How do I grow in my faith through suffering?
|Photo: El Salvador/Dulka|
Good evening. I am grateful to Jean for asking me to speak tonight, and my reflection will focus on the question, "what opportunity does God offer us in the midst of suffering?" For some of my life, I was a well intentioned, but inexperienced, bystander with regards to suffering, one of those asleep in the garden when Jesus was praying. I grew up in a middle-class family, always lived in stable housing, always had enough food to eat, had a great education, an amazing family, and two really wonderful careers. It's not that I didn't encounter suffering in others. In my own family my maternal grandmother suffered physically for more than half of her life with rheumatoid arthritis, an extremely painful degenerative disease. My father lived with a challenging alcohol addiction for all of his adult life, and died from cancer at a young age. Neither of them were the churchgoing type, and as I think about them now, I wonder if they prayed in the garden to God to remove the cup from them. It was really difficult to watch both of them suffer. I know God was with them, but neither of them really shared much about their relationship with God. As many of you know, I have spent a lot of my adult life active in social ministry, doing what I felt God was calling me to do, and in that work I learned a great deal about some of the suffering that goes on in our world.
I gained a new perspective on suffering about 2 1/2 years ago. There was no pain, just a sudden loss of strength in my right arm. This seemed to have no explanation, not from injury or occupational strain, I just couldn't lift my arm anymore. Thanks to a team of amazing healthcare professionals who continue to care for me today, I found out that I have a neurodegenerative disease called ALS. Known by some as Lou Gehrig’s disease, ALS affects some 30,000 people in the United States at any one time, rare in comparison to heart disease and cancer. Although much research has been done over some 100 years, the cause is still not clearly understood, and there is no cure. Without getting too scientific, the nerves that connect the brain to all of the voluntary muscles in the body degenerate over time and die, causing those connected muscles to also weaken and die. To date I have lost the strength in both my arms and both my hands. My neck muscles get tired very easily as well, which is why you might see me wearing a brace sometimes. Also, my breathing capacity is about 60% of normal, causing me to tire easily.
You can imagine that my daily life has changed significantly. Everything above my waist or away from my body is out of reach. A can of soda is too heavy for me to lift. I am unable to write, drive, hold this microphone, make the sign of the cross without bending over, or receive the Eucharist in my hands. I really miss being able to reach out to give a hug. I require assistance with the most basic things like shaving and getting dressed. So many of the activities that used to fill my life are just not possible anymore. Humbling as this has been for me, there are many things that I am still able to do. Unlike many people living with ALS, I am able to walk, speak, and eat solid food.