"Remember that to reach the Resurrection, one must always climb Mt. Calvary. No one has ever (or will ever) come up with another way to salvation.
You will never know the depth of your own soul, unless you are willing to climb down deep into it and sit there for a while. It is there, sitting in the muck and sludge of our own sinfulness, our own humanity, our own brokenness, that we come to know the saving power of Jesus Christ." ~Deacon Ryan Preuss
I recently met with a woman at work who was pregnant with her fourth child. She told me that her three sons were all incredibly easy to deliver; she just showed up at the hospital and before she knew it she was holding a beautiful baby boy in her arms without having experienced any real pain. I marveled at that and considered her to be very fortunate as labor pains are hardly something that a woman relishes about having a baby. But she disagreed with my point of view. She said that with this baby she was hoping for a long labor and wanted to feel all of the pain. She wanted to experience and savor every moment of the pregnancy, labor, delivery and parenting of her child.
Thinking about her response made me realize the value of her words. Our lives were meant to be fully experienced and savored, but without the pain which is a natural part of life, how can we fully appreciate the joys?
Recently I had the wonderful opportunity to spend some time with some good friends who generously host occasional parties in an old barn that has been converted to a gymnasium complete with basketball hoops, trampolines, slides, rope swings and a foam pit. Don and Anne kindly invite the teen boys, including my sons, who participate in the St. Francis de Sales Seminary camps for boys discerning the priesthood, to come and release some pent up energy while re-connecting with their friends that they met at the camps. They will often invite some priests and seminarians to join us and they ask them to offer a little reflection for the boys to ponder. At this most recent gathering we were joined by Deacon Ryan Preuss and seminarian Kurt Krauss who shared their experiences of the World Youth Day Pilgrimage in Madrid, Spain, with us.
It seems that neither of these young men had a joyous and perfect experience on their pilgrimage, in fact, hardship and difficulty seemed to be the defining description. They spent nights sleeping outside on the cold, hard ground in clothes that were soaking wet from the rain, they suffered the effects of sitting closely with crowds of pilgrims from around the world, they went without eating, they lost members of their groups and were barred from entering the tent for the final Mass with the Pope. Deacon Ryan commented that in some cases it almost felt like purgatory as his group was standing outside of a tent where Eucharistic Adoration was taking place and there was a huge sign that said "Welcome" but they weren't allowed inside because the tent was overcrowded. Yet, in all of their remarks they both overwhelming stated that their pilgrimage was a reflection of the Christian life overall. Life isn't meant to be easy, things aren't always supposed to go as planned, there is no guarantee that we will always be happy; and they wouldn't have it any other way. Because in the challenges and difficulties as well as in the joys and successes, we find God at work, changing us, refining us, loving us.
When my struggles with depression were at their worst, my son Joe, who was often most distraught to see his mother suffering and astutely noticed that the timing of my psychological breakdown coincided with a deeper conversion into my Catholic faith, would often complain and ask, "Mom, why is it that ever since you became a Jesus freak, you have been miserable? Why would anyone want to turn to God if doing so makes you so unhappy?" And in my sorrow, I couldn't clearly think of a response other than to reiterate how much I love Jesus and that my depression was not His fault, but just a part of life; but my words felt lame and inadequate and nothing that I could say to him in response to his question would satisfy him. I was at a loss for an explanation and his words cut me to the quick. In fact, there were many times when I joined in Joe's complaint and put his same questions in prayer to God. But here, in the words of Deacon Ryan and Kurt, and in the viewpoint of the expectant mother, the answer became crystal clear; we aren't meant to escape the pain, we are meant to feel the pain and to endure in our faith despite the suffering we may feel.
To feel the pain is to allow God to work in your life, to let Him draw you closer to His love through the entire experience of life, both the painful and the pleasant moments. If we want to follow Christ, we must travel through the trials of the cross, trials which will manifest themselves differently for each of us, before we can reach the glories of the resurrection. If we really want to bear the name Christian, then like St. Therese we must say "I choose all!" and learn to carry on and work through the pain so that one day, we will be able to fully embrace the joys of heaven. There is no "easy out," we must strive to accept the fact that despite the hardness of life, God will never abandon us and our lives have a deep and meaningful purpose that will only make sense to us when we leave this life for our final destiny where we will then clearly see that all of the suffering we endured on earth was meaningful and beautiful, and God used it all for His glory in the mystery of His plan. In the words of Pope John Paul II from Salvifici Doloris, "in whatever form, suffering seems to be, and is, almost inseparable from man's earthly existence." We were born to feel the pain and to remain faithful despite our suffering. Our call as Christians is to unite our suffering with the suffering of Christ and in our pain, however minor or horrific it may be, we will be assisting God as He redeems our souls and those of the whole world.