In every age, O Lord, you have been our refuge. (Psalm 90:2)
Living in a city shoebox apartment may have its down side, but living in a big house in the country has its outside. And when winter departs and the tundra thaws, the outside springs to life—and then the outside starts to make its way inside.
The worst of these unwanted interlopers is the stink bug, which I defy even Saint Francis to love. The other morning, I was awoken by my 88-year-old aunt shouting with great alarm, “There is something…prehistoric…crawling on the wall!” One of the world’s ugliest but otherwise harmless (apart from smell) insects was indeed making its way up toward the ceiling. Being the generous, virtuous soul that I am, I said “No! I am not killing anything until I have had my coffee!” and stomped downstairs. And I guzzled a few days-worth before grimly making my way back upstairs to begin the day’s extermination, which did not end with just one.
And so it is that when Corrie ten Boom wrote in The Hiding Place about fleas, I was entirely on her side. Corrie and her sister hid Jews during the Holocaust, and the first part of her book is filled with remarkable stories of God’s providence, and how they were given the grace not only to witness to Christ heroically but to save countless lives. But then they were betrayed to the Gestapo, and sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp. The suffering and abuse they would experience was horrific, but what nearly put Corrie over the edge was the infestation of fleas they encountered when they first moved to new barracks. “How can we live in such a place?” she wailed.
Her sister Betsie believed that the answer to “how” was to be found in Saint Paul’s exhortation to “give thanks to God in all circumstances,” and she led Corrie reluctantly through a litany of thanksgiving for everything—including all of the awful aspects—culminating with the fleas. Corrie writes:
The fleas! This was too much. “Betsie, there’s no way even God can make me grateful for a flea.”
“Give thanks in all circumstances,” [Betsie] quoted. It doesn’t say, ‘in pleasant circumstances.’ Fleas are a part of this place where God has put us.”
And so we stood between tiers of bunks and gave thanks for fleas. But this time I was sure Betsie was wrong.
But Betsie would have the last laugh. For it turns out that the flea-infested room was their one place with sufficient freedom for prayer and bible study, which was for the prisoners the sole source of peace and calm in the years of torment. It was the one place the wardens never entered, never caught them worshipping. One day they discovered that their freedom was directly due to the infestation—the guards refused to enter the room precisely because of the fleas!
Corrie writes: “My mind rushed back to our first hour in this place. I remembered Betsie’s bowed head, remembered her thanks to God for creatures I could see no use for.”
When we think of God as our “refuge and help” throughout the centuries, we are often tempted to think of the highlight reel of good times and blessings. But we are invited to look deeper, to discover a God who is Emmanuel, with us in all things—including times of evil and suffering.
“The mystery of suffering is the biggest challenge we face in living out our faith…Faith doesn’t take away the mystery or the suffering, but it offers us another mystery: that God does not run from those who suffer, but instead draws close to them,” writes Sr. Marie Paul Curley, FSP in See Yourself Through God’s Eyes.
“The Lord is close the brokenhearted,” the Psalms tell us. The Incarnation shows God taking on our suffering Himself in the person of Christ, but He also continues to love each of us in our own particular suffering. And just as His own Cross brought about both Redemption and Resurrection, God can bring good out of everything in our lives too. Some we see in this life; some will be seen only in the next.
The gratitude Betsie preached was important not only as spiritual etiquette, as giving God His due, but also in placing the situation, and all of its ugliness, in the palm of Providence. When we thank God for His gifts, we build our own trust in Him as Giver, and our confidence that He will continue to keep us in His care. When we recognize the good even in the midst of suffering, we strengthen our hope that future evils will also be accompanied by, and used for, good.
In a recent homily Pope Francis spoke about joy “not as living from laugh to laugh” but as a gift of the Holy Spirit that can be lived even in suffering. The key to this joy, he said, is gratitude and memory. It is the memory of God’s faithfulness that both sparks joy and gives hope for the future.
Let us pray for the grace of grateful hearts, to receive all as good from the Giver of All Good Things.
* * *
*Betsie would eventually give her life in the concentration camp, and when they found her body it was radiant and joyful. Corrie survived the holocaust and went on to be a great Christian speaker and writer, whose works include The Hiding Place in which this story is found.
“The Lord is close the brokenhearted” is from Psalm 34:18.