The Fruit of Suffering
For me the sweetest fruit of suffering has been the indescribable joy of intimacy with Jesus, who suffers with all of His suffering brothers and sisters. It is my younger daughter, Sofia—“with whom I suffer, through whom I suffer, and for whom I suffer” (to borrow my spiritual director’s words)—who has brought me most deeply into intimacy with Jesus.
Sofia seemed to have normal development until sometime between the ages of 2 and 3. In fact, she seemed to be precocious in some ways. She wanted me to read books to her over and over again, and, when we went to the library, she would choose a children’s book and would sit on the floor and make up a story as she looked at the pictures in the book, turning the pages in a purposeful manner. She was also using the toilet independently, except for some accidents at night.
By the time she was three years old, she was no longer using the toilet independently, and she would repeat phrases from videos that she watched, but she would not interact with us at all. Watching Sofia regress and then remain at the same level for so many years, my husband and I have grieved for the precocious little girl that we “lost.” She is now 24 years old, and she is still at the developmental level of a two year old. We have taken her to physicians and for treatments as far away as Canada, a long way from our home in Texas. We have been given some hypotheses about the possible causes of Sofia’s serious developmental problems, but treatments have helped only very little. (Sofia is diagnosed with severe autism and severe mental retardation.) What I tell everyone now, including my husband, is that Jesus is Sofia’s Physician, and her life will continue to unfold according to the Father’s plan.
Sofia loves people, and her severe lack of the ability to talk, as well as her lack of understanding about how to behave according to social rules, causes her to be isolated from most people, other than her Papa, her older sister, and me. One evidence of the pain that she suffered as a young child is that, when she was 5 years old, she used to sing Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (she can sing more than she can talk), and she would cry uncontrollably when she would get to the part: “They never let poor Rudolph join in any reindeer games.” Sofia’s pain about being socially isolated has strongly motivated her Papa and I to work very hard to learn to connect with Sofia in ways that have enabled us to bond with her more and more meaningfully.
So her happiness has been growing along with ours. Still we suffer when Sofia cries and is unable to tell us what her pain is from. She has difficult behaviors that sometimes cause us a lot of stress. Also, Sofia requires constant supervision, and so every night I go to bed very tired, and sometimes I get physically and emotionally burned out. I am very blessed to have a husband who shares completely in caring for Sofia.
When she was young, I would take her to Mass in spite of the difficulties that that entailed. She could not sit still for even a minute, and though she could not talk, she would loudly sing her own songs and make nonsensical sounds. So I would take her outside to “visit” the beautiful statues on our parish grounds, and she and I would take turns singing Jesus and Mary songs. And then we would go in in time for me to receive Holy Communion and for her to receive the priest’s blessing.
One Sunday Sofia was sick, so I left her with her dad and went to Mass with my older daughter. A friend of mine, when she saw that I didn’t have Sofia, smiled and said, “You’re really going to enjoy this Mass.” And I said, “Yes,” and I hoped that I would enjoy it more, but the truth was that I didn’t feel Jesus’ presence so powerfully as I did when I had my beloved, difficult Sofia with me, and so I felt a strong lack at that Mass.
The next night I had a dream that I was kneeling behind Sofia, and she was standing up, which put us at the same level. I was hugging her from behind very tightly and warmly, and I was saying very fervently, over and over: “I love You, Jesus; I love You, Jesus… I cherish my memory of that dream, because it confirms to me, over and over, that in loving and caring for Sofia, I am loving and caring for Jesus. Sofia was Jesus in the dream, and I believe that, in her need, Sofia is Jesus to me every day. It warms my heart to the very depths of it to know that.
And the King will answer them, 'Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.' (Mat. 25:40)
When, in the midst of a busy day, I begin to lose touch with Sofia, who sometimes just “spaces out” in her own world, the Blessed Mother connects me to Sofia again by saying: “Be Jesus to her.” And, so, my life with Sofia is a powerful expression of the truth of the Scripture that says:
“For where two or three are gathered in My name, there am I in the midst of them." (Mat. 18:20)
When I began to pray about this chapter, the Lord brought to mind a Scripture that He gave to me more than twenty years ago, one that has ministered to me so many times since, when I have gone through great difficulties:
“But Thou, O LORD, art a shield about me, my glory,
and the lifter of my head.” (Psalm 3:3)
I love the first part: “But Thou, O Lord, art a shield about me…” Not just a shield in front of me; a “shield about me…” I imagine that shield to be the Lord’s arms around me, hugging me, and no one can harm me when I am in His arms. He is the Good Shepherd, and I am His little lamb.
But I haven’t always felt His protection, and no matter how close we are to Jesus, we do not always feel His protection. That’s why we need faith and trust. Several years ago I was going through a journey of healing from the wounds of sexual abuse that I suffered as a child. My spiritual director (at that time) was guiding and encouraging me on that journey. I was journaling about my memories and feelings, and at one point I was stuck in asking Jesus the same question over and over again in the same accusing tone: “Where were You when that man was treating me like that? Where were You…?” I was stuck in anger and unforgiveness.
My spiritual director decided to give me a gentle “push”—like pushing a car stuck in some mud—to help me to get out of that rut. When I shared with her my journal conversation with the Lord, with that question (yet again), she answered for Him. “He was suffering with you!” That silenced me, and I waited until I hung up from my telephone conversation with her to ponder that idea. It was something that had never occurred to me, and in my mind I wasn’t even sure it was true. But the Holy Spirit let me know intuitively that it was true.
“Well, Jesus, I didn’t want you to suffer with me. I wanted you to protect me from being abused!” At that point in my healing journey, I was like the thief, crucified on one side of Jesus, who railed at him, saying, "Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us” (Luke 23:39).
But it didn’t take me long after that to realize that all of my “railing” at the Lord wouldn’t help anyone, wouldn’t heal me, and wouldn’t change Him or my experience of abuse. That’s an anointed word for me: change. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever” (Heb. 3:8). God never changes, so it is I who have had to change my attitude, in cooperation with the Lord’s grace. Yes, God never changes, the God who says:
“…I know the plans I have for you…plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” (Jer. 29:11)
“We know that in everything God works for good with those who love Him, who are called according to His purpose.” (Rom. 8:28)
In 1 John 4:8 St. John teaches us that “…God is love,” and so I know that all that God does is an act of love, and I have come to understand that, when God permits evil to be committed—because He has given free will to all of His children—that He will work even that for good with those who love Him, and we who know and love Him can accomplish, in Christ, good for those who do not yet know Him.
These questions about why God allows innocent children to be abused set a fire in my heart, and that fire fueled my prayer and journaling this morning:
You know that I was searching and struggling in contemplative prayer this morning, to understand why innocent children are abused, to understand why You, Lord Jesus, innocent Lamb of God, suffered so terribly. In my heart I cried for You, as well as for the children. In my mind I had images of my hands, like Yours, Jesus, bleeding profusely. I cried out in anger and pain when I “saw” You in my imagination being nailed to the Cross. You said, “You are bleeding for Me.”
Is there more You want to say, Jesus? Jesus responded, “Your heart is being stretched.” I had an image of a cervix contracting so that it can open to allow the baby to be born. Thank You for the “stretching” of my heart, Lord...
These are thoughts I had in response to Blessed John Paul II’s apostolic letter, “On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering”, #14:
I see the suffering/abuse of innocent children as similar to Your suffering, Jesus, because You are most innocent. But the difference, as I see it, is that You were able to choose to say YES to the suffering, Lord, while almost all children do not have a choice when they suffer.
Will You help me to understand this, Lord? The Lord responded: “I have taken their suffering on Me.” Thank You, Lord, but still the children suffer.
What I understand that You are communicating to me is that Your Presence with them is an experience of most profound love.
I believe that You love and are with all of the suffering children, Lord, but do they all experience Your Presence? The Lord answered: “Your prayers bring that experience to them.”
This conversation with Our Lord touches me deeply, and I become aware that the Lord, in His great mercy, has transformed the evil fruit of sexual abuse into the good fruit of my compassion for others who have suffered abuse of any kind. I resolve to pray daily, in union with the Suffering Hearts of Jesus and Mary, that all suffering children will have that experience of Jesus (and Mary) with them, that they will have that experience of “most profound love”: those who are being aborted in their mothers’ wombs; those who are rejected because of their disabilities, or just because they are an inconvenience to their parents; those who have painful diseases; those with mental or emotional illnesses; those who are homeless; those who do not have enough to eat; those who do not know the unconditional love of Our Heavenly Father; and all suffering children. A child can be on the other side of the world, and still we can bless them with the loving Presence of Jesus and Our Loving Mother Mary, through our compassionate intercession.
May Our Heavenly Father, in union with the Hearts of Jesus and Mary, give us the grace, little handmaids, my sisters, to grow in this, our charism!
“But Thou, O Lord, art…my glory…”
The Lord gave me that Scripture in 1992, when I was seriously beginning my journey of healing from the wounds of abortion. Shortly after I began to talk about my four abortions, the Lord gave me the light to see that I didn’t really want to heal, because I felt that I didn’t deserve to heal. When I realized what I had done to my babies, I hated myself. In fact, I think that I had unconsciously hated myself since I had had the first abortion, or even before. When I came to full awareness of the grievous sins I had committed, I was overwhelmed by shame.
“Glory?” I looked at that word with the feeling that it must not be addressed to me at all. I thought, “I have never known glory.” Obviously, the Psalmist who had written it must have experienced it, but glory was a state that I had never—and would never—experience, I thought.
“For God so loved the world that He gave his only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
Blessed John Paul II teaches about the “fundamental and definitive meaning” of suffering in his apostolic letter, On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering. Here is an excerpt from #14 of that letter:
…the words quoted above from Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus refer to suffering in its fundamental and definitive meaning. God gives his only-begotten Son so that man "should not perish" and the meaning of these words "should not perish" is precisely specified by the words that follow: "but have eternal life".
Man "perishes" when he loses "eternal life". The opposite of salvation is not, therefore, only temporal suffering, any kind of suffering, but the definitive suffering: the loss of eternal life,…damnation…The mission of the only-begotten Son consists in conquering sin and death….
I believe that, after I had rejected Jesus in my early twenties, I had been on a path towards that definitive suffering: the loss of eternal life…damnation. I also believe that there were people who had no doubt spent years praying for me, and that through their prayers, I received the grace to return to Jesus and His Church. It was natural that I was filled with shame about my past and that healing from that shame was (and is) a painful process.
Yet, it was not our Merciful Father’s will—our Merciful Savior’s will—that I remain in that shame. The mission of the only-begotten Son consists in conquering sin and death, in each of our hearts and souls. When the Lord gave me that Scripture about Him being my glory, I knew, with amazement, that He wanted me to accept His glory as gift. He is our Merciful Father, who likes nothing better than to hug, kiss, and feast each of His prodigal children who return to Him in humble, sincere repentance.
Coming into His glory has been a difficult journey. When I confessed my grievous sins in the Sacrament of Reconciliation more than two decades ago, I knew and have never doubted that God completely forgave those sins. Forgiving myself has been a much longer process. What has motivated me to go through that process has been my love for God, which I know to be a dim reflection of His unconditional, infinite love for me.
Some who read these words may think: “Well, I’m glad that I never was the kind of terrible sinner that that lady was. This does not apply to me.” To those who think that way I want to say that the greatest saints are those who know that they “have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Take for an example St. Faustina, who saw what she called her own misery, even though most of us would probably not recognize any of what she confessed as sin at all. Here are her words from her Diary (#66):
“Truly, Jesus, I become frightened when I look at my own misery, but at the same time I am reassured by Your unfathomable mercy, which exceeds my misery by the measure of all eternity. This disposition of soul clothes me in Your power.”
I too am reassured by God’s unfathomable mercy, which exceeds (even) my misery by the measure of all eternity. Jesus told St. Faustina, “The greater the sinner, the greater his right to My mercy.” Sometimes I wonder what it will be like when I die and I stand before Jesus. I imagine that I will strongly feel that I do not deserve to go to heaven. At the same time, I will believe that:
“…God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.” (John 3:17)
My hope is that my prayer will continue to be: “Jesus, I trust in You.” My hope is that I will continue to totally trust in His mercy, surrendering all of myself to Him.
Here is a recent journal entry:
Do You want to say anything to me about You as my glory? I had an image of the Father as a brilliant light shining in the Heart of Jesus. My thought is that You, Father, shine in Jesus’ Heart in the same way that Jesus shines in my heart, and, by extension, that, when Jesus shines in my heart, You also shine in me (in Him).
The Lord led me to read John 17:17-26. The whole passage was intensely anointed for me, so I decided to journal about the first verse:
“Sanctify them in the truth; Thy word is truth.” (v. 17)
That whole Scripture passage is intensely anointed for me, almost every word. What do You want to say to me through the first verse, Father? He responded: “You are being sanctified.” Thank You, Father. I want for the little handmaids, my sisters in Jesus and Mary, to also be sanctified.
Will You speak to me about that, Father? He responded: “That is My desire that you are experiencing in your heart.” Is there anything else I need to do to help you to bring that about? He responded: “I am bringing it about through you. You are putty in My hands.”
Jesus is “Thy Word,” Father. Do You want to speak to me about this? I had an image of me, a little child, sitting cross-legged on the ground beside the manger. I am smiling the joyful, care-free way that only children can smile. The Father says, “Just be with Him.” Please give me that grace, to “just be with Him.” I think I have so much worry and anxiety in me, still.
How can I let go of the anxiety and worry, Father? Again He said, “Just be with Him.” Okay, Father, I’ll try.
“But Thou, O Lord, art…the lifter of my head.”
Jesus is the lifter of my head. He is the one who encourages and strengthens me in the most difficult circumstances of my life.
Without faith in God we feel utterly alone. I remember once, when I was about 25 years old, that I was living alone in a furnished room in New Orleans. There was only one door leading into the room, and I didn’t have a telephone. I was lying in my bed half asleep one day, and I thought I heard someone jiggling the doorknob on my door. Still in the half-sleep state, I was frightened, and I remember thinking that, since I no longer believed in God, I had no one to call upon for help. Fortunately, when I woke up, I found that there was no one outside my door in that dangerous neighborhood where I lived. It was one of several times in my young adulthood that I felt totally alone in a very frightening or traumatic situation. Without faith in God, even those who have supportive families can sometimes feel completely alone when facing the most frightening or painful events in their lives, like the death of a spouse or a child.
Through faith in Christ difficult times in our lives can become opportunities for sweet intimacy with Jesus, as revealed in this beautiful experience that I share in my reflection called “The Beloved” (www.sorrowfulmother.net/the-beloved.html). This is an excerpt from it, describing a profound spiritual experience that I had while trying to comfort my daughter, Sofia:
…Sofia is still a little child, developmentally. Her life is still very much a challenge for her, and for my husband and me. Several weeks ago my husband was working all night, and so Sofia and I were alone at our house. At 4:30 in the morning I woke up to Sofia’s scream, and I went immediately to her bed, where she was whining loudly. Without knowing what the problem was, since she cannot tell me, I tried to calm her by speaking to her soothingly. She screamed again and hit me. I think she may have had a nightmare.
And so, I sat next to her and prayed for her. After a little while I began praying the Divine Mercy chaplet. “For the sake of His sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world.” This is my “urgent need” prayer, because Jesus told St. Faustina that we can obtain anything that is God’s will through praying this chaplet, if we trust in Him as we pray it. I was meditating on the sorrowful mysteries as I prayed it, and when I got to the fourth mystery—Jesus carries His Cross—a powerful image came to me, and I experienced the Lord’s presence through that image.
In that image Jesus was sitting on the ground underneath His Cross, too tired to get up, and I was sitting next to Him, feeling the same way. In the image Jesus and I rested our heads against each other’s, and I felt one with Him in our suffering. I cannot describe to you the consolation that I felt through that experience. As I was experiencing this, Sofia became totally calm, and Sofia and I were both able to go back to sleep.
“Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.” (Isaiah 53:4)
I have been pondering that image ever since. It occurred to me that I only saw one Cross in the image, and I wondered why I didn’t see my cross and Sofia’s cross. The Lord has given me the understanding that, when we share our suffering with Him, there is only one cross: the Cross of Jesus Christ.
"Love is also the fullest source of the answer to the question of the meaning of suffering. This answer has been given by God to man in the Cross of Jesus Christ. (apostolic letter “On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering” (#13) by Blessed John Paul II)
As a little handmaid of Our Sorrowful Mother, Our Lord, through Our Lady, calls us to share with others the comfort we have received from Them.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ's sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is unshaken; for we know that as you share in our sufferings,
you will also share in our comfort. (2 Corinthians 1:3-7)
My sisters, as little handmaids, we are called to comfort others primarily through contemplative, compassionate intercession for all of our suffering brothers and sisters. May God grant us to grow in this our charism!