Recently I was reading a discussion on face book with pros and cons about miracles of healing. Many vehemently rejected that a loving God would heal some and not others. I remembered my wonderful friend Bobbie. In her early forties she began to have trouble breathing, finally ending up in intensive care on a ventilator. After several specialists told her she was in the last stages of Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis and would never be able to come off of the ventilator, she asked her family to agree to her stopping treatment, because she didn’t want to spend what little time she might have left in ICU on this machine. Her family didn’t want to do this. That night while Bobbie was in total despair, a woman she hadn’t seen before stopped to talk to her in ICU. She told Bobbie that God loved her and had a plan for her life. To accept God’s love expressed in Jesus and trust God and put her life totally in His hands. She went away and Bobbie never found out who she was, but Bobbie did what the woman said and experienced a love so great that she was able to put her life in God’s hands. Three days later she was home breathing perfectly on her own. She sought a church to try to learn more, since she hadn’t ever belonged to a church, She joined a small Episcopal church of mostly intellectuals. Bobbie was a loving person with great competence in practical things, but had married at 15 and never finished high school. Though she expressed frustration with the complex vocabulary of her fellow Episcopalians, Bobbie became the heart of that little church. She started a clothing give away for the poor. She planted a lovely meditation garden of flowers. She had the whole church over for cookouts. Then, she attended a Cursillo weekend retreat that helped her articulate the love she had experienced and she spent many hours helping with these weekend retreats and others at a near by retreat house. After almost a decade, Bobbie had a heart attack and spent a month in a distant military hospital healing from a by-pass operation that involved removing a large blood vessel from her thigh. Unfortunately, Bobbie’s leg became infected. So, she had to spend six more weeks in a hospital in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber daily, Though far from family through all this, Bobbie’s bright eyes and loving heart made many friends and helped others find hope each day. Some months after coming home healed and regaining her strength, Bobbie and her husband drove to Florida to visit their son. Bobbi began to have pain in her leg on the trip and when she returned had to have surgery for blood clots and a clogged artery in her leg. She ended up with her leg amputated above the knee. She struggled to get a good fit with a prosthetic leg. Once after attending the theater at our Renaissance Center, she asked me to carry the leg for her while she wheeled herself out, because of the pain. So, I carried her prosthetic leg over my shoulder like a gun and followed her to the car. Bobby had an incredible ability to laugh at herself and roll with the punches life gave her. She constantly amazed us with her joy in the midst of incredible challenges. But Bobbie had wounds from childhood that had left her with hard places in her heart. Bobbie had three older sisters and two older brothers. Her father was both an alcoholic and an abuser in every sense of the word. Bobby had survived by often hiding in a sun flower patch at the back of the yard. She hated her father and was glad he died in a fire. Bobbie loved being in her kitchen cooking for others. It was a bright room decorated with sunflowers. It was her safe place. Bobbie liked polishing the brass candles and cleaning the sanctuary at her church as she prayed and meditated. One day while doing this, she felt called to pray for grace to forgive her father. And suddenly, her heart softened and she was able to forgive her emotionally crippled father and even pray for him. She experienced other insights and emotional healing. Bobbie spent two months the next Christmas in the Hospital with multiple health issues and in a great deal of pain. I and other friends took turns spending the night with her, because she had fallen once and often it took so long to get her pain meds, that even never complaining Bobbie was in tears. So, one night when I stayed, I took her a small tape player with ear buds and spiritual music on it to help her get through the times of pain. Bobby had a kind of raspy voice and was not really vocally gifted at all. But in the middle of the night, I heard a lovely soprano voice singing songs of praise. It wasn’t the tapes, it was Bobbie singing along with them.
Bobby never gave up. With a little help she was even able to take up casting pots on a wheel. Her faith and her humor got her through many challenges. But as time passed, it was difficult to drive on her own and handle the wheel chair for the places a lot of walking would be needed. So she was shopping for a handicapped accessible van when she had a heart attack and died on the way to the hospital. Bobbie’s miraculous healing, conversion, years of helping others both concretely and spiritually, her own emotional and spiritual healing, and the ongoing physical illness and challenges she kept her faith and joy through are an incredible witness to the reality that both miracles and suffering are part of life and that with the love of God that is grace, faith and love can grow through it all.
From Henri Nouwen’s A Spirituality of Living
“We all have wounds…….It is a feeling of loneliness that lurks behind our successes, a feeling of uselessness that hides under all the praise we receive…….that makes us grab onto people and expect from them an affection and love they cannot give. If we want other people to give us something that only God can give, we become a heavy burden.”
Nouwen goes on to say: “I love Rembrandt’s painting The Return of the Prodigal Son. The father holds his child, touches his child, and says, ‘You are my beloved. I’m not going to ask you any questions. Wherever you have gone, whatever you have done, and whatever people say about you, you’re my beloved. You can come home to me whose name is Compassion, whose name is Love.’
Nouwen says, “ If we keep that in mind, we can deal with an enormous amount of success as well as an enormous amount of failure without losing our identity, because our identity is that we are the beloved. Long before our father and mother, our brothers and sisters, our teachers, our church or anyone else touched us in a loving or wounding way —— long before we were rejected by some person or praised by someone else-that voice was there. ‘I have loved you with an everlasting love.’
That love was there before we were born and will be there after we die. A life of fifty, sixty, seventy, or a hundred years is just a little moment in which we have been given time to say, ‘Yes, I love you too.’ ”
Henri Nouwen was a priest theologian/author who toward his later years went to live and minister in a settlement for the mentally challenged.
This quote is from a tiny gem of a book put together from insights from his other books, called A Spirituality of Living.
I never really wanted to go to heaven; just wanted to make sure I avoided going to hell, if there was one. The problem was that my personality likes diversity and change. I just couldn’t imagine any kind of heaven I would enjoy for eternity. (Eternity sounds like a very very long time.)
After a conversion from agnosticism complete with an experience of the unlimited, no conditions love expressed in Jesus, I felt pretty sure there was a heaven that would work for everyone, even me. But I still couldn’t imagine it.
Some years into my spiritual journey I had an experience of such intense and enormous joy, that from then on I was much more excited about going to heaven and not so concerned with the details.
My brother and I were traveling together and the experience was so overwhelming that we each simultaneously asked God to stop it for fear we would actually explode. I won’t go into much detail, because I think these experiences come about differently for everyone. We both experienced a moment of great clarity in which we felt, saw, heard and were a part of a crowd around Jesus singing praise in the presence of God. After sharing with one another, we decided that what we had each experienced was very similar, but also realized that there was no way to measure or compare. We both experienced as much joy as we were each able to bear at that point in our lives. So, whether it was an ocean of joy or a cup of joy simply didn’t matter.
Over the forty plus years since then, I have come to believe that the capacity for experiencing joy and the capacity for accepting suffering are linked. I don’t know if there is a cause and effect relationship or just some sort of spiritual law of balance. My instinct says that joy is the grace that gives us the freedom to accept heart break without dulling the pain through anger or depression or an addiction (even one to doing good or working constantly.) But my experience also has been that in accepting the painful darkness of sorrow, I find the peace that passes understanding. And that peace is quiet joy.
As the psalm says, “But then comes the morning, yesterdays sorrows behind.”
I am paraphrasing some quotes that have proven true in my life:
Personal change and spiritual growth cannot happen without coming to peace with pain. (Michael Singer)
Emptiness and despair are not only experienced by those who have been traumatized, but also by those whose lives are full.
More than grief or fear, despair calls us to pay attention to and make meaning out of human suffering. It invites us to change our very selves by changing the way we see the world. When we persevere and don’t run away from our dark night, we can be moved to a muscular faith that has looked into the heart of darkness and emerged to affirm life. (Miriam Greenspan)
Twice over 76 years my inner life has come apart at the seams for no outwardly obvious reasons. I stayed functional, but slowed down my pace while I worked through it. Each time a counselor mostly just provided a safety valve and a non- judgemental listener, so I could hear myself as I read some relevant books, sorted out my pieces, threw some away, found new truths, new strengths, and pulled it all back together for a still imperfect, but more meaningful and personally satisfying way of being in the world. As painful and scary as these times were, they yielded wonderful fruit and I do not regret going through them. I don’t think I’m inferior because I needed that process. Everyone has challenges that they either struggle to conquer or they choose to deny and to settle for a safer, but emotionally and spiritually, poorer life. Eileen
(The Singer and Greenspan quotes were found on the Blog: Make Believe Boutique
God made us precisely to be imperfect, incomplete and insufficient human beings. It is our neediness and feelings of helplessness that keep us depending on God’s grace and mercy….To be a saint means to be myself…..the problem of sanctity is in fact the problem of finding out who I am…my true self….God leaves us free to be real or unreal.” Thomas Merton in New Seeds of Contemplation.
“In no way does God expect us to act perfectly. We are challenged instead to accept ourselves with all our assets and liabilities; to be perfectly the imperfect people we are. God never seemed to want another perfect being. Prayer gives us the courage to confront our illusions……to embrace our weaknesses as well as our strengths. Without condoning our destructive behaviors, we can recognize them as opportunities for humility, forgiveness, and mercy…..To be who we are, the persons God loved into existence, implies the acceptance of grace, self-honesty, healthy self love, and a keen sense of humor.” Sister Maria Edwards, Spiritual Director and Author
1 Corinthians 1:18 —“The message of the Cross is foolishness to the world, but to those being saved, it is the power of God. God chose what is weak and rejected, so no one might boast. Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord”.
Romans 5:3-5 “We also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our heart through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”
“Hope is a series of small actions that transform the darkness into light…..Despair is an affliction of the memory. Hope depends on remembering what we have survived. Hope is the gift that rises from the grave of despair…..We can choose to persevere in hope through darkness.” Sister Joan Chisttister in Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope.
“Faith is: a conviction that God can and hope that He will.” From Thomas(?) Greene in Bread for the Journey.
“But trusting and listening for what He is teaching, when he doesn’t.” Eileen Norman
The Book, Mother Teresa * Come Be My Light is a collection of her letters and her journals, which she had wanted burned when she died. Through them we see her terrible interior struggle with despair and feelings of abandonment by God.
She had mystical experiences and years of a sense of God’s presence when she was struggling to get permission and the means for the ministry she knew God was asking of her. But once she actually begins working with the poorest of the poor, she loses those, and not only feels abandoned, but sometimes even doubts the reality of God.
In her uphill battle to get permission from Church Authorities all the way up to the Pope, she harasses them incredibly, all the while saying, “I accept your authority and your decision. But could you hurry, because this is God’s call and people are being lost.” I love that.
She says that she has no ego left, just her desire to love God more than anyone ever has. Hmm. I’m not sure that’s not a form of ego, but it beats heck out of most forms.She is honest with her Spiritual Directors about her spiritual darkness, but fakes it with her community for fear she will damage their faith.
At eighty years of age, she never slows down in her exhausting physical ministry and even after winning the Nobel Peace Prize, she still humbly does dishes and cleans along with the other sisters in her community.
All the time she is without faith, joy, or even meaningful prayer, she is having tremendous success in her ministry and accolades from the world. But she is only able to go through the motions, heart-broken, doing her duty by fulfilling her promises to a God that seems to be gone.
That seems to me to be more awesome, than her mystical experiences or winning the Nobel Prize.
And it confirms what my minister answered one day when I asked him, “What’s it all about?”
He replied quickly with great assurance, “Perseverance.”