Suffering

Song of the Seas

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Then he said to me:
Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel.
They have been saying,
“Our bones are dried up,
our hope is lost, and we are cut off.”
Therefore, prophesy and say to them: Thus says the Lord GOD:
O my people, I will open your graves
and have you rise from them,
and bring you back to the land of Israel.
Then you shall know that I am the LORD,
when I open your graves and have you rise from them,
O my people!
I will put my spirit in you that you may live,
and I will settle you upon your land;
thus you shall know that I am the LORD.
I have promised, and I will do it, says the LORD.   ~  Ezekiel 37: 11 – 14

          Almost three weeks ago, bound by illness and fear, I searched desperately for hope, but none was to be found – only because I was searching in the wrong places. The medications which normally worked didn’t seem to be working. We have always been a family that recovered speedily from illnesses, but it wasn’t the case at that time. And never before had we all be ill at the same time.

          I was sick with fear. What if we needed to go into hospital? The pathetic excuse of a hospital we have in our town and the even worse medical personnel working there, charading as doctors and nurses, ruled out going there for treatment. Our next option was a reputable private medical centre but it was almost two hours away and despite being the strongest of the lot, I didn’t think I could drive the family there.

          What illness was this that we were having?

          Oh, the fear was deep indeed.

          In that state, hunting high and low for hope and not finding it, I suddenly quit searching. If there was to be no escape from this sickening fear, no respite from our illness, it dawned on me then that it was God’s will that we suffered this. Although no part of me embraced this suffering, a gentle visit from an old friend a few days later brought me to a door I didn’t want to open: the door to humble acceptance of suffering.

          Then, through the powerful intercession of St John of the Cross, my prayer changed to,

Help me to suffer this for Thy glory

          From then the mists lifted slightly from the path. Each time the fear came, each time I felt I could not go on, each time I struggled to rise and to walk and to work, I prayed in desperation,

Help me to suffer this for Thy glory

Help me to suffer this for Thy glory

Help me to suffer this for Thy glory

         Still, I struggled mightily, for to love my cross is my greatest cross. There is nothing I want less. It is my personal Calvary, the path along which I fall and fall and fall.

          And so, even as I prayed to accept my sufferings so that God be glorified, I could not find the love with which to embrace the prayer. Yet again, God showed me He never leaves us to suffer alone. He sent His beloved Mary to me. The Mother of God took pity on me and deigned to gather me into Her arms and to whisper to me Her words from that old day in September, fourteen years gone,

Sorrow before joy

          Upon hearing Her words once more, an odd strength began to flow into me, to ask in sincerity for the grace to suffer my then afflictions for the glory of God. One day wove its tendrils into the next, and into the next, and the next. When all of us felt dizzy and weak, when I felt I just could not cope with work, when the high fevers returned undeterred to all of us despite the meds, over and over, I prayed with all my heart and soul now,

Help me to suffer this for Thy glory

          Still, I puzzled at this change even as I welcomed it. How did this happen, I questioned as I peered through the remaining mists. I sure wasn’t praying better now because I felt good things were coming and that this was just a phase to get through – long years of suffering certainly put paid to that kind of hope even if it were true. I neither longed nor sought for joy as a respite from suffering. In fact, in a sudden turn of the seas, I seemed to have instead found an odd, indescribable vigour for suffering.

          Then, days later, without warning, the seas turned a second time.

My spirit began to sing through suffering!

          It was a full-bodied song which I have never, ever in my life heard. It began swelling and pouring through my dried out spirit, in silence and in gentleness and also in soaring power. Granted, each one of us in the family had begun to slowly recover from the flames of illness but the recovery this time was like climbing out of a grave after being buried alive. We were all still within the shadows of horrors of that pit. Thus, despite knowing we were getting better, our hearts could not quite sink into relief and happiness yet.

          But that strange, new song continued to pour its many cadences into my spirit. And I knew then, with an unshakeable conviction, that the raised skies of my heart was not due to relief nor simple happiness. It was something else. It was a secret, hidden joy, flowing and flowing through me each time I cowered before a cross and then, chose to pray in truth and sincerity, Help me to suffer this for Thy glory.

          Today, as the sun curls gold lights through me, heaven finally whispers the secret to me, of where this song of the seas comes from.

I will open your graves
and have you rise from them,
Then,
I will put my spirit in you

that you may live.

Sorrow Before Joy

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          Today, for the first time in a pretty long while, I found the time to sit in the corner of our little garden in the afternoon and let the Mother of God take care of me. This was the first Saturday of shiny, new August, a day when Catholics like me venerate Mother Mary in a special way through the 1st Saturday devotions. This is also the first Saturday we were home to enjoy all the beauty of a lovely and quietly cheery weekend after so many weeks of sacrifice, of travelling to the city, spending hours and hours there till night. Our weekend busyness had wound to an end last Sunday with our daughter’s Confirmation ceremony, a happy and satisfying day that nonetheless, ended unexpectedly with me and another daughter falling ill by evening, followed by all the rest in the family over the course of the week.

          It made for an exceedingly tough week.

You may think you suffer much but there is someone whose name I cannot reveal to you who suffers far more.   ~  St Paul of the Cross

          Have you no mercy for me, St Paul? I asked, more than a tad annoyed with the saint who’s always there for me with words I least want to hear. But the quote did its trick. We had all come down with a bad clot of flu; yet, miserable as it was, it was nothing compared to what the mystery person alluded to by St Paul and others had to endure with far worse illnesses.

          But I also knew my God would not want me to aspire to be strong by ignoring our own illness and struggles nor making light of them. He had a better way and He showed me.

Help me to suffer this and to bring glory to You, O Lord.

          Over and over, I prayed this entreaty. Slowly, the strength to cook and clean came. The hours and days passed, and one by one, the family began the slow trek to recovery.

          On Friday, another saint, one whom I love with all my heart, came to sit by my window. As always, he stayed only long enough to leave me a gentle invite, wraithing into unseen-ess before I could hold on to him. I looked down into what he had left for me, saint who had saved my life.

Novena to St John of the Cross

Novena to love our crosses

          I jumped back and away like one scalded. No, no, no, Lord, I moaned. I’ve had it with these crosses. I’ve had it with being put through fire. No more crosses, Lord, please.

          Still, when a dear~heart friend invites you to his precious abode of light, despite the reluctance that roosts strong within you, you go. As I did. Running my heart along words of the novena,

…intercede for me and obtain from God for me

a love of suffering,

together with strength and grace

to bear with firmness of mind

all the trials and adversities

which are the sure means

to the happy attainment of all that awaits me in heaven…

the words were like thorns, drawing pain because I had not healed yet from the suddenness of this recent test, all of us being ill at the same time. The fear, the worry. Will we make it? Why were we so ill after all the good home care? Will the children make it if they are away from us?

          When afternoon came today, I felt an unusual call in my heart from the garden. There, in its sunny peace, as the breezes wreathed their hymns in ribbons around me, I knew the Mother of God was bidding me to pause and rest in Her maternal heart, to let Her care for me in the way no one else on earth could.

          As the winds gently danced around me, Our Lady turned my gaze over this old garden I’ve come to love so much, its beds of bachelor’s buttons, zinnias and chrysanthemums which the children have coaxed the earth to love and yield. The flowers I’ve grown myself – the gardenias, jasmines and old fashioned roses, the starflowers, periwinkles and celosia, each one with their own story of teetering at the cliff edge of life, then, somehow having the tide turn in their favour.

          I suddenly saw something countless gardeners must have long known, that our gardens often reflect our own paths through life, from strife and drought and fear to joy and peace and glory. And that our life journeys are often cyclical rather than falling along linear paths.

          You need to encounter pain over and over in order to meet with joy over and over as well, said Mother to me. Sorrow before Joy.

          And with that, I saw once more Her old words to me, that dark, breezy dawn 14 years ago when I didn’t believe joy would ever be possible again.

          Yes, sorrow must come before joy. Each time. Over and over.

Heralds of Spring

Canadian Geese Flying in V Formation

For if this endeavor or this activity is of human origin, it will destroy itself. But if it comes from God, you will not be able to destroy them; you may even find yourselves fighting against God. After recalling the Apostles, they had them flogged, ordered them to stop speaking in the name of Jesus, and dismissed them. So they left the presence of the Sanhedrin, rejoicing that they had been found worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the Name. ~  Acts 5: 38 – 41

         The birds around our home were in the throes of mad, secret avian joy, their calls ringing out in exuberance just as the early dawn rays began flaming the skies into golds and yellows and tangerines. One chapter of my life has ended today, and with it, hopefully, much of the darkness. Yet, I greeted the news with an unnatural calmness. For a moment, I wondered if it was because I was not being grateful enough. Nonetheless, I had to admit that I was also very tired, that having given all I had within me these past years, it had likely taken me beyond the point of celebration.

          Still, reaching out to close the old gates behind me and to walk into this next phase of working life, I wished for some joy. Even a spark would have been welcomed.

But there was none. I was well and truly spent.

          It was past twilight when I came to the readings of the final Friday of the month of the Holy Eucharist.

…they had them flogged,
ordered them to stop speaking in the name of Jesus,
and dismissed them.

          I thought of the calvary we had endured as a family these past years. Cut after cut of an invisible whip, days, weeks and months of it. Fear, anger, pain and shame. Choking grief. Over and over telling God, I cannot go on. I just cannot. Over and over, He had put His hand out to me,

Oh yes, you will.

Do not waver.

Keep going, you’re almost there.

Walk on water.

Meet Me at the other end.

I am already there.

          Each time, impossibly, I would rise to my feet through the love of so, so many who would not give up on me, to let me fall to the earth and die. With their arms about me, each time I managed to stand up and to make my way forwards. On and on till I reached today.

Oh, for just a spark of firelight now at the shores of freedom.

          Just as I was wishing for that special joy to sing once more, something made me look up from my writing. A quick scene on the tv.

A flock of Canada geese intent on their journey across the bluest of skies.

One swallow does not make a summer, but one skein of geese, cleaving the murk of March thaw, is the Spring.   ~  Aldo Leopold

          In that tiny moment, I felt the spark. Even a heart still frozen in the old ice of winter knows that life is about to live once more when the geese are sighted in blue-shot skies.

For they are the heralds of true spring.

Lent 37 ~ Light for the Dark

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          Above all, I beg of you to be always gay, joyful and happy, for this is the true mark of the Spirit of God, Who wishes that we should serve Him in peace and contentment; do not be uneasy or anxious, but do all things with liberty of mind and in the presence of God.   ~  St. Margaret Mary Alacoque

          Holy Week began on a difficult note but today, things deepened without warning and completely knocked me off the hill. I finally broke down at Jesus’ feet, my first time in some weeks.

          Still, I had a feeling I was under some kind of attack. I don’t usually see things in this light but I did today. Because today, having heard of vicious attacks against Ukrainian women and girls, I felt I had to do something. Knowing how packed and busy my day was going to be, I needed to be able to make some kind of a continuous offering, alongside the calls of work. Hence, I decided to offer up as many Hail Mary’s as I could, asking Mother Mary if each bud could in some way be used to save the life of a woman or a girl.

          A few rose~buds in, everything began to unravel. Even minor issues threw me off balance, on and on, snowballing till late afternoon. By late evening, as the humidity of an impending storm singed the sunset hours, I knew I had barely given anything towards so great a need. Hell was being unearthed in Ukraine and here I was, as usual, tripping over far smaller trials. Darkness had seemingly won.

          But someone saw, and someone knew I needed help against whatever was blowing hard against me today.

Above all, I beg of you to be always gay, joyful and happy, for this is the true mark of the Spirit of God, Who wishes that we should serve Him in peace and contentment;

          How do I be this gay, joyful and happy when dark winds rise? I wondered mutinously. How do I not lose the mark of the Holy Spirit? For once, I felt that beloved saint~friend did not have God’s word for me today.

          Just as frustration began to curl into me, I saw it,

…do not be uneasy or anxious,

but do all things with liberty of mind and in the presence of God. 

          On my own, I can do none of the above for I bear no kinship with the serene lotuses of still ponds. The quiet peace of saints continually evades me. But if there’s anything I’ve managed to learn, it is that I can always trust in God to grant me every grace to fill every dry gully of need. What I have need of, He will provide.

          So, back to God’s Heart I went again.

          This time, into Its depths I gave up my darkness. In exchange I took His Light.

Lent 29 ~ Sparrow~Words

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Those that sow in tears
            shall reap rejoicing.   ~  Psalm 126: 5

          Every Sunday, I stand before my altar and look up at my Jesus and reaffirm my promise to Him that I will live my Sunday as a day of special thanksgiving and rest. It doesn’t always work to plan, given that I am a workaholic and life does happen. Recently, I learned that even on a Sunday, God could still call me to go out into a vineyard of need. It taught me that each day given to us is His gift to us to live it as He has willed.

          Today, intent on that same rest and thanksgiving, I instead sensed a heaviness in my spirit. I could tell straight off, it was not mine, though. I felt it was someone suffering from workplace discrimination, with loss of hope in a long journey of suffering.

Or perhaps I was picking up on someone’s feeling of anguish that even if people cared, no one could really help.

          Last night, I had seen these words,

Whatever you do won’t be enough, I heard their voices say.

Try anyway.   

~  Barack Obama, A Promised Land

          Two tiny words that shone out their light, then receded into their stillness.

Try anyway  

          And so I did. I traced back this heaviness I was sensing, going backwards along its path of hidden tears, till I reached the eyes from which flowed this quiet pain. Is it hers, I wondered. I don’t know her. What if I’m rebuffed? What if her pain pushes me away? Because I could sense something very big and very deep behind this person’s statements of hurt.

Try anyway, gentle yet firm, the words came back.

          So, timidly and hesitantly I typed out the words I might want to hear from someone. Neither the words to feed the anger, nor to minimize the suffering, nor even to shame the person for crying out for help by saying, I suffered more, why can’t you bear even this? I tried my best to acknowledge the loneliness of her suffering, the isolation of it, the shame of being the only one. But I could feel the sparseness of my words, puny against this towering pain.

          Then, I told her I was going to ask God for a miracle for her. That her sowing of tears would someday reap the joy of rejoicing.

          The very minute I laid those words, as mundane and as small as the simple sparrow, by this unknown person’s heart, I felt the weight lift from mine. From a distance came the call of a lone eagle circling the whitened~blue skies as if he too had met this weight coming off from me.

         And with that I just knew that on this Sunday, those words of hope was all my Jesus had asked of me for a stranger’s pain.

Lent 28 ~ This Last One

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Let the malice of the wicked come to an end,
            but sustain the just,
            O searcher of heart and soul, O just God.   Psalm 7: 10

          I was taken aback to see that 5 years ago, almost to the day, I had fervently said this exact prayer, to be saved from the unspeakable malice of three people in my place of work. Today, 5 years later, things have changed so much. One of the three has been removed permanently and no longer troubles me. One is miraculously beginning to find good roots within himself. But the last one…

          The last one still carries knives within her but she numbers not among of those who wound because they have been wounded, at least not in the classic sense of the word. This last one worships at the altar of herself. And anyone who does not fall to their knees before her is her enemy and one whom she must slay.

          This last one has tortured me endlessly over the past years. Yet, today, I write not as much for myself as for another. Because I have discovered that what this woman has done to me, she is beginning to do to another, knifing this new victim, who looks like a fool to the world, cowering, absorbing every strike and not fighting back. It brings back memories of what I went through, firing a wound within me for my helpless friend.

When will this end?

          Yesterday, our family took a long evening drive along country roads leading to the western skies. Massive dark clouds grew across the skies. Yet, behind them, the wide expanses were illuminated by the final light of the setting sun, rendering stunning shards and swathes of bright, rosy tangerines. In my heart, I fell to my knees before such breathtaking beauty and immense power. All the words I had sensed recently came before me once more,

Final hours

You’re almost there

          And yet, standing out stronger than anything was the beating my poor friend was enduring at the hands of a malice whose roots sank all the way into the darkness of narcissistic pride and cruelty .

          Take her away, Lord, I prayed of this last one.

          This last one is being nourished in malice by the joy she receives from seeing her victims crushed and also by the numbers who worship at her altar out of fear, weighted by the shadows they too carry within them.

Take her away, Lord 

          Because as long as we refuse to break and to glorify her, she will not rest and the cruelty will live on unabated.

Take her away, Lord 

          Because we have tried so hard to love her and to teach her to love – and we have failed, it seems. Take her where she can learn to love without setting a price, that her soul may be saved.

          We rounded the corner on the slightly bumpy road and my husband said, This is the last we’ll see of the sunset before we turn back east. Just at the turn, just as he said, even with the dark sky~towers in the foreground, the entire sky exploded into a shimmering vista of orange and gold.

          For a long minute, it stayed that way. Then, the turn came, and we turned back into darkness. Going back into the dark, quipped my husband gaily. After a glimpse of what lies beyond, I bantered back.

          But as we drove back, I silently wondered if my prayer would find its landing in God’s heart, for I am a sinner, often praying prayers out of the darkness of my own sins and less of the prayers I should actually offer up. And He, searcher of mind and heart, sees everything.

          Unexpectedly, today, once again comes, Let the malice of the wicked come to an end. After 5 years of pain and prayers. Is this God’s answer to my questions yesterday? This time, I see something I didn’t before, the end of Psalm 7,

If one does not repent,

God sharpens His sword,

strings and readies the bow,

Consider how one conceives iniquity;

is pregnant with mischief,

and gives birth to deception.

He digs a hole and bores it deep,

but he falls into the pit he has made.

His malice turns back upon his head;

his violence falls on his own skull.   ~  Psalm 7: 13; 15 – 17

          This last one. Lord, please, please help.

Lent 26 ~ Dare To

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          Yes, we are raw. Yes, we are in the dark belly of a whale. Yes, we ache. Who can be Jesus’ “little sunbeam” at such a time? Would Jesus even want such a thing? He is after much more than happiness in our lives. He is after a sustaining joy and He will give us that joy by giving us Himself, whether through the small gifts of life that bring us gladness or through the dark night of suffering. Sweeping affliction under the rug of our heart, therefore, is simple denial, an act of cowardice, and act of ungratefulness. We must dare to look it square in the eyes.   ~  Ben Palpant

Shoulder To Stand On

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          Almost 2 weeks back, I felt a vague unease pass by my heart. There was so much to do then that I could not pay it much attention. Nevertheless, it hovered close by, biding its time to come forward. Later, in town, waiting in the car for one my children to run an errand, I sensed a quietening within me. Then, I felt a distinct press on my heart: someone was in need.

          Last week, there was another unexpected sign – someone in need – in New Zealand. My godparents and their families reside there. So did the family of another aunt who had passed away recently. Was it any of my loved ones? Or New Zealand in general, I wondered. I prayed. But again, work interfered.

          Still, even as I worked, one quote kept coming up,

Standing on the shoulders of giants

          Although I knew what the quote meant, I was certain that it was pointing to something else.

The giant souls we depend on to get us through our trials.

Something to do with those we rely on so much, the strong ones among us. Those who hold us up when we would fall, those who will us on when we lose hope. Who wipe our tears when the pain scales the highest walls, holding us close to their own worn and broken hearts, holding us tighter through prayers.

It is the caregiver, whispered my heart. The soul in need was a caregiver.

          On Friday, I received some good news concerning work that brought immense relief –  something big that had taken up quite a chunk of my time and attention had been cancelled. I had been locked too much within myself over that. Freed now, I flew to open my heart more to others.

          Then, a text came in and it became clear who needed me. My uncle in New Zealand. The family has faced so much over the past decades. My uncle patiently, with great love and faith, has led the way forward each time. But the recent trials they have endured have been one too many. Serious illnesses, an ill grandbaby, a business all but wiped out by Covid.

The heart of a caregiver is the biggest heart of all.

          Yet, it is that heart we often forget and that which we take for granted. Who holds a caregiver’s hand when life is hard for him, the difficult journey far from its end? Who loves her back to strength when her heart is broken and her vigour gone? To our eyes, the caregivers among us are the epitome of joy and endless grace in suffering, a tower of strength. Yet, we see only what we want to see. Hidden from ready sight is the price of a caregiver’s love. What is the hidden cost of loving and giving so much? What pains do they bear in silence so that they can be there for us? What do they keep away from us so that we can heal, so that we find our footing once again after a fall?

          The answers to each one of those questions will be varied, I know. I know something about my Uncle’s walk of fire, but every caregiver’s story, if he cares to share it, will speak to a common refrain of sacrifice, suffering and loss, endured in sweetness and silence, so that others may live on in hope and dignity.

          The caregiver cares for someone. But someone else must look out for the caregiver too. So, I go knocking on doors, to all the saints I’ve called upon, learned to trust and come to love over the years.

Help him

help him

help him

I call at each stop.

          When generous souls spare little thought for themselves, we must, for their sakes, for even a giant needs a shoulder to stand on.

In Every Season, Love

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          The world is in seasons, it seems, in more ways than one. If it’s summer for some, winter is hovering close for others.

          In the midst of our own peace and happiness, on a golden Friday, my Muslim next door neighbour informed me that his young son-in-law, a father to two young children, had contracted Covid and had been placed under induced coma. I cannot imagine how hard it must have been for the families involved. The fear of losing a boy they had come to love as their own was compounded by not being able to reach out and offer physical help to their daughter and their two grandbabies living so far away, due to the nationwide lockdown still in effect here. The morning after the most bitter of nights for them, my husband caught a glimpse of our neighbour’s wife. A soul with the most golden of hearts, her face was now shadowed with grief.

Life changed from one moment to the next

          I heard that comment made on tv by a loved one to one of those missing in the Florida condo collapse and I realised how often I had thought the same thing these past days. Sudden changes. Surprises. Shocks. In Florida, in the deepest golden blue of summer, bitter winter came. No comfort of months or weeks to prepare for the change. No gentle leading to the hard of cold and pain.

          Visiting my garden the day after the news, I worked at the beds away from our fence to assure my neighbours that I wasn’t looking for conversation. They already knew our family’s prayers were joined to their anguished pleas to God. Even in our own summer, we must do all we can for hearts wintered in.

          Today, unexpectedly, my neighbour sent us dinner over our fence. It was a heartwarming dish expertly made by his wife, one we have enjoyed multiple times over the years. It is also a time-consuming and painstaking dish to prepare, effort nearly impossible under the shadows of fear and sorrow. We immediately knew then that joy had come to them. I flew to my phone and heard their hope for myself. They were still not out of the woods yet, but hope had come.

From one moment to the next

          Steeping back and looking over all that has happened recently, I learn again that the seasons of life come to all, rich or poor, what marks us to receive more or less from each season not easily understood. How long the seasons stay is beyond anything we can determine, for they lodge at will, the summons to come and leave answered in obedience only to the Almighty.

          Someone tried to teach me a long time ago that a strong, unwavering faith and knowledge of sacred scriptures is a surefire way of facing down times of strife and difficulty. True as that may be for some people, it wasn’t for me. The wall of faith and knowledge that took me through early troubles all but crumbled later when God tested us 14 years ago. In standing before my God, all I had was my naked anguish and raw grief. There were days when Scripture shone light through the impenetrable darkness of debilitating grief; but there were many more when even much loved verses did not make sense, when it seemed like they made their way past the door of my waiting heart, pausing not.

          Today, I asked God once more what takes us through the seasons of life, and what helps us to leave our springs and summers to meet others in their own seasons.

          The answer came, as pure and clear as a new sunrise.

It is love.

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