Photo by D. Jeanene
God seemed absent, how did you cope? When death was all around,
how did you find life? St. Anthony Messenger readers
share accounts of trial, tribulation, testing and triumph.
By Virginia Ann Froehle, R.S.M.
SOME PEOPLE during the hardest times of their lives—faced with shocking medical diagnoses, deaths, breakdowns, bad news, depression—feel as if they are far from God, as if God is absent from their lives.
Some describe their experience as staggering on desert sands with no direction. Others see themselves as hesitating or paralyzed in a dark tunnel, unable to predict the results of another step. Still others adopt the words of St. John of the Cross, "dark night of the soul," as an apt description of the terrible inner journey which throws all they have known and believed into question.
Those who have struggled along this terrifying path report that it usually—though not always—begins with a sense of helplessness in suffering some terrible loss. They move from feeling "stripped of meaning" to having disturbing doubts about themselves and unsettling questions about life to asking "Where is God?" or "Who is God?" or "Is there a God?" All report "not feeling strong enough to endure this trial."
But there is a way out of this darkness, as readers of St. Anthony Messenger told us. Many responded to the editor’s request for personal experiences, sharing what helped them to move through and beyond such agonizing times into new and often fuller life. Stories of heartbreaking suffering and heartwarming release, struggle, spiritual growth and gratitude filled our mailbox.
After "finding my way out of darkness," writes Lisa S. of Hamilton, Ohio, "I would say to others, ‘Let go, let God.’ But if someone had said that to me in the beginning of the journey, I would have said, ‘I know, but how do I get to where I can do that?’"
Coping With Frightening Medical Diagnoses
Joan W. of Racine, Wisconsin, credits a priest who helped her to "let go." She describes herself as being "struck dumb like a rock baking in the relentless sun" after she heard her diagnosis of spreading, incurable scleroderma. Although her husband, children, friends and relatives tried to support her, she felt "utterly alone, unable to pray, dried up and lost. God’s presence or lack of it was so disturbing. I had many unanswered questions."
The "first ripple of peace flowed into me when I received the Rite of Anointing in the hospital," Joan writes. Later a priest-friend "prayed for me and hugged me as a precious child. He led me to prayer and to Our Lady of Perpetual Help. I began to pray the rosary daily. Later, I found myself using fewer words and just listening to God in silence."
She continues, "I find myself sharing in Christ’s suffering with joy. Jesus has given me meaning and purpose in being sick. Each day is precious and special and I live it as though it were the last. Although I have hope for a remission or healing, I have a peace, a comfort and hope, with no more fear of dying."
Two women report what it was like as they each heard their diagnosis. The words multiple sclerosis (MS), they say, descended on them like a prison sentence.
Sister Elenore of Orchard Park, New York, tried clutching her teaching, her independence and her body as everything in her life began to change. At only 29, she was faced with letting go of her life’s dreams. Next came the "letting go" of wanting it all back. She struggled with facing the truth without bucking it. The needed surrender came in prayer.
Limited in body, Sister Elenore says she has since found other horizons opening to her. "I do not know what the future holds," she says, "but I know who holds it." She prays that she will be able to continue to evolve and grow as God wishes her to do.
Leah McCarter’s story of MS is featured in a sidebar at the end of this article.
Quite a few readers related moving stories of extraordinary manifestations of God’s presence that either brought them out of the tunnel or helped them walk through it more calmly. These are not included here. Everyone can ask, however, for that special, tangible sense of God’s presence that cures—or heals, even when it doesn’t cure.
Mothers in Anguish
The sufferings of three men reached out to envelop their mothers. One son was sentenced to prison, another left the ministerial priesthood, the third "came out" to his family as homosexual.
Diane S. of Manitou Beach, Minnesota, listened to the judge sentence her son to prison for rape at gunpoint. To her and her husband, it seemed that the trial had relied on no evidence and the accuser’s word against their son’s. She writes, "With horror my husband and I realized we were caught in a web of deadly deceit as we watched a less-than-perfect legal system spin out of control. I experienced my first descent into genuine despair. I buried myself in bed for three days and, too numb to cry, writhed in silent, lonely agony."
Diane describes how she, with her husband, friends and prayer groups, had pleaded with faith and confidence that her son would be given justice. When "God said no," she felt "betrayed and abandoned....Wasn’t my faith strong enough? Didn’t we pray hard enough? Is this what it means to have God on our side? Or is there, after all, a God? I was like Job: ranting, raving, raging and demanding to know why.
"In a desperate search for answers, I devoured spiritual books on the age-old problem of evil and suffering. Although it was difficult to pray and read Scripture daily, I forced myself to do the best I could. I continued to receive the sacraments and meet regularly with my prayer partner. Like the persistent widow, I constantly petition God for my son’s freedom."
Diane credits the support, encouragement and prayer of her friends and loved ones with giving continuing strength to her husband and her in this ongoing ordeal. "On my bad days when every cell of my brain, every nerve in my body screams out, ‘This is evil. This can’t be really happening,’ I am now able to pray with Job, ‘Slay me though he might, I will wait for him’" (Job 13:15).
In another story, related by Mary A. of Port Charlotte, Florida, during the Mass when the bishop called her son to come forward and receive ordination, she was startled by an unexplainable, excruciating pain racking her ribs. Several years later when her son confided to her the unbearable stress and physical pain he was experiencing as a priest and revealed that he was leaving the active priesthood, she wondered about the connection of her experience at his ordination to his suffering and subsequent decision.
Have I failed as a mother? Could this be God’s will? Why do I feel so forsaken?
In troubled darkness she asked, "Have I failed as a mother? Could this be God’s will? If so, why do I feel so forsaken? Has the Holy Spirit abandoned me?
"I trudged along this spiritually lonely road of questions feeling empty, trying to persevere in prayer and to hope and trust in God. Eventually, though, through prayer and reading, I found fairer (though not unclouded) skies. Prayer comes easier now."
A Secular Franciscan who wishes to be anonymous writes, "Swiftly, sharply and without warning, my heart was broken. My only child pierced it with the arrow of four words, ‘Mom, I am gay.’"
This mother had always thought that homosexuality was intrinsically evil. So, besides fearing AIDS, she was also afraid that the most beloved person in her life was lost to her spiritually as well. These beliefs and fears, she says, sent her to grapple with the questions "within the essence of my soul in order to survive."
She continued to pray and to question God—especially about suffering and about "Who is God?" and "Who am I?" She listened. She heard that Jesus, most beloved of God, suffered. How could she expect less? When she began asking Jesus, who sat at table with lepers, what he would do and say in her place, she relates, "Divine Wisdom spoke to me at dawn, ‘Be there for him in a loving way.’ Divine Wisdom pleaded with me at dusk, ‘Do not judge him.’ Divine Wisdom shouted at me at night, ‘Do not condemn. Just love and forgive.’"
As a result she now asks, "Who is the real leper, the real sinner? Me. The one who judged. My time of judging and fearing was a ‘self-inflicted’ purgatory."
When a Marriage Ends
Several readers wrote about the darkness and depression that followed the breakup of their marriages.
Divorced at 28, Karen L. writes that she had lived her life until then for the care of others—"first my father, then my husband." Now, alone, "I realized for the first time that I had no sense of my own self. I turned to a 12-step program, Adult Children of Alcoholics, but, to my surprise, I had difficulty dealing with the concept of ‘God,’ with my ‘Higher Power.’ While I accepted the traditional male image of God, I didn’t feel any connectedness with it." She began her search for God as she searched for herself and found that the two are connected.
Karen writes, "When I heard the audiotape, In Her Presence, Exploring Feminine Images of God, I knew I had just received a long-awaited gift. Here was a sense of God that spoke to all the parts of me. The emerging feminist was attracted to a strong female image. The Christian in me wanted a personal two-way relationship. The neglected child found a loving mother figure, and the scared woman found a compassionate friend."
Florence A. of Newburgh, New York, also took an emotional plunge when her husband of eight years left her with two children, ages five and two. She had no family nearby and no job. "I lay awake each night and prayed as the sun rose, ‘O Lord, you care for the lilies of the field and the birds of the sky, how much more are we?’ and ‘Lord, you have brought us here; you know what we need. Please provide for us.’ As the children grew, their lives and mine flourished around God as our center."
The person who perseveres in the night...enters into a deeper knowledge of God.
That was 17 years ago. Now, Florence reports, her children are "grown, educated and respectful." The words she now hears Jesus say to her are, "If you were the only person on earth, I would have died for you" and "Come to me, all who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest" (Matthew 11:28).
Judith S. of Augusta, Georgia, suffered a divorce, lost her father and faced a health crisis within a few months. "During the long nights, I started thinking about the prayer of St. Francis that I prayed daily. I decided that I was the one who needed someone to be the instrument of God’s peace to me, so I reversed the prayer: ‘Lord, send me an instrument of your peace; where there has been hatred, let someone bring me love, where there is doubt, faith’ and so on. I continued to volunteer at Church, eat well, exercise and work hard.
"Each day I asked God to send someone to me, praying the prayer that had sent me to so many others." God did. That someone was a man of faith, kindness and a great sense of humor. They married the following year.
When a Precious Life Ends
The death of one’s own child may be the deepest cut of all. Susan M. of Louisville, Kentucky, writes that she and her husband, along with three surviving children, were plunged into the valley of death when they found their seven-year-old son dead in the street near their house, the victim of a speeding car. "I began questioning every belief I had ever held, including God. I had to bear this tremendous grief, deal with my husband who was grieving much differently than I was and cope with three young children who didn’t understand why their brother couldn’t come home."
What helped Susan survive? "Although I was feeling in the depths of despair, I hung on to the knowledge that God was holding me in the palm of his hand. I kept praying, ‘Lord, I believe, help my unbelief’" (Mark 9:24). She also credits the loving support of family and friends and the caring and prayers of her faith community.
The death of a spouse or parent may push some into the wilderness. At 27, Mary Lu L. of Portland, Oregon, received the news that her father would soon die of kidney failure. She is a nurse, but she couldn’t heal him. She rebelled against her helplessness in losing him, but eventually found herself praying with Jesus in the garden, "[L]et this cup pass...yet, not as I will, but as you will" (Matthew 26:39). In the years that followed, Gethsemane became her refuge in every crisis. Several years ago, when she was 59, her mother died, followed by her boss of 12 years, followed by the loss of her job. "I was too young to retire, too old to be hired, and feeling too broken to think," she says.
Mary Lu credits prayer and listening to Jesus at the top of the list of the people and things that got her through. Others include baking bread, taking long walks, reading spiritual books (especially by the mystics), creating part-time work for support, volunteering and finding a spiritual director. She also discovered that "sharing the pain is important. We often hear Jesus speak through others and we were not meant to walk to Calvary alone."
Depression Is a Dark Night
John of the Cross described the dark night of the soul as the prolonged loss of consolation and of the sense of God’s presence, especially in prayer. In its classical sense, the dark night often simply descends without apparent cause upon a soul needing purification. The person who perseveres in the night and doesn’t try to escape it enters into a deeper knowledge of God and lets go of inflated images of oneself.
The dark night may or may not be precipitated by loss. Also, it is not the same as clinical depression. Yet, for persons of faith and prayer, clinical depression and the suffering that follows loss both include the dark night. No felt sense of God is available. Those who persevere on the journey are, indeed, purified and stripped down to a more realistic understanding of themselves as well as a new way of understanding God.
Jerilyn K. of Shelton, Connecticut, experienced a breakdown and recognized that she needed to return emotionally to her childhood sufferings to be healed of them. "I begged God to let me die," she relates. "Only my physical self moved and walked around. For two years, the rest of me was in mental and emotional torment every second of the day." She repeated over and over to herself, "Trust in Jesus." She participated in Masses for healing and joined a prayer group.
Hope came when she read a line in the Bible: "For a tree there is hope, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again and that its tender shoots will not cease" (Job 14:7). A few days later, while watching A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, she was startled to hear the way the father comforted his daughter after the city workers cut down their favorite tree. "He explained to her that the tree was not dead, but that its roots would struggle up again through the earth." She told her husband about the coincidence of the two quotations.
Jerilyn says that the next day her husband "called me to the yard to show me something. He led me to the spot where we had cut down a small decayed tree. Pushing up through the earth were the beginnings of a new one. I wept."
Brother Bjarne F. of Norway (studying in the United States) found himself in the midst of a winter storm after experiencing a significant rejection. "I felt the Lord was stripping me of everything. My spiritual director helped me most by suggesting that I should pray for help to work through the pain rather than to be released from it. Expressing my feelings in poetry also helped."
Roland F. of Floral Park, New York, believes that, for him, the dark night of the soul was not a specified time but a state "hidden in life itself." He was 10 when his Catholic mother died. After his father remarried, Roland refused to convert to his father’s and stepmother’s religion, and he began taking Catholicism seriously. He says that it is the gift of faith which he developed in those early years that took him through the other losses of his life.
Early in their marriage, Roland’s wife gave birth to a son with a serious nervous disease. The child died at age 12. They also lost their second child, a girl. After the births of three other boys, his wife developed a drinking problem which "brought her to the brink of death." During the 10 years of her active alcoholism, their boys were in elementary and high schools, and he raised them himself.
Shortly after Roland’s wife stopped drinking, their oldest son Terry died of cancer at 24. About seven years ago, when Roland was 64, his wife developed cancer, and treatment resulted in severe radiation damage. Throughout the years, "I never lost faith in God. I learned early that God loved me, that God is always there, waiting for us to come to him. I knew this when I was 10 years old. Now, looking back over the years, I believe that all is grace."
Lord, Help My Unbelief
Lisa S., with whose story we began, knows that she found her way by "making quiet time and listening to the Lord. God speaks in many ways and I believe that he even wants us to question. In the long run, we will remember the answers better than if they were just handed to us."
Many readers speak of persons, activities and techniques which helped them to cope. Yet, almost unanimously, readers named prayer and faith as the most significant forces which brought them through the night. They described prayer as difficult during this time. They did not feel their faith. Often they just willed it deep inside: "Lord, I believe, help my unbelief."
Unanimously, these pilgrims on the dark path report the light returning. Often they experience a glow and radiance they had not previously known. The dark night did not last forever.
Virginia Ann Froehle, Religious Sister of Mercy, is a free-lance author, spiritual director and retreat director. Her latest book, published by Ave Maria Press, is Loving Yourself More: 101 Meditations for Women. Next month, she travels to Papua New Guinea where she will offer a variety of retreats for missionaries and native religious.
Rosary Was My Lifeline
By Leah McCarter
IN MAY 1993 I WAS HAPPY. I was 26 years old and a full-time volunteer in campus ministry at a small state college. My boyfriend and I were discussing marriage. I had good friends and lived in a beautiful part of Pennsylvania. I am a convert and my ministry encouraged me to grow in knowledge of the Church. My spirituality was growing by leaps and bounds. Every part of me was certain that I was fulfilling a plan that God had for my life.
One morning in late May I woke up to experience a "blue spot" in my left eye. I assumed that I had scratched it. Because I couldn’t see through the blue spot, I went to the doctor—who sent me to other doctors. The bottom line was a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis (MS).
I had to leave my campus ministry job to get needed health insurance and a living wage. I returned to a job I had formerly held—defeated, disappointed and terribly, terribly afraid.
I was afraid of my own body. The body that I had long trusted to stand, sit and walk on command no longer seemed to be under my control. I was afraid of the future. MS is an unpredictable, progressive disease. Would I be unable to walk in five years? One year? Next week? What was I to become?
And my boyfriend? I was not, as you might think, afraid that he would leave me. No, I was afraid that he would stay with me out of pity, not out of love. I was ashamed of myself—ashamed of my sudden physical deficiencies, ashamed of my failure to be a healthy young adult, ashamed of my inability to handle all of this gracefully, ashamed of my fear.
But I remember most vividly my fear of God. I asked the eternal question, "Why me?" and God was silent. Underneath my fear, I became angry at God and jealous of everyone else who loved and trusted God and was well.
Mass, which I had once enjoyed, became an act of obedience in an attempt to ward off any more unwanted divine attention. I didn’t dare stay home because God might notice and become angry at me. I didn’t want to pray because I didn’t want to draw any of heaven’s attention to myself. I thought if I could just hide I could somehow recover my strength myself.
In my loneliness, pain and attempts to hide, I turned to Mary. Somehow I felt that Mary, being a woman, could understand me. Didn’t I want the same things that she had wanted at one time—to be loved, to have a family of her own? She could understand my fear. (Would an angel have to tell her, "Do not be afraid," if she wasn’t?) She experienced firsthand the inexorable will of God, and somehow, she could say, "May it be done to me according to your word," and mean it. And she could still love and trust him in spite of (because of?) it all. The rosary became a thin strand of faith to which I clung.
Inch by inch I made my way back to being in relationship with the Lord.
I prayed the rosary sometimes three times a day, always asking for healing—not necessarily physical healing, but healing of my heart and mind so that I could accept God’s will. After those prayers, I could pray to God, holding on as tightly as I could to my knowledge that even though I felt so bad, he loved me.
What I have always heard people say about praying with Mary was true—she does turn you toward the Lord. Mary reintroduced me to the human Christ through the events in which he bowed to the will of God no matter what. I was reminded that I wasn’t being singled out for suffering. My "Why me?" changed into "Why not me?"
It was such a gradual process! For so long I felt as though I was walking blindly through total darkness and was so completely alone. I felt no one could possibly understand the emotional and spiritual suffering I was going through, but I was wrong. The rosary opened me up and helped me to stop focusing on myself by forcing me to meditate on the sufferings of someone else—Christ.
The Sacrament of Penance helped me tear off the veil of secrecy from my fear. Saying the words "I’m afraid of God" aloud and learning that I wasn’t the only person to experience this fear was a tremendous relief. I needed reassurance that God hadn’t left me alone. Exposing my fear to the light was healing.
Finally I realized that God was not punishing me, that he wasn’t angry at me, hadn’t abandoned me, and truly loved me. Inch by inch I made my way back to being in relationship with the Lord. That is not to say that I never get angry at God anymore. But I do trust and know him in a different way now, a more intimate way than before.
Leah McCarter was married in June 1994 and became pregnant in 1997. During her pregnancy she experienced the cessation of all debilitating symptoms of MS and gave birth to a healthy son last October. His name is Daniel.