I wanted to give my life to God but I didn’t want to suffer. No, I knew what suffering felt like and it was painful and I was too afraid to ask for more.
But God sent* me suffering despite my fears. He sent suffering like nothing I’d ever experienced before. A new depth of suffering that I thought I’d never survive.
My life was turned upside down when our baby Thomas was diagnosed with a life threatening abnormality during his 18 week ultrasound. I left the ultrasound crying and the tears continued for months as I contemplated the future death of our child.
Thomas was born. He was placed on life support equipment while his condition was stabilised and assessed. I watched his little body hooked up to tubes and wires and I cried and I prayed and I hoped. His condition changed from stable to unstable and back again, a dozen times an hour, and I felt I was riding an emotional roller coaster. One moment there was hope, the next moment there was despair. One moment I thought it would be easier to let him die, but the next minute I wanted to suffer any anguish if only he lived.
Thomas died. I looked at his tiny body marked by needles and thought, “Your suffering is over Thomas, but mine is just beginning.” Yes, the suffering that was to come was of a totally different degree to that I had already experienced.
I came home from the hospital with this huge pain within my chest. Something inside me had knotted up tight and was throbbing away, throbbing away constantly, never letting me forget my grief.
I was in anguish. I was in mental pain. I couldn’t forget. I couldn’t stop thinking. I couldn’t prevent the constant questioning. Why? Why had God let Thomas die? Why was I in so much pain? Was there any value in suffering and what did it all mean? Would the sorrow ever disappear?
God felt so very far away in those early grief-filled months. At first I was angry with God. I felt He’d abandoned me. I felt unworthy of God’s attention. I had begged Him to come to my aid but all was silent. How could I continue to trust Him?
But soon the anger dissipated and I began to accept that God knew what was best for me. I accepted the fact that He didn’t save Thomas’ life and then I expected the pain to lift. I thought God would rush in and save me as soon as I’d embraced my situation. But He didn’t. He still seemed so very far away and the pain persisted.
One day I discovered the book, Self-Abandonment to Divine Providence by Fr de Caussade. As I read and prayed, I slowly began to understand the value of accepting what God sends me at any moment, regardless of my feelings and my desires. I learnt to say, “God, if You want me to feel this pain, I will accept it. I trust that You know what is best for me. I would like to be happy but You have chosen to send me sorrow instead. In some way that must be good because You love me so very much…”
And so life continued although it was entirely devoid of joy. I no longer belonged to the normal world. I felt so alone.
Every day I’d drag myself from my bed. I’d check: yes, the pain was still intense. Accept it. God has allowed it. Keep going…one foot in front of the other…just get through this one day…don’t think of tomorrow or the next day…
I prayed constantly. Sometimes I was unaware I was doing this because to me, I was just thinking about Thomas. But in reality, I was pondering everything in my heart, trying to make sense of it all and talking to God all the time. Sometimes I deliberately prayed certain prayers: the prayer to St Michael the Archangel and “Jesus I trust in Thee”. I imagined Satan trying to pull me down into that pit of despair and I tried to fight back, “No, I trust! I am not going to despair!” Perhaps by saying I trusted, I could actually make trust a reality.
But there were times when it all seemed too much. I just wanted to give in. I wanted to lie down and never get up again. I was tired of everyone saying, “Sue, you have so much courage.” I didn’t want to be strong. I didn’t want to fight. I wanted to surrender to self pity.
I wondered if God had sent this great suffering to me as a lesson. Was I so worthless and such a great sinner that I needed to be taught in such a painful manner? And then I thought about St Teresa of Avila who’d said, “God, if this is how You treat Your friends, it’s no wonder You have so few.” What if suffering could be looked upon as a gift from God? Could it be that God gives suffering to those He loves? What if suffering has great value and does God use our sufferings? I thought about how closely we must be united to Jesus through our suffering. Could He use my suffering and could I actually be happy to suffer for Him?
Not many people would ask for suffering. I didn’t. It came to me unbidden. But could I still accept this cross and offer it back to God? Once I started thinking about suffering in this way, my sorrow didn’t seem so pointless. There was a reason to keep struggling along. My long painful days could be used. They were difficult to endure but some good was coming out of them. It helped enormously.
After understanding the value of suffering, I wondered, “If suffering is so good won’t God keep sending me more?” And although I was prepared to keep suffering, I also longed to feel joy again and to see my children smile and for us to be happy. I talked to a priest about this and he replied that God does want us to taste heaven while still on earth. There would be joy ahead again. I just had to keep plodding along.
I kept moving one step at a time, one day at a time, praying and hoping and offering up my sorrow. Gradually things got better. I’d look back and think, “Today was a good day…I haven’t had a bad day this week…this fortnight…this month.” Eventually I realised I’d come through the other side. I’d survived.
Some years later, a priest referred to those black months of my life as a dark night of the soul. I knew all about such nights from reading the works of St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross. But I had never applied the term to my own experience. Weren’t dark nights for saints? And I am far from saintly.
I am sure God was there beside me every step of the way through the suffering of that dark time. No, I couldn’t feel His presence. But I know He didn’t abandon me. Didn’t I learn to accept, to keep going despite the sorrow? And every time I tumbled down into that deep pit of despair, didn’t He send someone along to help drag me out and set me on my feet again? When I fell to the floor and wanted to give in, didn’t I always eventually struggle up again? Didn’t He bring me to the point where I could give myself completely to Him, accepting everything and trusting Him regardless of the pain? I could never have got there without God. Of course He hadn’t abandoned me.
I have had other sufferings since Thomas’ death and there will be more ahead. I still do not want to suffer. I am still afraid of the pain. But God helped me through the darkest experience of my life. Why should He abandon me in the future? I need to keep praying that I will always trust God whatever happens.
I still want to give my life to God. I still want to love Him above everything. I know now that this cannot be achieved without suffering. Today I can say, “I love you God!” It is easy. But will I still be able to utter these words in my darkest hour, when suffering has descended once again? If I can… then, I will know that I truly love Him with all my heart.* Whether God actually sends suffering or whether He just permits suffering, I do not really understand. The end result however is the same.