“Suffering is a guaranteed part of your journey,” I told my daughter. “There is nothing you can do to prevent it, but you can equip yourself to walk through it with grace. Suffering done with grace becomes a team effort between you, the Holy Spirit and whomever you have brought into that trusted circle. Discern carefully and ask for wisdom.”
Suffering has such a negative connotation and for so many years I longed to not be in the position of a sorrowful mother. Now I embrace these transformative moments. As a mom of eight, and two who were born with a rare neuromuscular disease, I have spent countless hours, days, and weeks in hospitals. I have held my son’s body blistered and bruised after surgery and after casts have come off, his slight frame a feather in my arms. I have stroked my daughter’s hair and held her hand bedside as vital numbers continued to decrease. I have stood at my front door and watched teenagers drive away in anger and frustration, and I have ached for my childrens’ hearts as they suffer heartache and betrayal. It all sounds exhausting, and indeed those moments were, but they were also some of my most cherished and deepest moments of conversion. Choosing to embrace the suffering and allowing it to form us strengthens us to walk forward with courage and firm in our identity as children of God. When we own that identity, we dismiss the lie that we are alone and that our suffering is in vain.
Our Lady of Sorrows Feast Day is approaching, and I have been reflecting on the depth of her sorrow. Consider her seven sorrows given to us: The prophecy of Simeon, The Flight into Egypt, the finding of the child in Jerusalem, Mary Seeing Jesus on the road to Calvary, standing at the foot of the cross, the crucifixion and descent from the cross and assisting in his burial. Even listing them, no mother’s heart can be unaffected by the immensity of these sorrows! I believe this is because we understand the depth of a mother’s love. Either by the gift of being a physical or spiritual mother, or by having received that depth from our own mothers. With Mary as our example, the strength to embrace our crosses comes filled with grace.
The beautiful thing about praying with Mary through her sorrows is that we realize we are not alone in ours. There is a temptation among us to ask for prayers for the minor things but hold tight fisted our inner most fears and worries. Perhaps we think we are protecting our children, husband or whomever is involved in our suffering. Sometimes it is pride. We want to appear that we are holding it all together, portraying an image of a family all buttoned up and perfect. The irony being that none of us are immune to suffering. We can look around and know that sin and suffering are truly rampant and that families can fall under the weight of it all.
Why then do we hide? Did Mary hide her suffering? I often think of Mary’s visitation to Elizabeth as a model for discernment of whom to allow into my suffering. After the Annunciation, Mary travels to visit her cousin Elizabeth. I imagine she is going there because she feels within her a calling to confide, to share, to pray together. Elizabeth’s response to this overture is beautiful as God reveals to her the truth of Jesus nestled within the womb of her Cousin Mary by having John, the son within her own womb, leap for joy at her arrival. Jesus also gives his mother and his apostles a model of how to walk through suffering. At the foot of the cross, in the end of his passion, he gives Mary to John and to us all as a mother. Both John and Mother Mary must have had hearts twisted with suffering at watching the crucifixion. My heart drops to my knees at the agony of that moment and yet Jesus does not want them, or us, to walk alone.
Discerning whom to invite into your suffering is a personal decision that must be brought to deep prayer. Sometimes it is the person whom we are walking with in that moment. This can be especially powerful within our own families. I remember a moment where my husband and I were stretched threadbare. We had two children in different hospitals in different states. He was in Philadelphia. I was in Columbus. I left a child at the hospital to take the rest of our family to mass. Many asked how we were doing, and I smiled and thanked them for their prayers. Inside I was falling apart but tightly held my emotions in check. I watched as my children stood likewise, occasionally, reaching out to hold my hand through mass. As we left mass, our parish priest, a dear friend, stopped me and asked if we were ok. I nodded, smiled weakly, gathered my flock, and headed to the car. As I loaded the last child into their car seats and buckles, I closed the door. Placing my hand upon the outside of the van, I inhaled a shuttering and sobbing breath, truly from the depths of my soul. I slowly walked back to that priest. I tugged on his garment like a child. He paused from saying his goodbye’s, turned his full attention to me and I whispered “I am not ok. This is not Okay.” I will never forget his response, for it dramatically transformed my family. He placed both his hands upon my shoulders and in the most firm and fatherly way turned me towards my car. He said, “Then go tell them. For if you don’t tell them, they will forever think you held it together and will never be able to share their suffering.” I slowly walked back to the van, opened the door, and climbed into my seat. The kids could tell I had been crying. I turned around, looked at them honestly as they asked, “Mommy, are you ok?” “No, I said. Mommy is not okay. She is struggling because she is sad and tired and worried.”
I still remember the exhale of breaths from the back seat. It was as if the air of a hundred balloons had been let out. Words and tears flowed like a waterfall. “This is hard.” They said, “I feel scared.” “I miss you when you are gone. Will everything be alright? I miss Daddy.” And, “The dog ate my chicken nuggets at lunch yesterday.” We cried many tears and hugged till our arms hurt in the back of that car. We began again as St. Theresa says. New beginnings are formed with moments like these.
Fast forward seven years later. My nineteen-year-old daughter calls from college and confides her struggles. A son slides onto the couch in my bedroom and tells me he’s not happy. My twelve-year-old, seeks me out, grabs a blanket and cup of tea, setting the stage for an intimate talk, and we all have eyes to see and ears to hear each other’s struggles. We all have found a way to walk together in our suffering. Outside my family, I have learned to let others see both my sorrow and my joy and this has formed deep and abiding friendships.
Bearing witness to the reality of suffering does not mean that we must disclose our innermost pains, but rather that we realize the power of being vulnerable enough to say we need prayer. We release feelings of isolation and loneliness and embrace the truth of being loved and known.
Our Lady of Sorrows feast day is September 15th. May she continue to intercede for us in our suffering and encourage us in our humility and vulnerability.
This article first appeared in The Catholic Times
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