truly a surreal and somber experience. Hope is the only thing getting me through this day–this week. The virtue of hope will be key to helping me through the next several months as I grapple with the loss of my sweet daughter.

Your name means “light”. Lucia I pray for strength to live out my vocation as a husband and father to your amazing mother and siblings. I guarantee that your brothers and sister would adore you. I am also confident that you are looking over us in communion with Jeremiah, St. Lucy, the Blessed Virgin and all the other saints in Heaven. Please send our Heavenly Father my supplications for daily pardon and peace. I am reeling from losing you, but I understand that hope can never be lost if I cling to God’s Providence. May the light of God radiate upon your family as you provided light to your mother and I even though it was for what seemed a fleeting moment.

Your siblings and your mother deeply miss you. We hope to be united with your after our pilgrim journey in this life is completed.

With great love and gratitude,

Your father

P.S. I conclude with a prayer to St. Lucia asking for intercession to help my family heal:

Saint Lucy

Whose beautiful name signifies ‘LIGHT’

by the light of faith which God bestowed upon you

increase and preserve His light in my soul

so that I may avoid evil,

Be zealous in the performance of good works

and abhor nothing so much as the blindness and

the darkness of evil and sin.

Obtain for me, by your intercession with God

Perfect vision for my bodily eyes

and the grace to use them for God’s greater honor and glory

and the salvation of souls.

St. Lucy, virgin and martyr

hear my prayers and obtain my petitions.

Amen.

Reality is Undefeated!

Perfection is rare especially in professional football. Throughout the history of the National Football League only 4 teams [the 1934 Chicago Bears, the 1942 Chicago Bears, the 1972 Miami Dolphins, and the 2007 New England Patriots] lasted an entire single regular season with an unblemished mark. Competition is tough. Teams and companies rarely leave unscathed over the course of time. The same is true for individuals. Life will definitely throw you curve balls—many of which hit us!

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I struggle with constantly striving for perfection. Largely, this is due to my obsessive compulsion towards having order. However, the more I strive for control and order the less I possess it! My idea of perfection is imperfect. True perfection, perfect humanity involves seeking out love, truth, and beauty with sincerity of heart.

When I seek a perspective beyond myself , I have learned that authentic personal growth occurs. Over time I have realized that only the truth, taught by Jesus Christ and safeguarded by the Catholic Church has stood the eroding power of time. In other words, truth—that which is real and reality itself will always find a way to win, a way to persevere. Reality is undefeated.

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Venerable Fulton Sheen sums it up best, “Truth does not change; it is only forgotten from one generation to the next. The truth is the truth even if no one believes it, and a lie is a lie even if everyone believes it.” Truthfully, I was going to end this post with the words of the American bishop. I have been struggling with the sin of sloth lately and I am trying to stave off despair due my wife and I’s recent miscarriage of our unborn child. The Holy Spirit inspires in mysterious ways. Tonight, I sensed the movement of God in perhaps the most surreal way–connecting the dots to my family’s story.

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I received a text message at 11:40 a.m. from the funeral home director that he wanted me to call him back about setting up a team for the funeral service. Being in training for my new job, I did not read this message in full until later in the evening. Upon arriving home, I cooked supper for my kids, gave them baths, and my wife and I put them to bed. It was not until almost 9 p.m. that my wife and I were able to eat dinner ourselves. We lounged on the couch watching sitcoms on Hulu. As I said before, I struggled with laziness and tonight was no different. I did not really feel like, nor even wanted to, finishing this post.

Suddenly, my wife told me something that connected the dots. “You know honey, St. Lucia’s feast day is today! I do not think it is a coincidence.” It took me a couple seconds to figure out what she meant. I checked my text message sent earlier today from the funeral director. He stated, “We received word from the hospital, Lucia is no in our care. Please call me back about setting up a time for the service.” Me of little faith.  Reality is undefeated. Truth always triumphs. Circumstantial things only appear like coincidences. It is over the course of time that apparent serendipitous events are revealed as part of a larger Divine plan.

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We named our unborn child, we believed in our hearts to be a girl, Lucia Faustina. December 13th–the same day we got confirmation that the remains of our child is safe with the Catholic funeral home–is the feast day of St. Lucia. Reality is undefeated. I cannot explain this happenstance except through the eyes of faith. God provided some consolation to my disparaging soul today. Will I be healed by the end of the week? Certainly not. I am further convinced that God has a great plan for both my wife and I and that we should not despair– instead we need to cling to hope now more than ever! Reality is undefeated. Truth always triumphs–it is not always easy and suffering is guaranteed. I will conclude with the words of Jesus in Matthew 16:24-25: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself,* take up his cross, and follow me.25r For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Amen.

Three Years Later…

This essay is memoir. It reflects the author’s present recollections of experiences over time. Some names and characteristics may have been changed, some events have been compressed, and some dialogue has been recreated.

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November 2nd, 2016, Somewhere in the Midwest:

Quickly parking my vehicle in the company parking lot, I rushed out of my car toward the crosswalk. I waited several moments for the pedestrian signal to allow us to cross safely. At the intersection I recognized a lady from a prior position I held in the company. We exchanged greetings. Her next words penetrated my heart and are imprinted into my permanent memory still today. Susan exclaimed to me, “I have this profound sense that I am supposed to pray for someone today. I feel that God is calling me to pray to ease someone’s pain this very day.” Half-jokingly, I informed her, “Well, interestingly enough today is All Souls Day! You get to prayer for everyone.”

What I kept hidden from Susan was that in addition to celebrating All Souls Day, that it was the 2nd year anniversary of my wife and I suffering a miscarriage. Her words consoled me and gave me relief that our unborn son—Jeremiah Matthias—was in a better place and looking over us.

November 2nd, 2017, Still Somewhere in the Midwest:

Today is the 3rd year anniversary of my unborn son’s death. I am experiencing a gamut of emotions now: sadness, sorrow, confusion, hope, nostalgia, and joy! The last emotion seems strange. Give me time to provide a little bit of background to explain and I believe my seeming disparaging situation may be able to be viewed more hopeful than it appears.

November 2nd, 2014- Still Somewhere in the Midwest:

My worst experience of my life occurred on November 3rd, 2014. I went from hearing the heartbeat of our son Jeremiah for the first time in my life to a mere 4 hours later consoling my wife as we found out we suffered a miscarriage. This traumatic event immediately crippled my wife. For me despair took root that day and slowly spread its stranglehold over me until it came into full-force several months later. I do not wish such an experience on my worst enemy!

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June 2015:

Crumbling from the evils of despair, I doubted God’s Divine Providence. I was on the verge of apostasy—the sin of renouncing my Catholic faith. “I want something good in my life to happen.” I told my wife. My words proved to be prophetic as two weeks later my wife told me that she had a surprise for me. She exclaimed, “I am pregnant!”

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Present:

That prayer of lament: “I want something good in my life to happen” was the turning point of my life. We conceived our youngest born son. Through the grace of God he is still with us. During the past three years, I have undergone a complete transformation in my Catholic faith. I am literally like a new person, a new man, a new husband, and a new father. I went from being on the brink of renouncing my faith to utilizing my God-given talents to evangelize.

Reading my children Eric Carle’s The Very Hungary Catepillar always reminds me of the transformation that occurred within me over the past three years. Just as a caterpillar’s transformation occurs in secret in its pupae stage so too does our spiritual development happens via a theological cocoon. Growth–both physical and spiritual– involves suffering and pain.  I have learned there exists a fine line between pain and joy. The difference lies in whether we unite our suffering with Christ.

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During these past three years, I developed spiritually through the “womb of suffering”. I am reminded of Matthew 12:40 when Jesus says, “Just as Jonah was in the belly of the whale three days and three nights, so will the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights.” Jonah’s time in the belly of the whale was a foreshadowing or Jesus’ death and so too my three years of “spiritual darkness” is a prefiguration of hopefully my ultimate death to my selfish ways and reliance fully on God. I still struggle with my son’s death on a daily basis but time and God’s grace provide me strength to make it through day by day. While I used to experience a despairing type of sadness, I am making progress on interpreting my family’s suffering through the lens of grace and I am feeling a sense of joyful sadness as I remember my son Jeremiah and the soul’s of the faithful departed. I conclude today with a prayer for the dead:

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Dear souls of the dead,
you are still remembered by my family;
you are most worthy of our perpetual remembrance,
especially you, my grandparents, my parents,
also our relatives, children,
and everyone whom death
took away from our home.
I invite you to this annual feast.
We pray that this feast be agreeable to you,
just like the memory of you is to us. Amen.

A Letter to the Downtrodden

Dear Fellow Souls and Pilgrims on this Earthly Journey,

Hopelessness seems to cover the world. Hurricane Harvey decimated large parts of Houston. South Asia continues to experience chronic flooding. People suffer across the globe in large and small ways. Today, I wish to share my recent episodes of depression, I am not writing to complain about my situation, rather I hope to unite my suffering [albeit quite small in comparison to others] to others in great need. I want to be in communion with my fellow man. According to Helen Keller, “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” I cannot grow as a decent human being without learning from the school of suffering.

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Depression hit me again the past few weeks. Similar to an ocean, anxiety and sadness move in waves with brief periods of respite before the next deluge of depression comes crashing onto my shore. I feel a sense of hopelessness. What is going on with my life to trigger these feelings? To be frank, I am not sure. Life appears to be going well: I have an amazing wife, family, good shelter, and a job. I had a recent change in anxiety medicine and changes are occurring rather frequently at work. Still, these concerns should be minor compared to people suffering loss due to the recent natural disasters. Depression shrinks my perspective. I see through narrower glasses.

Perhaps, you are similar to me. If you suffer from depression, whether it is severe or mild I want to unite myself to your suffering. I wish to take up my cross if only it may help widen my scope. Prying open a narrow gaze is painful. However, authentic and natural development involves growing pains. If you are downtrodden, as I am currently, share your experience. Talk with people you trust. Talk to God—it works. Prayer is effective because it is communication with Him who created the universe. Oftentimes, I need to fall unto my knees and become downtrodden before I am able to gaze upward in prayer. Saint Mother Teresa once said, “Joy is prayer; joy is strength: joy is love; joy is a net of love by which you can catch souls.”

Although, I know my depression may likely come back again, I am aware of a strength to get me through the valley of tears—prayer. Prayer ultimately leads me toward an even-keeled path in my pilgrim journey on earth.

With great love and hope to alleviate your downtrodden soul,

Matt

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