Children are a gift from the Lord; the fruit of the womb, a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children born in one's youth. Blessed are they whose quivers are full. They will never be shamed contending with foes at the gate. ~Psalm 127:3-5

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Glory in Suffering

As I was reading the daily gospel last Friday, I was suddenly struck with some thoughts about life and death.  It's something I have actually thought about a lot lately - life and death I mean- and the thoughts I had were vaguely familiar but at the same, seemed a lot more definitive than ever before.  John 21: 15-19 is the passage where Jesus asks Simon Peter several times in a row if he loves Him.  Peter of course answers a repetitive yes, and each time, Jesus tells Peter that if he truly loves Him he must feed His lambs and take care of His sheep.

Growing up, when this particular passage was taught to us in Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, or when we heard it at Mass, emphasis was put mostly on the first 3 verses:  After Jesus had revealed himself to his disciples and eaten breakfast with them, he said to Simon Peter, "Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?" Simon Peter answered him, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Feed my lambs." He then said to Simon Peter a second time, "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" Simon Peter answered him, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you." He said to him, "Tend my sheep."  He said to him the third time, "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" Peter was distressed that he had said to him a third time, "Do you love me?" and he said to him, "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Feed my sheep.

But the last two verses in the passage convey that Peter will die a death that will glorify God. At first thought, and I'm sure every time I've heard this particular gospel, those last two lines never really stand out: Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted;but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go." He said this signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God. And when he had said this, he said to him, "Follow me."

Anne and Chet Glover on their wedding day
This time was different.  The first thing I thought of when I read these last few lines was my Grandma, Anne Glover. Grandma suffered a great atrocity as a young girl but it was not the end of her suffering. With what she went through in her early life, it would be understandable if Grandma turned her back from God.  Suffering does have that temptation for us to make a deep in-ward turn and close ourselves off from the world, questioning God and what the heck He's thinking by allowing such suffering.  But if anything, Grandma used her suffering to cling ever-more strongly to the Lord.  She grew up strong, and dare I say a little feisty, and she became a woman of God.  Grandma was blessed with the love of a wonderful Southern gentleman who treated her with gentleness and respect after he married her as a wounded WWII soldier. Their marriage was the epitome of unconditional love and I can still remember the way my Grandpa used to look at her, his little "filly." One of my favorite memories is when he was lying in the hospital, hours from death and, hunkered down in her wheel chair, Grandma asked if he wanted her to get in bed with him and that she'd "do all the work."  *Sheepish Grin*  Even now, thinking about their love story gets me a little misty-eyed.  

The "Glover" side at my sister's wedding in 1995
My grandparents had two children and they did their best to raise them in the Catholic Faith.  Not only that but they spent their lives "feeding His lambs and taking care of His sheep." By serving each other, the country, their children and grandchildren, other family members and people in society, they took the focus off any suffering they may have had and gave glory to God through their life, especially through their two children, many grandchildren and ever-growing number of great-grandchildren.

Toward the end of her life, Grandma suffered from Alzheimer's.  She literally had to stretch her hands for someone else (my mom) to dress her, and often be led where she did not want to go as she was bound to a wheelchair long before the latter stages of the disease set in.  Alzheimer's is a dark void in which a person is lost.  Lost but not gone completely.  Grandma, though hidden deep inside herself, still had her personhood.  All you had to do was look in her eyes and there she was.  Past the sallowed skin of her cheeks; past the cacophony of mutterings and rantings, in her liquid green eyes you could see Anne Glover and you knew she was indeed there.  Somewhere.  
Trapped. But there.

Being trapped in her own mind must have been a very scary thing for her.  At times, I know she was drawn to places within she didn't want to go, taken back to the past to a different type of suffering, one she hadn't known in decades.  And it was these moments when you just knew of her fear and all you could do was sit with her and let her work through it.  Her behavior was irrational and yet there was no reasoning with her.  There is no reasoning with dementia. It is a sneaky beast that seems to come and go as it pleases, wreaking havoc on a person's mind, stealing thoughts, memories, ideas. Grandma always had a very difficult time of iterating what she wanted, finishing a sentence, grasping the right word to convey what she felt.  Many times, she repeated the same sentence or word over and over again in a futile attempt to get us to understand. It was a struggle for us to watch her so I know it was a struggle for her to be in that position.  But at the same time, even in that desperate state, Grandma was bringing glory to God.

With her Great-Grandson, Adam
One of my favorite things about her in the last ten years of her life was her ability to "feed God's lambs," even in the state she was in.  By this I mean her draw to her great-grandchildren.  By the time many of them came along, Grandma was already deep into dementia.  But she still grasped a sense of joy and wonder whenever the babies were around.  She still let them climb into her lap or sit near to her as she talked to them and gazed into their eyes.  I think that although they didn't understand her state, they understood her, and it seemed so natural the way they interacted.  Even through the darkness, she was able to witness to our children with love and grace.  It did not matter that she would forget they were ever there ten minutes after they left.  It didn't matter that she couldn't speak to them coherently very often, or even remember their names.  What mattered was that in those moments, she was their great-grandma and she was teaching them unconditional love.  Despite her suffering, despite her confusion and the shadows in her mind, she was loving them.  Glory to God.

With her Great-Granddaughter, Rose

Another aspect of Grandma's suffering was in the demands it made on her family.  Particularly my mom, who was the sole caretaker of Grandma for the last and worst years of her suffering. Taking care of Grandma daily, even throughout the night as if she had a newborn babe, my mother worked tirelessly to make sure my Grandma's needs were met.  It humbled Grandma. It humbled my mom.  It humbled me.  Seeing the love and gentleness in her care, and helping out when I was able to, was a very big lesson in humility.  It was that time that I started to see how suffering can indeed bring glory to God, though I wasn't sure of the depths to which it was capable of extending.  
And here I have to make a confession.  

I actually wrote a similar post last Friday, the day this particular gospel was part of the daily readings, and I even published it.  A glitch in Blogger somehow caused my post to be lost in cyberspace.  To say I was destroyed is an understatement.  I spent the day crying. Literally.  I was so lost within myself already and losing the post was the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back.  It wasn't until much later in the day, when I could get over myself for a few seconds, that I realized that perhaps it was a little lesson God wanted me to learn about my own suffering.  I wrote this long post, and it was actually very good if I say so myself, and I published it.  But within the post, I really had very little to say about my own suffering, which has been very plentiful lately, and what sort of glory I can bring to God through it.  I was not practicing what I was preaching.  And losing my post seemed to open my eyes up a little bit to that thinking which I had missed SO MANY times over the last few months:  how can I bring glory to God through this?

Grandma, like me, loved purple

In the telling of my Grandma's struggle with Alzheimer's and the many ways in which her suffering and death glorified God, I failed to mention that any suffering has the potential to do this.  I failed to admit to my own suffering and how I wasn't using it the way I should be. In actuality, we are all called to suffer throughout our life and the purpose of it is in fact to glorify Him.  God asks us if we love Him.  If we do, He demands we feed His lambs, take care of His sheep and follow Him.  It doesn't necessarily mean doing these things the way we would like to; it almost never goes the way we think it should.  And it often involves much suffering.  Not all of us will die a death that is preceded by literally being dressed by someone else and led to places we don't wish to go as my Grandmother's did.  But it will glorify Him, especially if we did live our life in service to Him and others, opening ourselves up to the type of suffering that will bring glory to God. 

In my suffering, I, much like my Grandma, have been taken to places within my mind I rather wish I didn't go.  Unlike my Grandma, though, I turned inward and sort of lost myself on purpose, so that I wouldn't have to face things and I could just think about myself and throw pity parties as much as I wanted.  I didn't want to talk about things, except to annoy my husband with repeating a hundred times what I felt without wanting to hear an answer if he so happened to have one.  I was not glorifying God.

In my weakness, I couldn't find the joy and wonder in being my kids' mom, like my Grandma did with her great-grandchildren despite her disease.  In fact, in the past few months, as I've grown more and more frustrated with my children and unable to be patient (a state that is brought on by my selfishness and the fact that I have lost myself in my own suffering), I have often wished I could just be alone and not have to worry about them anymore.  I was not glorifying God.

4 Generations of Strong, Feisty Women
Yesterday I caught a glimpse of my Grandma in the mirror.....sort of....I have her eyes. And I remembered how we sometimes had to search my Grandma's eyes to really find her.  Sometimes I wonder if I'm really still here.  But I saw her there, in the mirror, in my eyes, and I realized that I have probably disappointed her in many ways with my behavior as of late.  Not only her, but more importantly, God. And I realized that yes, I am there too, I am really still here and I need to work on climbing outside of myself in order to use my life to glorify Him. By worrying about my own "issues," I was neglecting the needs of my family.  I was blind to the fact that my children wanted to spend time with me.  I was spending my days wasting time drowning in the darkness that consumed me.  Refusing to do what I am called to do as a mother, to serve Him as I feed His lambs, was not opening my life up to glorifying God.

The demands from God are clear.  We are to love Him and serve Him.  In loving and serving Him, there will be suffering and we will need to cling to Him and follow Him. We are called to use our suffering to glorify Him.  Not on our terms, but on His.  We are not to lose ourselves in our darkness but fight that darkness to bring His light to others.  Suffering has a purpose.  I look at my Grandma's life, how her suffering was not a choice, but her willingness to be a servant of God opened her up to that end time when He could use her suffering to further His kingdom.  Three years after her death, her suffering is still working to bring others to Him.

What greater glory is there?  

No comments: