First published in View from the Pew, a column for the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Agana, Guam, October 31, 1999.
We received THE call on September 15. You know, THAT call. The one that as you begin to move through your 30’s you know you will get sooner or later, and you hope it’s later.
“Leone, Mommy’s in the hospital and it doesn’t look good.” Leone is my wife and her mother has been in and out of hospitals for the last year or so, another victim of what is called Adult Onset Diabetes-a failing heart, failing kidneys, blindness, and the general debilitation of her health.
In our case it wasn’t just drop what we’re doing and rush to the hospital. Leone’s mom lives on the other side of the world on the island of St.Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Four planes and thrity-six hours later, Leone and all eight of our children arrived on St.Croix to see Grandma and to spend whatever time might be left to her. I stayed behind to man the financial fort, but of course have been keeping in daily touch with Leone via phone calls and emails.
We all know the story, the hanging around hospital corridors, the hopeful talk to help your helplessness, the day to day wondering, and the waiting, the waiting, the waiting...And then there are all the practical complications, the endless forms to fill out, the finances, the logistics of setting up 24 hour care, the insurance, etc., compounded by the fact that you are dealing with a very ill person who may be responding irrationally to the reality of the situation. The despair is compounded by frustration, and frustration by despair. Again, you know the story.
There is in all this, the tremendous human desire to “fix” this, something my wife would desperately like to do. And wouldn’t we all. We pray, we plead, we hope, we even make deals with God. We hate our helplessness. We fight for awhile, but soon our insides die, our hopeful gazes turn to blank stares, our emotions numb, and our brain seemingly grinds to an exhausted halt still echoing the word “Why?”.
With your permission, though, I would, in the next few lines, like to share the thoughts of a relatively uneducated layman (theologically, anyway) on what I believe to be the unique Catholic answer to what seems to have no answer.
I don’t know the theological term for this, but I believe that as Catholics, we have a special perspective on suffering. We have the ability, through Christ, to take on the sins of another and advance that person (or persons) towards heaven.
It isn’t just through rosaries and Masses that the sins of the souls of the dying and dead can be expiated. We can (again in my limited understanding) share in the redemptive mystery by offering our very helplessness as sacrifice to Him who took on all helplessness for our salvation. I believe, as a Catholic, that we do that by embracing, not just enduring, the utter helplessness that befalls us in times of sorrow.
We have, of course, the most powerful, poignant, and encouraging example of all in our Blessed Virgin Mary as she stood in the most utter and desolate helplessness at the foot of the cross on which hung her most beloved Son, tortured beyond recognition, brutally pierced, and in the throes of an incomprehensible agony. Mary teaches us to unite our sufferings in silence with Christ when things no longer make any sense. For it is precisely here that helplessness is not only saved from hopelessness, but opens out into holiness and into the eternal light of our salvation.
Thank God I am a Catholic. It must be so hard to live (and die) otherwise.
October 31, 1999