“Suffering is Jesus kissing you from the cross!” Mother Teresa is reported to have told a woman in great anguish. “Well then, tell Him to please stop!” the woman supposedly retorted.
Lately, I have been inclined to agree.
I wrote recently that it is when you hit rock bottom that you discover just Who that Rock really is. But I feel as though instead, I am lying splattered and splayed upon its hardness. Previous pious platitudes have not brought comfort.
“I can’t handle this, Lord. I have nothing left to give.” I was praying weeks ago in front of the Pieta, on Saturday afternoon of the Frassati retreat, begging for a reprieve from fatigue and stress. Neither the statue nor any other voice spoke into the silence, but I felt a pain like a cross beam spread across my shoulders, then slowly into my neck. That pain did not subside after my prayer was over. It only grew, and I blamed my relentless stress.
A few days later, I was not able to turn my head without a cocktail of ibuprofen and prescription drugs. The doctors took some bloodwork, which revealed elevated lymphocytes and some other anomalies, and I was diagnosed with Lyme disease.
“Are you for real?” I asked God. “Didn’t I ask for rest, for reprieve? Did you hear me correctly?” Silence. “All right, I will say Yes, if this is Your will for me…”
After ten days of doxycycline, the pain had only worsened, spreading from my elbows throughout my arms and legs. I was unable to lift even small items without intense pain, so I called my sister Teresa to help me take care of my mother, and my 88-year-old aunt who has also been staying with us.
On the way back from the train station, I was telling my sister about my symptoms when suddenly the pain increased exponentially. Simultaneously there was a terrific bang and lurching. I struggled to breathe as the now excruciating pain tore through my ribs and neck. It took a few seconds to figure out what was happening—an SUV had smashed into our car, which in turn propelled our small Honda into the SUV in front of us. I didn’t even get a look at the scene as the ambulance carried us away.
“Are you for real God? Surely this is not happening…” I was mostly laughing, as I later texted neck-brace selfies from the ER to friends and family, but maybe it was the morphine. I was admitted to the hospital, to ultimately be diagnosed with a fracture of my neck vertebrae. Teresa returned to the city with her own very painful injuries (diagnosis still in progress).
A few days later I was finally feeling strong enough to sit up at the table for dinner. But a bit later, my mother started complaining of abdominal pain. The complaints grew in urgency and volume, and I looked to see that she was as white as a sheet and sweating. A call to a nurse friend directed me to call 911, in case she was having a heart attack.
My few minutes of sitting up became seven hours in the ER, only to have Mom admitted, not for her heart but her pancreas. “Really, not again…” I sighed.
The next morning, before I call for a ride to the hospital, I stumble into the kitchen to make myself some coffee. Something doesn’t smell right. Maybe it’s because there’s been nobody to do the dishes, but there aren’t that many, and the smell is worse than that. I painstakingly bend down to peer into the corner, to discover that an unwanted gift from Saint Martin has been decomposing in the corner of the pantry.
This is the last straw. “I HATE ALL LIVING THINGS!” I scream into the Silence. But I hate even more things that used to be living. Surely this cannot be real. Surely there is someone else to deal with this. I have said many times that I don’t mind being single and without a husband, except perhaps on garbage night. I add this to the list. “This is not okay, God!!!”
Mom is released from the hospital two days later, and I think I can finally breathe. But then we get the news that the car is likely totaled, and I look at our finances, and feel my feet sinking into an ocean of panic. “I trusted you, God!” Without a job, our finances have been precarious for awhile, and this is one hit too many. What are we supposed to do now?
On Saturday evening I am nauseous from the stress, worry and pain. We go to Mass, at which the Gospel is the Rich Young Man, who leaves Jesus, sad because of his preference for possessions. I feel an odd sense of conviction, that despite technically living below the poverty line, I am no different from this rich man. That there is still more to surrender.
“ARE YOU FOR REAL?” I ask God incredulously. Surely He cannot want more of me…surely there is nothing left to give!
God is silent, but other voices start piping in.
“Are YOU for real, Grace?” asks the Girl I Ought to Be. “Where is your trust in God?” snaps her snarky sister. “You talk about it all the time, about faith on the tightrope, about thanking God in all things. Time to see what you’re made of!”
Real Me responds with words that could constitute material for Confession.
“What do you want from me God? I am trying to trust you. I am trying to say yes. I am even trying to thank you, but it seems like a joke. Are you even there? Are you, in fact, for real?”
Doubt comes around like a Dementor, threatening to consume me with its darkness and despair, so I quickly shut the door, in my will if not my emotions. “Jesus, I trust in you.” The words comfort me, even if only 1% of me can get on board at the moment.
On Sunday I sit down to pray. “Lord, I am trying to say thank you. Trying to say yes. Trying to trust. But that is above my paygrade right now. I need you to do all these things for me, in me. I don’t even know what that means. I even need you to give me faith to believe that you are real.”
And I remember suddenly, that it is the date of my baptism, that (quite a few decades ago) on this very day I was brought as an infant to a small church in Kentucky. Brought to be marked with the sign of the cross, to receive the gift of faith.
The Silence remains, but I find rising up within me the grace to look up and say “You.” To remember and know that my prayers are not being spoken to or received by an abstraction, but by a Person. By Someone who is loving me in this. That I am saying yes not to the cross itself but to the Person who asks me to carry it (or more accurately, carries me during it).
Today is the feast of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, to whom God entrusted the vision and message of His Sacred Heart. A Heart that was incarnate that we might know God’s love is not an abstraction, but in fact deeply human. A Heart that was pierced and bled for our sins, yet still burns with a personal love for each one of us.