Saturday, February 5, 2011

Sea of Suffering

One week ago I underwent MOHS surgery for skin cancer on my upper lip.  Some of my thoughts on suffering:

      "We all have crosses to bear."  This statement, to a Christian, is so often quoted that it can seem trite.  When immersed in the sea of pain and suffering, even the saints were tempted to despair, but they did not give in to it.  We hope to do the same, but often we are weak.  Another "trite" saying could be "in weakness I am strong,"  or "God never gives you more than you can handle."  But in these seeming cliches really are the marks of truth, and the seeds of our eternity.  Like a child learning to swim, we take up the challenge of suffering, each time gaining greater daring.
     To Christians and non-Christians alike, this simplistic understanding of "why bad things happen" can be annoying in the extreme.  Really, who is anyone to compare my pain and suffering with a man who lived 2000 years ago, even if he did happen to be divine, or for that matter, comparing my suffering with anyone else.  It's unique to me, and me alone.  Something we all have to go through, and something to be endured as best we can.  It's just something I have to get over.
     But the truth is, that Diety-man was and is God.  This is a fact, which does not depend upon our faith at all.  It simply is true.  It's also true that none of us get through life without suffering, some more than others for sure, but it's a universal experience.  And every person's trials can and will be revealed for all eternity in the light of the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ.  Forever, our suffering will be our heavenly glory.
    So this past week, I've had a bit of suffering to endure.  As a "good Catholic" I was ready, willing and eager to "offer up" my little trials with saintly fervor for the good of the world.  But it's never that easy, is it?  I am extremely grateful for the prayers, kind wishes and warm thoughts of so many, but in the end, our crosses are something we go through alone, even when surrounded by love.  I wish I could say that I surrendered to Divine Will with perfect abandonment as was my intent, but, sadly, this in not the case.
     My experience with surgery is limited.  As I lay there on the table ready for the knife, I recalled the birth of my first baby, when I had planned on a (very) natural home birth, but ended up with 17 hours of induced labor followed by a midnight C-section.  During that highly emotional and spiritual moment, the Ob-Gyn had made small talk with her surgical team - something about porno movies.  I'll never forget how inappropriate and incongruous that conversation felt surrounding the sacred wonder of my first birth.  This time, with my skin surgery, I knew I was in good hands as far as skills go.  But when the doctor said, "ok, lets just take out a little chunkeroonie," my spirit sank at the memory of another surgeon's cavalier style.  This time, I had my rosary in hand, and he chuckled at that.  Then came the cut.
    Although I felt no pain with the actual surgery, the cutting sensation made me nauseous.  I guess I had expected more finesse in the operation; a delicate, precise uncovering of the lesion while taking the least amount possible.  But it seemed to me rather like gouging a brown spot out of a potato.  Then I was whisked to the waiting room with a bandage on my face and sat for an hour trying to appear calm for all the other bandaged patients, my rosary tightly hidden between my palms.
     "Lucky for you, you're all clear," the nurse said, then measured the wound: "three centimeters," and took a picture of it.  I had expected an incision a bit larger than the cancerous growth, but that was three times that size!  I said a silent prayer of surrender: Thy will be done, but really I was worried.  What could ever be done to make a three centimeter hole appear normal?  I was soon to find out.
    The doctor came back very pleased with the results, and numbed me up some more.  I could sense the slicing from my nose all the way down under my upper lip.  This was not the delicate operation I had imagined.  "Not the way a woman would do it," I thought.  With concentrated effort, professional speed and manly strength he split my skin apart, cauterized the blood vessels and stitched me back together.  About 15 minutes later, he was done.  I thanked him and drove home.
     Once home, I looked beneath the bandage.  Black stitches, swollen and bruised, red line... oh dear.  I just tried to offer it to God.  At this point I became tingly and dizzy.  I flashed back to the unexpected rapid-fire birth of my third child, after which I had gotten up to go to the bathroom, and the next thing I knew I was sitting on the toilet breathing in smelling salts.  I had no idea how long.  I was lucky I didn't fall on the floor - that would have been worse... not to mention embarrassing!  Uh oh, not good. Now alone in my own bathroom (husband on a business trip), my vision started to get splotchy as I felt the tell-tale fainting signs, and rushed to get to my bed.  "Just get me there in time" I prayed, OK, now I can pass out.  I don't think I did - just went to sleep.
    My oldest son came home from high school a few hours later. I wish I could say he came straight to my room out of deep concern, but instead I heard the living room TV flip on and a soda can popped.  The next day, he and I had a horrendous fight, over a college webinar that I thought he would like, which he flatly refused.  Teenagers.  Parents.  Sheesh.
     I started to cry, and decided to uncover my stitched up face for greater sympathy appeal from my sons, which I justified by telling myself it needed air.  This backfired spectacularly - just frightened the younger sons.  (OK, back paddle): "no, really, Mommy's gonna be fine..."  Luckily my husband came home and smoothed things over and gave me a little attention.
   Over the weekend my lip blistered red, then white, and I knew it was infected.  I was able to get through Stephen's birthday: made pancakes & sausage for breakfast, his favorite chicken stew for lunch, cleaned house, escorted grandparents to church to hear Stephen and David read scripture, then lunch, presents and dessert.  Whew.  My lip was throbbing and I went to take a nap.  The next day, I was on antibiotics.
    But finally the healing is happening...I can feel the wound knitting together.  This week I got my stitches off.  A few sharp, stinging snips at the infected area, and I was free of the sutures.  The swelling went down and the cut line is barely visible.  I am amazed at the skill of the doctor!  I went to the Adoration Chapel to pray before the Blessed Sacrament and give thanks.  "Thank you, Jesus."  I looked at the crucifix, contemplating the Passion, and whispered, "thank you, Jesus."  Prayed the Luminous mysteries of the Rosary:  "Thank you, Jesus... thank you Mary."
     As I prayed in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, I remembered another dear sister in Christ, who comes to adoration the hour after mine.  Her experience of prayer is not as quiet and serene as mine, but bustling and busy, with rustling paper, sniffling noses, and commanding whispers... because she brings her two precious little girls with her.  But this week, I'll stay to cover her hour, because she is out of town with her sister, who just last week suffered the unexpected, sudden death of her own five-year old daughter.  While I did not know them, I mourn with them and for them, and offer my meager prayers and suffering for their unfathomable loss.  I realize that my little trials are nothing compared to the heartache of so many, and through Mary who also suffered the horrifying death of her Child, I marvel at the depth of suffering this young, saintly mother has to endure.  I "offer it up" for them, because together we all form the Body of Christ.  I am awestruck at this mother's latest post which speaks of the joy of God's will, and I am joyful too, because Christ's love never fails, and indeed He is always with us.
     We really do "all  have crosses to bear."  My little "passions" are tiny tastes of His - just a morsel.  I imagine the metal-barbed whips of the Roman soldiers cutting into His flesh.  Perhaps one in a hundred missed his back or chest, and landed on his face, ripping out a piece of sensitive facial skin.  I try to imagine what that one blow of the whip felt like... I try imagine thousands more... I can't.   Jesus felt it all: the hatred, anger, indifference, abandonment, rejection, mocking and cruelty, compounded by unimaginable physical pain, and there was no anesthetic, no skilled doctor, no kind nurse.
     It occurs to me that my Savior allows His child to share this with Him.  But for me, He prepares the little spot with Novocaine.  He sends a smart man through years of medical school and surgical training. He sends me a kind nurse who winces in sympathy with me when she delicately removes the stitches from my infected lip with tender loving care.  The indifference and anger of my teen son evaporates with a heartfelt "sorry Mom," and a hug.  And he sends me my husband and kids to comfort and smile at me.
    I am still an infant in my Christian journey.  I want with all my heart to give my little hardships to Him in union with His great Sacrifice, but I don't live up to my own hopes.  But somehow, even my sacrifice, though exceedingly small, counts for something.  United to His, they actually do melt into the Sacrifice that sets us all free.  Through my prayers and yours, united in our sufferings (even imperfectly offered), others can be lifted.
     But my Father, my Brother, my Friend, Jesus, who dove to the deepest depths in an ocean of suffering, takes his child in his arms and lets her splash around in the same sea.  He gives her the courage to dip her face into the salt water, and holds her as she sputters and coughs and cries for air.  Next time, she will have more courage, and He may allow her to go under for a second or two.  He won't let her get to the point of drowning in despair.  He tells her, "keep your eyes on me, be brave, you can do it, swim to Me... I won't give you more than you can handle... I'll give you My strength... I'll help you bear your cross."
     And if it gets to be too much, and I fear I really will drown, He'll say to me, "Alright, little one... that's enough.  It's time to go home now."

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

More Joy in Heaven...

     When I was little, my mother took me to a Catholic mass and asked “did you feel God in church?”  I said “no, but I do in the backyard.”  Thus began my life journey seeking God in nature. We never went back to church, although my mom was a believer, my dad was raised protestant, we just never went to church.  As a young woman, I was a "nature girl" – fiercely independent, ultra-liberal, very vocal in politics, even lived in the Alaskan wilderness for several years.  For most of my life, I didn’t know anything about religion, and didn’t want anything to do with it.  I was certain that “Christians” were completely delusional, stupid and brainwashed.  The idea of a virginal birth was so ludicrous to me, I actually laughed and mocked it.  I searched intensely for God in nature, sure that this is where the answers lie.
     My mother died of lung cancer when I was 22.  The best I could say to her as she slipped away was “in the whole course of the universe, I’ll be right behind, if there is an after -life.”  But I firmly didn’t believe that there was.  Once, while boarding a bush plane and distraught over the killing of Alaskan wolves, I brazenly cursed the name of Jesus Christ, blaming all the evils of the world on our western “male-centered” culture.  I hated the way mankind was destroying the earth, and I think I even hated all humanity.  Later I came back to California, and was married in 1990 to David, a wildlife biologist (also agnostic), and in 1993 we had a son.  Two years later, I went to mass for the first time in my life.  I didn't know why.  In hindsight, I see clearly how God led me along the way. 
     It was a couple weeks after that mass, when I first believed that God became one of us.  I was 34.  Father Patrick had said "every new Catholic I meet has someone praying for them in heaven, or someone who has just died."  Me: "ok, whatever."  Over the course of three weeks, I read all the gospels in my mother’s huge, old, dusty, 1950s picture bible that I had hidden in my closet.  I had never read the bible, and didn’t know any Christians except far-away relatives.  I walked around in a daze for about a week at the thought that it could all be true.  I started reading the Pope's book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, and David was livid, and threatened to leave me.  This was big.  In the past, I had said prayers, half-heartedly, at protestant prayer meetings that I had been “dragged” to.   The fact that nothing had ever happened to me was “proof” to me that Jesus was pure fiction.  But this time was different... very different... I believed it. 
     During the next few days, like a flood of fire, God poured the Holy Spirit into my heart.  I was in a state of what I can only describe as total amazement (shock really) that this was happening, and told my husband that I would be content to die right then.  He was furious - did not understand - but he came to believe eventually.   His journey was much different - God treats each of us so uniquely.  For him it was slow and steady, gradually building him into a pillar of faith.  For the past 13 years he has been working as liturgy coordinator at our church, and this year also as religious education director of St. Joseph's parish.  But for me, it was a plunge, an immersion - a feeling of unimaginable bliss – reflecting, but infinitely surpassing human love, and completely fulfilling the deepest longing of my soul.   I had never even known that part of me existed. 
     This experience culminated when I went to Midnight mass on Christmas Eve 1995.  I didn’t know anything about the Church, when to sit, stand, kneel, or why.  I felt the presence of God in my heart like lightening, and I knew everything there was absolutely real.  I stood in the back of the church with tears streaming, and said, “Lord Jesus, I know you’re there, but Mommy, are you there too?”  It’s impossible to describe - like stars inside – but I knew beyond a doubt that my mother was alive, somewhere, somehow.
     Throughout that night, this Spirit poured deeper and deeper into my heart, until I was completely immersed.  God my Creator took up his home in my soul, and I could only welcome Divine Love, now eagerly exploring His new home inside me.  This was a love like nothing on this earth – perfect fulfillment, ecstasy - union with God.  This was so sweet and all-consuming that for all my life I will live for that moment.  Jesus forgave me so much – I think that there is nothing worse than what I had done to Him in my past.  It is a total mystery and will forever be the greatest experience of my life.
     Had I been single, I would have immediately consecrated my entire life to Christ forever.  But I was married, and a mother, and I have often reflected on that.  The marriage relationship is an earthly reflection of God’s grace and our ultimate union with Him.   I think that sex is not a right, but rather, a singular privilege of marriage.  It has been corrupted by all of us to be a self-serving act, but is designed to be self-giving.  We are eternal, but our earthly purpose is to learn, know and love God and to love others made in His image.  Marriage is meant to be a sacred gift of total self-giving - you literally give yourself away and accept the awesome possibility of creating a new person made in the divine image.  It comes with temporal earthly pleasures, but tremendous responsibilities... and eternal consequences. 
     Marriage can be hard... very hard.  Men and women are vastly different, but can sanctify one another. I believe it is through these very difficult struggles, sacrifices and constant forgiveness in marriage and family that we learn to give up ourselves and our selfish desires for the benefit of others. To become more like Christ as we share in His divinity. 
     The reason for existence is to love purely and perfectly.  Because we are fallen creatures who are not faithful to our true selves, it is necessary to sacrifice ourselves for love.  In fact, the meaning of the word “sin” is, “missing the mark.”  But we are made for divinity, for true One-ness with our Creator and with each other.  For many of us, that means marriage and union with a spouse.  But Scripture says it can be even better to give your life to Him and live for Him alone rather than the daily struggles that marriage entails.  God’s grace is far more than what is needed to sustain us.  The paradox of the Christian life though, is that a "higher" life means going lower... facing our true selves.  We can only do this by trusting in God’s perfect mercy and love.   I feel as St. Paul did:  “I boast in my weakness!”  Because Christ’s strength is in me, and THAT is infinite and eternal, I can now say with truth and confidence, “I’m not afraid of anything.”
     I would like to say something about Christian unity.  My dad was Protestant, and my mom Catholic.  When I hear of fighting between Christians I am heartsick.  I received the Holy Spirit after reading the gospels, so I know that it's true that it's the Word of God.  But then, I went to mass and I know that Jesus Christ lives there... it's His home... the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic church.  No mere man-made organization could have been so vast in scope, time, distance and unwavering in doctrine.  It is what it humbly proclaims.  Jesus promised that "the gates of hell will not prevail against My church."  I believe Him.
   Hell has attacked the Catholic Church, as we all know.  And now, the Spirit is moving in Catholic faithful in a way never before known.  Graces given only to the greatest saints in the past are now waiting at the door of every Catholic heart that dares to face the world in love and welcome them ALL into the family of God.  Our strength is Christ Himself, who feeds us in the Eucharist- His very body, blood, soul and divinity given for the world, and our courage is given through His mother, who loves us all and calls us all home to her Son.
     One of the greatest treasures of being Catholic is Mary.  I remember lying on my bed nursing one of my babies to sleep.  My mind suddenly flashed back to impure images I had seen in my past.  I said “Mary help me.”  Immediately my mind was at peace and God’s grace swept through me, and the sleeping baby started to literally glow - so unexpected – as if she said, “THIS is what it’s for.”  Mary is so powerful and loves each one of us so much, her purity is perfect and she desires to guide us through this very confusing world.  God has given her power over satan because of her perfect love for both God and humanity – and she has been given to us by Jesus Christ as our mother.  Catholic means ‘Universal’ – she is a real mother for the whole world, and for every person.  I love my heavenly mother Mary!
     At Fatima, Portugal, in 1917, Mary appeared to three shepherd children with a message for the world.  She said "God wishes to establish in the world devotion to my Immaculate Heart."  She spoke of the coming wars – a punishment for man’s turning away from God, and Russia's newly developing error of God-less communism.  She asked for many prayers for Russia and the world.  She said, “In the end, my Immaculate Heart will triumph.”  Over 70,000 people witnessed the “miracle of the sun” when it spun in the sky and terrifyingly seemed to plunge to earth.  It was raining hard, but afterwards, everything was completely dry.   In our times, millions believe she has been appearing to six visionaries (then teens, now adults) everyday for 30 years (June 24, 1981) in Medjugorje, a small town in Croatia.  She speaks of a coming warning - a correction of conscience - to every person on earth, a miracle for the world, a permanent sign and possible chastisement.  She assures us of God’s love and hers, and continually calls us to PRAY, love, sacrifice, confess and to return to and follow Jesus.
     The Holy Spirit that pierced my soul that night 16 years ago is now an ever-present warmth inside, like a glowing fire that never leaves me.  Sometimes the flame ignites into a raging fire, like when I sit down to pray the rosary with my family.  Mary asks us to pray the rosary, because it takes some time (at least 15-20 minutes), and we need to spend undivided time with God.  The repetition of prayers is only an outward sign, to “mark the time,” if you will.  The deeper (real) meaning is that it is precious time spent with God in contemplation of one of the four profound sets of mysteries of Jesus life: the Joyful Mysteries of His life on earth, the Sorrowful Mysteries of His passion and death, the Luminous teachings of the Kingdom of God, and the Glorious Mysteries of His Resurrection. 
     The fire of the Holy Spirit is always in me, but sometimes God and the Blessed Mother manifest in a new way.  Like this past spring of 2010, after my family prayed the rosary every night for three months – a real struggle with three boys – I was praying it very slowly in my bedroom, and I smelled the unmistakably strong scent of roses.  That is Mary’s sign to her faithful children.  I honestly never thought it would happen to me.  But it did, and it took my breath away.   It was so amazing. 
     I have never written these things for anyone except my priest in 1996.  I know there must be a reason that I feel compelled to tell it now.   I don’t know how Jesus judges souls, but I know His judgment is perfect.  Mary says this is a time of mercy.  In 1930s Poland, before the Nazi invasion, Jesus told St. Faustina (a simple, humble nun) that now is the time for Divine Mercy – unfathomable graces poured out on ANY one who turns to Him, no matter what they've done.  He said that this time of mercy is given to the world as His last plea to humanity, and He gave us the Feast of Divine Mercy to be celebrated on the Sunday after Easter.  He also said that "from Poland, I will bring forth the spark that will prepare the world for My final coming."  This year, on May 1, 2011 (Divine Mercy Sunday) we celebrate the Beatification of John Paul the Great – the most beloved pope of all time, and the most-seen person in all of history.  Perhaps the Holy Father’s Canonization will be the beginning of a new era.  Pope John Paul II always said "be not afraid," and told us all of a "new springtime" coming soon for the Church and for the world.  
     God has forgiven me everything, and I know it’s not my job to judge others.  But I want to say that there is nothing to fear in turning to God.  Just believe it (faith), and ask (prayer).  Saint Francis said “I would rather be judged by Jesus Christ than my own mother.”  As one who has experienced His indescribable love and mercy, I know he waits for every soul He created.  I have many other stories that I would be glad to share with anyone who is interested.  I pray for you all, and hope for your eternal happiness.  I am here for anyone who wants to talk, now or in the future.  Be not afraid.  “There is more joy in heaven over one sinner who turns to Christ...”  I know...  heaven threw a celestial party for me.