“God aids the valiant…both to you and to me He will give the help needed.”
–St. Teresa of Avila
Not all that long ago, I went through a very dispiriting week. Three of my friends had been struggling with cancer. The husband of my oldest friend in the world was being treated for bladder cancer at M.D. Anderson. Another very close friend had just been diagnosed with stage 4 throat cancer. That same week, my cousin was treated for the fourth reoccurrence of thyroid cancer.
Each of them had endured that ghastly, medieval horror we so unhelpfully call a “treatment”: chemotherapy. Two had adopted children and taken them into their homes. One of them is a single parent. One of them had no insurance, so I had a little skin in the health care debate and I was terrified about what this might mean for my friend and the family.
I’m not sure why, but way too often the people I love and terminal illness have intersected. All of that provides the backdrop for the week I was telling you about. That Thursday morning I got a call that a friend of mine, a law school classmate with whom I played lots of golf and lots of 42 (a poor man’s bridge played with dominos), had been killed while riding his bicycle with his 17-year-old son. The son had gotten winded and stopped to rest, while Larry rode ahead. A few moments later, his son rode up on the scene of the accident where his father lay dying. My friend Larry was struck by a car driven by a 22-year-old girl, and we’re not sure why she veered out of her lane of traffic. Then on that Friday morning, I got another early morning phone call. Another law school classmate of mine lost his 27-year-old son in a bizarre accident.
I reached a couple of thoughts about the gut wrenching kaleidoscope of these events. The first of these is that I may be a bit of a Jonah, and would understand perfectly if folks were to scootch away or avert their eyes when they see me walking toward them. Second, I think being a friend, being a Christian, is a contact sport.
As Teresa of Avila said, “Christ has no body on earth but yours, no hands, no feet on earth but yours.” Nothing in this world is harder, or more essential to the Christian life, than being present while someone you love suffers and bearing witness to their pain with them. I think that’s part of the power of the image of Mary at the Cross, watching and aching as her son gave up his life. Seeing these events unfold around me, I’m reminded of something the Tin Man said in the Wizard of Oz: “Now I know I have a heart, because it’s breaking.”
Third, when I heard about my friend Larry’s accident, I actually found the strength, through God’s grace alone and no achievement of mine, to immediately say a prayer for the young woman who had struck him. I have no idea how this accident will change her life or the life of her family, but I know she needs God’s presence through this. And somehow, I felt better myself after praying for her.
A couple of years ago, I was asked if I was involved in pastoral care at the church, and I answered that no, I was not. While my answer was honest, I’m not sure that it was accurate. I think all of us are called upon, regardless of what we consider to be our ministry, to be the hands and face of Christ from time to time. Maybe these events were just some sort of coincidence. Or maybe, as Einstein once said, “Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.”
I think that what might pass in the secular world for caring and compassion is, for us Christians, a statement of our faith. It is our way of cursing the darkness with which this world confronts us, and speaking to the love of Christ and the promise of Easter. As the chaplain of Austin College recently observed, “Easter is not about denial, it’s about defiance.” Our caring for one another speaks to the power of love to overshadow pain.
Depending on the circumstance, as I have confronted these events, I may not have even mentioned Jesus or faith or prayer. I tend to follow St. Francis’ advice in these circumstances, that we should preach the gospel in all times and in all places, but only use the words when necessary. I hope that I won’t hear Jesus telling me someday that I did it wrong, that he won’t recognize me because I didn’t recognize him in this context. I know that it is only through my faith that I can stand to watch people I love suffer, and that I can go on living without making sense of these events. I’ve begun to believe that, for those of us who follow Jesus, the work of bearing witness to the love of God through moments of pain may be the real cost of taking up the cross.
God’s great peace on you and your house,
James R. Dennis, O.P.
© 2012 James R. Dennis
I have known others who have been followed by tragedy and viewed themselves as Jonah’s. But I view it differently. I think God knows who to place in the path of hurting people, who has the gift of mercy and consolation. I love it when you write your memoirs as well as your teaching pieces. I enjoyed the Einstein quote, which reminds me of Joseph Campbell’s remarks about God coming behind different masks to interact with us, hoping we will recognize Him. I certainly perceive Christ behind the mask of Brother James…you are a blessing!
I think sometimes God does place us in places we’d rather not be, and we are sometimes called to bear witness to things that make us wince. Like you, I’m a big fan of Joseph Campbell. He was a marvelous voice, one I still hearing rumbling around in my head sometimes.
Grace and peace,
James–With you in prayer. We are ONE Body. My best friend, who has multiple health problems himself, a wife with a major painful syndrome and a daughter with pancreatic cancer, shared with me today that he got a phone call last evening from his younger brother telling my friend that he, the brother, has leukemia. The brother’s wife has fought brain cancer for over ten years. Not Jonah but Job comes to mind.
We are one body, with one Father and one Spirit. I’m so sorry about your friend. We are called to bear with those we love when they are in pain, and it’s a great challenge.
God’s great peace on you and your house,
Sharing the tragedies of our lives helps us feel connected and less alone. I have no words that make meaning out of suffering. I have only being. If my being can hold you and your pain in my thoughts and feelings — even just a little — then the weight on you is less but the totality of your suffering and yor friends suffering remains. Now, it is shared so that no one person is alone with it.
I don’t have any such words either, Barbara. Like you, I trust in the ministry of presence, and trust in knowing it’s not really my presence that comforts. I think in such situations we are just sacraments, we are signs of God’s presence with those in trouble.
Hopefully, both those in pain and those who rush to their sides find comfort in that Presence, because I don’t know where else we’d turn.
Peace and grace,
Amazing article thanks for sharing.
Thanks so much, Adam.
You welcome, you definitely have the gift so keep on writing
Thank you, Adam, you’re very kind.
God watch over thee and me,
Oh the heaviness of suffering! It’s weight forces us to our knees … the only place of comfort. Just this week I have encountered two people mourning, not their recent sufferings, but the lack of Christ’s ‘hands and feet’ ministering to them. Thank you for the reminder that bearing witness to the pain and suffering of others is our calling. Indeed, you have a heart!
It does sometimes force us to our knees, doesn’t it? At least, I hope so.
Pax et bonum,
James , this is a very powerful post.. thanks. I am sorry for your suffering. but like you said, it is through suffering that we can identify with Jesus. He identified Himself with the “least of these” I have also learned that we cannot deny the pain that this life brings, we can only embrace it and learn to love and care more for others through suffering and pain. God bless you.
I think that’s just so. We embrace God’s children, we give thanks that their lives have touched our, and we wonder at the great mystery before us.
God’s great peace,
Thank you James for your poignant and personal reminder.
You are most welcome. Thank you for the support and encouragement.