I believe we were given many specific graces to go along with our daughter’s fatal illness, although I’m never sure how openly to talk about them. Of course, I’m still learning to cooperate with and to live out these special deliveries from God to my soul.
One which comes to my heart frequently arrived when I was driving, shortly after Anna got her bleak-enough preliminary diagnosis. I remember mentally surveying the world, perhaps spurred by seeing some people on the sidewalk. In the midst of my own suffering and grief, my horizon suddenly expanded to a sense of how every individual human life carries its own weight of suffering and grief, every single one. I was staring into the heart of that mystery, not in the sense that I could read other souls, but in the sense that there is a solidarity and a commonality in all suffering.
Grace builds on nature, and I’ve always been inclined to such thoughts. Hence my youthful pacifism. I’ve never been keen on causing suffering. But this was visceral, not intellectual. And it was not negative or even so much sorrowful. The word “compassion,” when broken down into its Latin roots, means to “suffer with.” It was something like that, not bitter, not angry, not even pitying, but in its way peaceful. What overcame me was a powerful desire not to contribute to this suffering anymore.
At first, this manifested itself very simply and beautifully, in a desire to be gentle and selfless. I didn’t want to yell at anyone or be upset over trivialities ever again. I did not want to be selfish or petty ever again. That desire still wells up often, although as anyone who knows me well can attest, I live it only sporadically. I hope it will only grow stronger and more consistent. It is the spirit of the Beatitudes. One of the dearest devotions to me is to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, that is, to Jesus who called himself “meek and humble of heart.” We celebrate that solemnity today.
But this isn’t as simple as it first appears, as anyone who has lived long can attest. “Gentle” as the world understands it is that naive, youthful pacifism of mine. But Jesus, with the truly meek and humble heart, who lived the Beatitudes right to the cross for me and for you, also spoke blunt words when they were needed, and said countless uncomfortable true things, and even drove moneychangers out of the Temple, all out of pure love.
I’m not foolish enough to pretend my anger is usually righteous or my bluntness is always pure-hearted love. But even on a human level, any good soldier or police officer can tell you that sometimes the innocent need protecting. Any decent parent knows that saying “no” to a child might cause squeals of pain but be absolutely essential for the child’s good. Any surgeon knows that sometimes the human body must be deliberately cut open in order to be healed. Uncomfortable truths must be spoken. When the door closes and a doctor says of your disabled child’s life, “There are no right and wrong answers here,” justice and love demand that you say there are some right and wrong answers. We can contribute greatly to suffering and the world’s evil – for there are worse evils than suffering – by our refusal to do things that are painful for us and for others.
This all kind of welled up for me at the ordination a week ago. It’s such a beautiful occasion, and yet as it began I was choked up, weighed down by my long list of prayer intentions for people suffering, and by other things. I thought of one of the handbells being played, a memorial to Anna. The world seemed – no, is – so profoundly, palpably, unmistakably broken. I began to lapse into self-pity. “Why me? Why us?”
And then I remembered why me. I remembered what that crucifix was doing there in front of me. I remembered my disproportionate share in the world’s pain, all the things I have done to hurt people and myself, the ways I have ill-treated my brothers and sisters and the God who is all good and deserving of all my love. I’m broken, and that’s why the world is broken. I sin, and that’s why the world suffers. That crucifix represents God’s answer of radical love, and the beauty of that liturgy is but one of its fruits, a light shining in the darkness.
And I think in that moment I gained a greater insight into this grace I was given. Am I called to gentleness? Am I called to solidarity? Am I called to meekness? Sure. But those are part of the larger whole. When my heart screams that I don’t want to add another speck of suffering to this poor old world, it is a call to holiness.
Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on us.
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.