“Love is … the fullest source of the answer to the question of the meaning of suffering. This answer has been given by God to man in the Cross of Jesus Christ.” Salvifici Doloris, #13
As they wheeled me into the ICU, I noticed the crucifix on the wall among all the other life-saving equipment. I was in a Catholic hospital, after all, and its catholicity was something that struck me again and again during my four-night stay.
What can only be described as one of the most terrible and yet somehow wonderful experiences of my life unfolded just a few weeks ago during Mass in the chapel at the Diocesan Pastoral Center in downtown Phoenix. Shortly after the Gospel was proclaimed and we settled into our pews, it felt as though someone punched me in the forehead.
As I sat there, my mind went back to some reading I’d done about cerebral aneurysms back in 2008. I’d just interviewed a healthy, vibrant, 46-year-old marathon runner named Betsy. Before the article was published, tragedy struck; she collapsed and died of a ruptured brain aneurysm. Betsy’s story stayed with me down through the years.
“Beware a thunderclap headache,” warned one of the online sources I found at the time.
As I sat there in the chapel on June 30, I tried to decide if it was a thunderclap I’d felt. It certainly felt like an impact, like something very much out of the ordinary. The pain grew steadily worse and so about two minutes later, I knew I had to get out of there. Stumbling from the chapel, I made it about 20 yards before calling for help.
The doctor in the emergency department at nearby St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center ordered a CT scan and spinal tap. Was I having a one-off migraine, or could it be an aneurysm?
It turned out to be the latter. Not only that, but the aneurysm was leaking blood and I needed surgery before it ruptured. The gravity of the situation was not lost on me or my family.
Although it was late in the evening, our pastor, Fr. John Greb, came to hear my confession and offer the anointing of the sick. The grace of those sacraments brought perfect peace as I faced the fact that without surgery, I would surely die. And surgery was not without its risks.
It was the prayers of family and friends that carried me through the operating room doors a few hours later and have surrounded me ever since. “We got you in the nick of time,” the surgeon told me afterward.
Leaning into the Cross
I’m at home recovering now and have had time to ponder the mystery of suffering, what it means and why God allows it. The answer, it seems to me, is love.
He is love — a sacrificial love that is willing to endure come what may for the sake of the beloved. Jesus did that for you and me and every single person who ever lived or who will ever live.
He did that in the midst of our sins, indifference and ingratitude, knowing that we would mock Him in myriad ways, betray Him and turn our backs.
What kind of love does this? A divine sort of love. The love you and I are called to.
St. Paul tells us, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church (Col. 1:24).”
What could be lacking in the sufferings of Christ? St. John Paul II’s Salvifici Doloris makes it clear: Nothing. The great good of the redemption won by Christ’s suffering and death on the cross is “inexhaustible and infinite” and yet Christ invites us to enter into the Paschal mystery and unite our suffering to His (Salvifici Doloris #24).
In our darkest moments and deepest pain, sometimes the only prayer we have is that of uniting ourselves to His cross. No words or actions are necessary or even possible. It is a simple act of letting go, of trusting.
It is a fact of human existence that whether rich or poor, athlete or couch potato, each one of us will suffer infirmity. How we suffer is up to us. We can kick and scream all the way, or we can lean into Jesus and enter into that mystery of the cross.
If by baptism we are made partakers in the Divine nature, it is by suffering that we enter more fully into the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the one who gave His life for us. God wants to make us like His Son, and how better to do that than to permit our share of suffering, our opportunity to embrace the cross entrusted to us?
As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us (#1505) Christ doesn’t eliminate our suffering. Instead, He transforms it, giving it meaning and allowing us to join our suffering to His in an act of complete surrender.
God in His mercy allowed me to survive a leaking aneurysm and I’m now in the midst of a bonus round of this earthly life. I know a precious gift has been granted and I pray to use it well, according to His purposes. It’s late summer now, and as I stroll through a craft store, the plethora of fall and Christmas decorations brings sudden tears to my eyes. I survived. I get to be here for all of this. Thank you, Jesus.
I think back on those days spent in the ICU at Barrow Neurological Institute at St. Joseph’s. I give thanks for the doctors, nurses and staff whose incredible expertise and compassionate care saved my life.
I give thanks for the catholicity of the hospital that had a crucifix hanging on the wall near my bed to remind me of the Paschal mystery, a hospital that broadcast a brief and beautiful message of faith each morning and evening, that had an extensive display of relics and Scripture verses in the hallway where they wheeled me out on that last day.
I’m looking upon the crucifix in our family room with new eyes as I fight my way back to normalcy after a most extraordinary experience. What’s missing from the afflictions of Christ? I am. You are, too.
Now is the moment to say yes to His invitation to embrace our suffering with love, patience and trust.
Jesus, I trust in You.