Thursday, December 2, 2010

Acknowledging Heaven & Hell, Here & Now

"Compassion means to suffer with, to live with those who suffer. When Jesus saw the woman of Nain he realized, This is a widow who has lost her only son, and he was moved by compassion. He felt the pain of that woman in his guts. He felt her pain so deeply in his spirit that out of compassion he called the son to life so he could give that son back to his mother."  - Henri J. M. Nouwen
When I read this, I immediately thought of Jesus' mother, Mary, and how he saw the pain of the woman of Nain. I wondered if he saw his own mother's suffering before it happened, and raised this woman's son in solidarity with what was to come to his own mother. Then, I wished that he could have done the same for me, for so many of us who are grieving our children's passing. It's always difficult to live without Katie, but the holidays are especially painful for grieving people.

Then I thought about growing up in Christian Science, and how much I loved reading about every healing that Jesus did for those he met. We read those stories in the gospels over and over again (as well as stories of the prophets healing people in the Old Testament). We were taught that the healings were the proof that God is Love, is perfect Principle, and would enable us to heal as Jesus did. When we experienced spiritual healing (without medicine or material aid), it was considered proof that God is good, and that Christian Science is Truth. That's what I used to believe with my whole heart, and I had many years of healings to show for it.

But many people's illnesses were not healed; people died, and some of them died in a state of a sort of ignorant neglect. That always bothered me, and it was somewhat hidden - not openly questioned or discussed.  Accepting medical intervention was considered to mean failure, giving up the faith, and a sort of adultery towards God. I did not use medicine until David was born. After I submitted to many hours of labor-inducing drugs, he was delivered via emergency surgery; and then, all of my questions broke open afresh. I asked and asked and asked why prayer alone had not been able to help us through his delivery, and NO ONE could answer to my satisfaction. No one was even willing to say, "It's a mystery that we don't understand." I was told by a church elder to "turn the page on it." But how do you turn the page on a near-death experience without first trying to understand it? Sweeping unanswered questions away doesn't lead to peace, growth or trust.

The Christian Science religion has its roots in the 19th-century intellectual freedom of New England; it was considered by its followers to be a real Science, like mathematics, and science was deemed infallible. Well, my own experience showed me that that just wasn't true; it failed, and it failed spectacularly. Nowadays, we see science as having aspects of art, and the more we know, we see just how little we know.

I had to move on from that belief system. I didn't find answers to all of my questions, but I found relationship with God. I found God as Presence, as Love, as One meeting me where I am, and that is infinitely more comforting than an imaginary Principle which doesn't bend, or care about us as individuals. I also found a suffering God, a God who allows suffering and participates in it (Jesus on the cross), and I am still mystified by that. But so is everyone else, and they are admitting to it, thanks be to God. It just IS. When bad things happen, it doesn't necessarily mean that we made a mistake; it is the way of the world in which we are living, the "human condition." In order to live in any kind of integration, we need to be free to see and to ask questions. That is the way of the scientific method.
So we come to Richard Rohr, a Catholic monk whose words and whose take on God and Jesus make sense of the mysteries for me. He doesn't pretend to have answers to all of the questions, but he is unafraid to look at them openly and to name the reality he sees. Father Rohr's work speaks to me, has helped me through the hardest parts of my life thus far, and is helping me now. I will never cease to be thankful that I was introduced to Fr. Rohr well before Katie became ill with cancer. Here is today's message from him, regarding Advent, and life:
"When we demand satisfaction of one another, when we demand any completion to history on our terms, when we demand that our anxiety or any dissatisfaction be taken away, saying as it were, “Why weren’t you this for me? Why didn’t life do that for me?” we are refusing to say, “Come, Lord Jesus.” We are refusing to hold out for the full picture that is always given in time by God.

"When we set out to seek our private happiness, we often create an idol that is sure to topple. Any attempts to protect any full and private happiness in the midst of so much public suffering have to be based on illusion about the nature of the world in which we live. We can only do that if we block ourselves from a certain degree of reality and refuse solidarity with “the other side” of everything, even the other side of ourselves."

-Adapted from Preparing for Christmas with Richard Rohr, pp. 5, 7
So the suffering of the woman of Nain (which Jesus alleviated), the suffering of his own mother (Mary), Katie's suffering, our suffering over Katie's illness and passing, and the suffering of so many others with the tragedies, illness, disaster, corruption and death that occur in this world, are to be seen and understood as part of the deal. We live here; it's like this. What will we do about it? Try to secure our own happiness at any price, even to the point of denial of what is in front of us? Or try to alleviate that suffering by doing whatever we can for good with what is put in our path, this day?
If we try to keep ourselves "safe" and "happy" what (or who) are we worshipping? Does it work? Has it ever worked?
Spending months in the hospital, co-existing with an illness that had the potential to take our daughter's life away at any moment had a profound effect upon me. I stopped looking far ahead. I had to live in the present, because (I learned) it was all I had. We didn't know if she would die in this moment, or the next, or in a year, or after we were all old people. We didn't know; the doctors didn't know. They didn't even know for sure what kind of cancer she had; they just knew that it was threatening her life, NOW. So we suffered in love, in fear, in hope, and in efforts to alleviate her suffering. We bore it with her. Practicing that for months on end created a kind of endurance.
This isn't talked about often nowadays, but human beings need to learn how to bear suffering. It is part of the school of life.
 "3 ...we[c] also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5 And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us." Romans 5: 3-5
To be honest, I love my cozy spot here on the yellow couch; I don't like suffering. I don't toil in a coal mine or labor in a field in the heat of the midday sun. I do not pretend to suffer as the world's oppressed and poorest people do, laboring in unsafe and corrupt conditions. Some of the "hell" of this world is here, however, in grief and broken dreams and lost savings and confusion as to what is next. And much of the "heaven" of this world is here, too, in love, peace, friendship, gifts, purpose and meaningful work. Both are present; both must be acknowledged. I am thankful for the heaven, as I work to lighten the hell. And I am thankful for the work that God has done in me through my suffering.
As one of my favorite books is titled, "Everything Belongs."
"We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light. For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves..." - Colossians 1: 9-13


deb said...

I love you.

Mary Potts said...

So much suffering... so much. We used that passage from Romans at Erin's funeral mass. We felt strongly about the words "perseverance, character, hope and God's love" when describing how we felt about Erin and the rest of us who spent three years practicing the endurance that is required in the cancer world of which you speak.

And I, too, am thankful for the compassion - the heaven, for without that, we would all drown in our sorrow.

Daisy said...

Well said, Karen. Everything Belongs is a fave on mine as well


Kay said...

Such an amazing post! I can't think of anything to say..speechless. You have a beautiful heart, my friend. :)

Allegra Smith said...

Heaven and Hell. Two halves of a whole that cannot be separated. A microcosm of human experiences, teaching and learning, sounds and silence.

Without compassion there will be no redemption because what are we if not the expression of our own beliefs whatever they may be, but those beliefs without compassion are empty shells, devoid of truth and empathy, what makes us understand the relationship between Heaven and Hell and the reason for it to exist in our own lives.

Hoping time will bring less pain and more sweet memories at this time, specially at this time of the year. Much love from here.

Anonymous said...

Your post is so profound. I perenially feel that there is too much suffering in this world. But on the other hand, for a variety of reasons, I feel that it is difficult to truly connect with people who haven't suffered.

I am going to save and share your post with a dear friend whose father recently suffered a terrible accident with permanent debilitating consequences. I know it will resonate with her and their family, all of whom have an abiding faith in God's ability to use all things for good. (And by that, I don't mean to say that God intends the bad or suffering-inducing events to happen.)

Thank you for taking the time to share your intimate thoughts with us. It is a blessing. Pax.

Karen B.

Elizabeth said...

Karen, all of this, all of this is so profound and I thank you for writing it all out. As you know, I get Richard Rohr's daily newsletter and I confess that during the past six months I've been clicking "delete" more often than not. But today's Advent post really resonated with me, and I'm thrilled to see your mention and explore it. Thank you for that. The second paragraph was particularly meaningful to me and helped me to realize why I chafe at "accepting" my own desire to "be happy." It sort of gives me permission to feel a bit conflicted --

I'm going to read this post over and over -- I'm certain there's more to discover.

And I'm thinking that you really should write a book.

deb said...


I wanted to say thank you . And I went to email you and can't find a contact?

and realized that I have emailed you before... good Lord, did I send those out into cyberspace? I hit reply to sender when your address in not given on the link?

Karen said...

Well said. Absolutely right. Thank you for your beautiful writing gift.