How do I grow in my faith through suffering?

Pope Francis remarks in Evangelii Gaudium, "There are Christians whose lives seem like Lent with Easter. I realize of course that joy is not expressed the same way at all times in life, especially at moments of great difficulty. Joy adapts and changes, but it always endures, even as a flicker of light born of our personal certainty that, when everything is said and done, we are infinitely loved." We offer this Lenten Reflection by our good friend, Dave McKeown given after the Soup Meal at All Saints Parish on April 3rd. Although he suffers with ALS he is able to be a light of joy and hope to us all.  
How do I grow in my faith through suffering? By Dave McKeown

Photo: El Salvador/Dulka
They came to a place named Gethsemane; and He said to His disciples, “Sit here until I have prayed.” And He took with Him Peter and James and John, and began to be very distressed and troubled.  And He said to them, “My soul is deeply grieved to the point of death; remain here and keep watch.”  And He went a little beyond them, and fell to the ground and began to pray that if it were possible, the hour might pass Him by.  And He was saying, “Abba! Father! All things are possible for You; remove this cup from Me; yet not what I will, but what You will.”  Mark 14:32-36

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.

In the context of tonight’s reading, I am very much awake in the garden these days. I have prayed those words of Jesus more times than I can count- if this cup can pass me by Lord, but not my will only yours.

As I think of suffering in our world today with this enlightened perspective, I think of those who do not have the life that I still have, yet persevere through faith. I think of the many people that I have had the privilege to serve directly- those who live with and die from AIDS and their families, families with children suffering from homelessness, women and children suffering from domestic violence, young people involved with drugs and gangs suffering abandonment by their families. I think of those who suffer from addiction, mental illness, and terminal disease. I think of those who suffer from extreme poverty around the world, those who suffer societal, political and religious persecution, immigrants, refugees, and people in same-sex relationships who are denied their basic human rights, families who have no healthcare, children and adults who are sexually abused, shut-ins who suffer from loneliness, older people who suffer from elder abuse, homeless adults who live and sometimes die just a few blocks away from here. I think of those ravaged by the effects of war, catastrophe, and natural disaster, those suffering the loss of loved ones. Those who are unemployed, underpaid, harassed in the workplace. I think of those who suffer spiritual poverty. Even our earth suffers from our selfish and irresponsible consumption. I especially relate to those living with challenging disabilities. How disempowering it is to search for an accessible bathroom only to find that the door is too heavy to open, and the water faucets and paper towels are out of reach. Accessible for whom? The other day I saw a person in a wheelchair literally run into on the sidewalk by someone racing to their next meeting, face buried in their mobile phone. I think of people like me whose disabilities are less obvious, less visible, scrutinized and even criticized when asking to sit down on a bus or BART. I think of these and all people who feel outcast and devalued.

It's a long list isn't it? But we've barely scratched the surface. All of us have some experience of suffering in our lives, and it is all valid whether I have named it here or not. So I think of all of you, too.

Back to my question, what opportunity does God offer us in all of this? For me, one opportunity is this heightened sensitivity to others. In his Ash Wednesday audience, Pope Francis said, “Living our Baptism to the full… means not accustoming ourselves to the situations of degradation and misery that we encounter as we walk along the streets of our cities and towns. There is a risk of passively accepting certain forms of behaviour and of not being shocked by the sad reality surrounding us.” I believe we are all called to encounter Christ in the suffering of others and be transformed by the encounter, to respond to those in need not with indifference, not with criticism and judgment, but with compassion and love, and to work for social change. I continue to be inspired by the strength and hope I have experienced from others living in much more challenging situations than my own. It is the faith of all of these that helps me face my own suffering.

As I return to the garden in tonight's reading, can I even imagine the weight of these burdens on Jesus? My struggles seem meaningless in comparison. He draws great strength from God's love. In a reflection on tonight's reading, Father Ronald Rolheiser said, “What's special in Jesus is how he prepared himself to die, namely, by being willing to die without resentment, without making anyone feel guilty about it, and with a heart that was warm rather than cold, forgiving rather than bitter, and large and understanding enough that it didn't have to demand its due. In the face of bitter duty, he took his life and his love and made them a free gift.”

I know Jesus hears my cries and understands my fears. He invites me to bring my suffering to the garden. He reminds me that, just like him, we need God to help us through our suffering. And so another opportunity in suffering is that deeper personal experience of God's love, with the joy of knowing that God will always be there with us. We know that suffering is not the end of the story, but rather that it leads us to a greater life ahead when we allow God to work through us as Jesus did. God has given me a strength that I never knew I had before. A strength that helps me wake up every morning with purpose and a grateful heart for all that I have, in spite of my condition. A strength that helps me share what I have with others. A strength that helps me see others in a more compassionate way and stand in solidarity with them. A strength to prepare for whatever is yet to come. The courage to truly live in the moment and experience all of its beauty. And there is another gift. The gift of prayer. I have drawn great strength from the prayers of others, and have grown so much in my own prayer life since my diagnosis. What an amazing gift of grace this has been.

Tonight, may the image of the garden give us all renewed strength to stay awake, watch, and pray. May we confidently bring our own suffering to God, drawing strength and hope from His mercy and healing. May we seek the opportunity to encounter Christ in the suffering of others and be transformed by them. May we share God’s love and compassion in all the aspects of our lives. Not my will, Lord, but yours. Thank you and God bless you.

Dave is a parishioner at All Saints Parish in Hayward, CA and Social Ministry Outreach Coordinator Catholic Diocese of Oakland.  Contact him by email.