Out of the depths
Faith helps U.S. Catholic readers see the light even as they walk through the valley of darkness.
Unemployment, illness, a loved one's death-everyone can relate to the experience of loss. While loss may be an ordinary part of life, it nevertheless can shake our faith. Perhaps we question why, or we simply lose time for God. Just when we are at our lowest, though, the smallest gesture can remind us that God is still with us.
For our second Meditation Room, we asked readers to tell us about how faith helped them through the hard times in their lives. They responded with stories of prayer, community, love, and hope. Despite their personal troubles and the current state of our world and country, U.S. Catholic readers find God all around us.
Getting up is enough
Suzanne M. Pearson
Our 25-year-old daughter developed a painful, degenerative, crippling, and incurable autoimmune disease as a toddler. In her young life she has undergone two hip replacement surgeries, survived respiratory arrest, and lost the physical ability to do some of her favorite things, such as riding a bike and playing the trumpet and piano.
Doctors say she will eventually need knee replacement surgeries and reconstructive surgery on her feet and hands to restore lost function and relieve pain. Recent problems with her vision revealed an additional diagnosis of a condition that causes swelling in her brain. Treatment for that includes medications with bad side effects, painful spinal taps, and should these fail, a shunt in her brain.
As her mother, the grief of watching my daughter's daily battles with pain and disability at a time when most children enjoy the physically best years of life is heartbreaking. Our family has lived the Paschal Mystery for 22 years.
Our daughter's latest medical problems hit me pretty hard. I've struggled with depression, and my customary devotional practices had fallen by the wayside. Though in seminary, I was feeling doubly guilty about both my feelings of despair and the lack of fervor in my faith right now.
When I shared how I was feeling with a compassionate spiritual director, I "heard" the voice of God in the depths of my being: "You get up every day. That is enough."
I felt as though an enormous weight had been lifted from my heart. The body I'd been holding in tension for days trying to keep myself together relaxed deeply. God understood. I laughed when I realized that God did not demand I be anything other than what I am in this present moment. A burden was lifted.
Psalm 23 reminds me that though we walk through the darkest valley, God is with us and for us. In an age when much Christian spirituality denies the reality of the suffering that is part of this life's journey-essentially abandoning people in their pain-my faith comforts me with the assurance that our suffering is not meaningless, that our gentle Shepherd walks by our sides through it, and it is not the last word. We, too, will one day share with him a life free from suffering and death.
When it rains, it pours
Sandra A. M. Steiner
We're used to rain in the Northwest, but we had a personal deluge in 2005.
It began on a January night, when a close relative spiraled into a depression so severe that my husband had her admitted to a locked hospital ward. That same evening an old friend reappeared, clearly unaware that she had become an alcoholic. All the while, we were reckoning with the observation that our fourth child was losing developmental skills. The undercurrent was my husband's work, where a promotion promised by a boss evaporated when that boss was replaced. Then there was that funny noise under the fridge coming from a detestable furry thing.
Our fears about our child were compounded by the bad news that his orthopedic problem had recurred. He would need surgery on both of his legs and a wheelchair for three months. That news brought with it a flood of fear and doubt, and we questioned the opinion of our surgeon.
Then the real flood came-3,000 gallons of water from the improper draining of a neighbor's pool flowed through the only finished portion of our basement.
It was only June! What more? I told God I was sure he had a reason for all this character building, but didn't I have enough character at this point?
After our second consultation with our child's surgeon, "something" told me to stop by the parish center. It was as though God was taking hold of the steering wheel and literally guiding me there.
When Kris at the parish office asked how I was, I told all: family mental health issues, loss of a friend to alcoholism, the doubt about my ability to maintain a safe and rodent-free home, the job issues, the flood, and my son's surgery. She gave me a hug and said the most profound words: "You're not alone. Let us help you." She then asked if she could put our son and family on the parish prayer circle.
Despite continued challenges with home repair and a rocky recovery from surgery, from then on, we felt a lightness, that our burdens were not being borne by us alone, but through prayers of a faith-filled community. Kris was right that we were not alone, and the help we received was nothing short of ethereal.
Hopelessly re-devoted to you
Cape Coral, Fla.
Bad and good times are natural occurrences. The manifestation of God and his merciful will is in everything that happens to us. I rediscovered this recently as I've been hit with furlough days at my job with the possibility of a permanent layoff, the loss of my retirement savings, a house that I can't sell, and the prospect of increasing debt.
All this may seem bad, but I've taken it as a blessing. Through it all I've realized that I had fallen into the same greed and consumerism that is breaking this nation apart, while overlooking my sense of purpose as a Christian.
I had been helping a fellow parishioner, Elizabeth, prepare for the sacrament of Baptism. Elizabeth came from Cuba five years ago. She didn't know how to make the sign of the cross but was overcome when I told her she could be baptized. This turned out to be easier said than done.
We attended another church's RCIA program in Spanish, but it was disorganized and for people more versed in Catholicism. We decided to do a one-on-one coaching instead. I quit after two meetings.
True, I had a lot of pressure on me at work, and my budget became tight. True, I had put my house up for sale and had to show it to agents at odd times.
I seemingly didn't have time for Elizabeth, but the truth is I did not want to face the challenge of preparing a catechumen on my own or attending the group meetings with her. Here I was a devoted Catholic, happily involved with my church, yet forgetting the reason why I was so dedicated.
At Confession I realized that the fear of losing material goods was taking precedence over Elizabeth's initiation in our church. Just as I was going to give her a call, she showed up at Mass. We started attending Thursday meetings together, and I came to Elizabeth's home for some extra catechism. She named me her sponsor, and she was baptized at the Easter Vigil.
In these bad times I have learned to be more humble, generous, and patient. It is only fitting that these bad times came during Lent, a time for introspection and renewal.
I was a mess. Full of scruples at 12 years old, I kept thinking that I was always committing mortal sins. I could not control my thoughts, and that made me feel like I was sinning even more. On top of this I was afraid of everything and everybody. On the outside I was leading a normal life, but even at 12 I knew that I was not living life, much less enjoying it.
It was too complicated to talk to anyone. I did not have the vocabulary to describe what I thought were abnormal behaviors. I was an altar boy at that time. Since I lived across the street from church, I was called to serve almost every function when no one else was available.
Serving Stations of the Cross one afternoon, I heard the answer. At each station the priest recited, "Grant that I may love Thee always and then do with me what you will."
At the fourth station it hit me. I still remember kneeling there as these words went straight to my heart. I don't believe in lightning bolts, but these words, even at 12 years old, told me that I was free. All I had to do was trust God. His love would take care of any inadvertent sin, and his providence would see me through any fears.
My life changed visibly. I was so peaceful. I now enjoyed life thoroughly. Today at 68 I am still full of peace. I had a few bouts with obsessions and compulsions, but trust in God made my life, and it saved my life.
Giving care takes prayer
The doctor led us into a separate room; I knew that meant bad news. The surgery was a success, he said, "but we had a little problem when we tried to wake him up."
A little problem? My father, who the day before had purchased a new golf club, may never walk again. The words were blurred: stroke, paralysis, weakness. It's hard to hear when your mother is sobbing.
This "little problem" would test our resolve, our family, and our faith. How could a loving God allow this to happen to a man who was so good and so faithful? Dad's condition improved at first, but he suffered setback after setback. I found myself praying one day and yelling at God the next. I was angry, I was hurt, I was in complete doubt of a superior being.
My time was no longer my own: trips to doctors, physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, then head home, make dinner, and go to work. I had little time with my own family, and I felt my faith eroding. I was exhausted, drained physically and emotionally. I didn't want to go to church and began praying less. I basically felt completely removed from the God I believed in.
Dad asked me to join him for a visit with the psychiatrist one day. The psychiatrist asked my father a few questions: "What do you do when you start to feel down?"
He answered, "I look at my wife who is standing by my side and realize how lucky I am."
"And when that doesn't work, what do you do?" she asked.
"I look at my children and grandchildren and realize how much I still have and how lucky I am," he said.
Again she asked, "And when that doesn't work?"
He said, "I pray."
One more time she asked, "When that doesn't work?"
"Then you don't pray right," he said simply.
At that moment with tears welling in my eyes and chills running down my spine, I realized that this strong man, though physically diminished, had it all because he still believed.
Something was wrong. Wally's face was drawn, his head bowed. No hello, no kiss on the cheek, he went straight upstairs and crumpled into a ball on the edge of our bed, a crushed and broken man. I sat down next to him and waited. After what seemed like hours, he mumbled, "I lost my job."
I laid my arm across his back to draw him into a hug. "It's OK," I said, wondering if I could believe my own words. "We'll be fine."
I had just buried my mother and was dealing with a runaway teen, but "we'll be fine." I didn't ask Wally why or offer suggestions. I was too numb from the other crosses that had been laid upon our family. The children, at least, were in bed, including my "number five is alive" runaway.
Silently we undressed and slid under the bed covers. Crying hurts. By morning my throat was sore and my mind worn out. I knew we needed help fast. I wouldn't be able to feed the nine kids air, so I called Ruben, head of the Catholic Charities office where I volunteered.
"I can't help with rent," he said, "but I can cover your utility bills for a couple of months."
By Thanksgiving I had exhausted our meager savings and the money friends from Wally's work had offered. I'd broken down spiritually, too. The burden too heavy, I mindlessly repeated to the kids what my mother had taught me: "Don't worry, God will come through."
Two days before the big holiday, I sat counting pennies wondering if I could buy a turkey. The doorbell rang. I feared it was another bill collector. Instead there stood Father Joe, grinning and red-faced from carrying a huge box full of food, a 15-pound turkey on top. My eyes stung as I held back joy. "Oh, Father, please thank the parish families for us."
Within days I found an unmarked envelope in the mailbox. It contained $1,000. I could pay the rent again.
Just after Christmas my husband regained his job. God came through alright. My faith was restored in God and awakened to the community of believers who supported us through the worst of times.
A parting gift
On the day my mother died, I sat next to her bed praying the rosary as she moved in and out of consciousness. My mind wandered back to the years when she sat on the edge of my bed, teaching me to pray, lulling me to sleep. A lifetime later, the rosary was her lullabye, and her sleep would be eternal.
My mother's hands looked bare without the beads that she held every night of her life, so I weaved them through her fingers and wrapped my hands around hers while I whispered the rosary into her ear. It wasn't easy.
Unlike mom, who held tightly to traditional devotions, my pilgrim soul led me in different directions. Truth is, I had forgotten how to pray the rosary, but in the last moments of my mother's life, I discovered that this prayer-and maybe all prayer-was more than a sum of its words.
The rosary helped my mother escape the limits of illness. From the boundaries of her bed, she continued to connect to the community of faith that had nourished her for a lifetime. We moved more deeply into the Paschal Mystery as I prayed our way through the mysteries of the rosary with the help of a book.
While her response to my words was barely noticeable, the monitors indicated that her heart rate, her pulse, and her breathing changed while we prayed Our Lady's prayer. And every now and then, from behind closed eyes, a tear would flow down her cheek.
The life of our Lord, told by the beads, the mysteries of joy, sorrow, glory, and light, paralleled the mystery of my mother's life and of all our lives really. Even in the pain, the sadness, and silence of her last weeks, prayer had the power to reach beyond what I could see, beyond what the doctors label life.
Her tear assured me that prayer is powerful. It continues to transform us, even as the mystery of life and death become one in the Paschal Mystery. Prayer matters more than I had ever imagined. Perhaps that was her parting gift.
Today when I pray the rosary, I think back to the way our hands enfolded the beads that are buried with her today. I feel as if I'm holding hands with heaven.