Punishment

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Recently, I have been thinking about punishment. As I wake up each morning, horrified by what I see on the news and terrified by the hate and anger in the world, I can’t help but wonder if God is punishing us for the complacent faiths we have developed through easy lives. I don’t mean that He is causing us pain in a “you get what you deserve” kind of way. Instead, I mean that I wonder if He is using punishment as a tool to shape and refine our faith in the same way that good parents here on earth punish their children.

This idea was reinforced when my oldest daughter and I read about an amazing saint today in her Loyola Kids Book of Saints. Her name is St. Margaret Clitherow and she lived in England during the 1500s when it was illegal to practice Catholicism. Although it ultimately cost her her life, St. Margaret held secret Masses in her house, taught children about the Catholic faith, and offered accommodations to traveling priests. The story of her faith, refined through persecution, strengthened my own.

As I read about St. Margaret Clitherow, I could not help but wonder if I would risk my life to do the things that she did and, sadly, I am not sure that I would. In fact, when I am really honest with myself, there are several aspects of my life that suggest that I would not choose the path St. Margaret chose. For one thing, getting out of bed for church is a big obstacle to my faith. What would happen if I had to go to church in secret and at the risk of death? For another, there have been times when I wasn’t willing to stand up for my beliefs when they conflicted with the opinions of those around me. If I couldn’t defend my beliefs when the worst possible result was losing my job, how would I share my faith if I faced was jail time? Of course, there are many other things that make me doubtful about how I would do if I had lived at the time of St. Margaret.

The issue is that I wouldn’t be surprised if a time of persecution like that is coming. Never before have I been so concerned about the future of our civil rights and freedoms. I hope I am wrong, but I am afraid that we are heading down the proverbial “slippery slope” towards a country where freedom of speech and press is limited. In a society which limits what can be said, religious freedom will likely be threatened as well. Again, I hope that my ideas about our current situation are incorrect, but the hatred, division, and disdain for Truth that is rampant in our country is horrifying. Honestly, a future America where people face persecution for strongly held beliefs about God’s goodness, compassion, and love for all people doesn’t seem that improbable.

All I know is that, if that persecution comes, I want to be better prepared for it than I currently am. I want to have the faith of St. Therese of Lisieux who, while kissing the ground of the Coliseum in Rome, “begged for the grace to also be a martyr for Jesus.”*** I do not want my grandchildren to ask me, “why didn’t you do more to prevent poverty, hatred, environmental destruction, suffering?” Instead, I want my grandchildren to look back at my life and to be moved by my faith that persevered even in the hours when Darkness reigned. I want their faith to be inspired by mine, in the same way that my faith is inspired by that of my in-laws, who continued to quietly attend church and refused to join the Communist party in Czechoslovakia. Ultimately, I want my faith, and the faith of America, to become stronger and purer because of the trials that we face. I suspect, that if American Christian faith is purified through  God’s punishment, the country will truly be blessed.

Because of all my musings about punishment, I wonder if we really mean what we ask for when we ask God to bless America. It seems that one of the greatest blessings that God can give us is a country where our faith faces challenges, where living a life that embraces Truth results in persecution, and where we will be purified by fire. God tells us that He “disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.” History echoes this statement as time and time again, God has used large-scale suffering and persecution to be glorified in the lives of His people. I am terrified of God’s discipline, but I know that we desperately need it. I pray that there is another way to make us into the people and the nation that He intends us to be. If not, though, I will remain full of hope for the eventual results of God’s discipline and confident that His ways are best. I hope that God loves America enough that He will discipline her and I hope that, if it is His will, I will have the strength to withstand His chastisement and will be purified as silver by the fire of persecution.

***This story about St. Therese was taken from a letter she wrote. It is recorded in Louis and Marjorie Wust’s book, Louis Martin An Ideal Father (1957).

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Sovereignty

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*Dear Readers: the following entry discusses an experience that is theologically puzzling to me. I am not at all sure of what caused the experience or of how to properly understand it. What I am certain of are the lessons that God has taught me as I have pondered it. I share those lessons here because I hope that they will benefit you, regardless of the nature of the experience which taught them. I hope that they will bless you, especially on this day when so many of us are longing for reassurances that God is in control and is not blind-sided by anything that happens here on earth.* 

In September of 2008, I experienced something like a vision in which I saw myself lying on a hospital bed being comforted after the death of my future baby. On September 21st, 2016, my second daughter (Noemi) died at birth. As I held my child for the first and last time, I kept thinking, “I knew I would lose a child.” I could not understand why God would allow me to have this foreknowledge if there was nothing I could have done to avoid Noemi’s death. What purpose could it possibly have served? Was the vision even from God? As I have pondered these questions, God has revealed himself to me in new ways and has reinforced what I already believed to be true about Him.

First, I understand God’s sovereignty in a new way. Regardless of whether or not He gave me this vision eight years before my daughter died, it had already been determined that I would lose a child. Her life and death were not an accident and as God was guiding me through my young adult years, He already knew that His plan for me would include parenting a child in Heaven. In fact, before I even existed, He knew that Noemi would die since Psalm 139:16 says “…all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”

The reminder that God already knew my future brings me to the second lesson: God prepares us for what is ahead. Eight years before Noemi’s death, He was preparing me for it. After experiencing the vision, I did a lot of research on neonatal loss. I wanted to know what happened, what could be done when a baby died, and how mothers survived such a terrible ordeal. My need for answers was deepened when, within a short period of time, two of my friends experienced their own infant losses and were very open about these on Facebook. I spent hours reading about the resources that are available to families who lose their babies and personal accounts written by mothers and fathers whose children had died too soon. As a result, when my own daughter died, I already knew that I wanted to hold her body and to take pictures of her. I also knew to ask for professional photos, which resulted in some beautiful black and white images that were appropriate to share with our three-year-old daughter. I was not afraid to hold Noemi for as long as I needed, to explore her tiny fingers, and to discover her deep brown eyes. Had I not researched neonatal death, I would have been forced to make very difficult, emotional decisions during the short time that I had with Noemi’s body. In hindsight, I am not sure that I would have been able to make the right ones. When an infant dies, there are no second chances, so I am grateful that I already knew what I wanted ahead of time.

In the midst of my pain, I find great comfort in knowing that my suffering is not a surprise to God. Thinking about how God prepared me for Noemi’s death eight years before it happened helps me to trust that it was not a mistake, that God has a plan to redeem all of this pain, and that he knows what lies ahead for me. I know that this plan is good and that He intends to help me to prosper and not to harm me. I have faith that He will give me hope and a future (Jeremiah 29:11) and I believe that this is true for everyone who reads this, as well. Today might hold surprises for us, but none of them are surprises to God.

In closing, I would like to share the following prayer that I found in a booklet called Powerful Prayers Every Catholic Should Know. I suspect that this is a prayer that every Christian would benefit from knowing:

Unfathomable Plans Morning Prayer

Dear Lord, I do not know what will happen to me today – I only know that nothing will happen that was not foreseen by you and directed to my greater good from all eternity. I adore your holy and unfathomable plans and submit to them with all my heart for love of you…Amen.

Brokenness

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Today is a hard day. I don’t want it to be – I’d rather be full of hope and joy – but the truth is that I am suffering. Everyone says that grief is like a spiral and that you keep coming back to the same places on your journey. To me, it feels more like labor contractions. The pain builds until you can’t imagine going on and then suddenly relief comes and life seems beautiful again. Then the pain starts to creep in and the cycle repeats itself over, and over, and over. The difference is that instead of the pains coming closer together, they slowly get further and further apart. As a Christian who hopes in eternal life, I sometimes feel guilty about dark days like this. It seems that if I really believe in eternal life, death should not cause such agony, but it does.

I have come to suspect, though that it is especially important for Christians to feel the sting of death because it is only by knowing the true weight of what Christ saved us from that we can be really grateful. Grief teaches us that this life that we live was meant to be different. It reminds us of the paradise of the garden in Eden where evil was unknown and death did not exist. It calls to mind Romans 5:12: “When Adam sinned, sin entered the world. Adam’s sin brought death, so death spread to everyone, for everyone sinned.” It awakens deep gratitude for the hope of Romans 5:17 “But even greater is God’s wonderful grace and his gift of righteousness, for all who receive it will live in triumph over sin and death through this one man, Jesus Christ.” It causes us to yearn for a time when death will be no more.

Jesus, himself felt the pain of death even though He knew that He would conquer it and restore endless life to His people. The gospels recount several times when Jesus came face to face with loss and was deeply affected by it (whether it was because of His compassion for others, His own grief, His anticipation of His own death, or some combination of all of these). In Matthew 14:10-13 we are told that when Jesus heard about the death of his cousin, John the Baptist, he felt the need to spend time alone. John 11:35 tells us that Jesus cried on his way to Lazarus’ tomb, even though he had just told Martha that her brother would “rise again.” The agony of death, the gut-wrenching sense that it was terribly wrong was not eliminated by Jesus’ knowledge that Lazarus’ death was not the end. Is it a surprise, then, that even after Jesus’ own death and resurrection, death remains terrible for His people? True, death is temporary and has already been conquered, but it was not supposed to happen – it is the result of a world that went wrong.

As a mother who desperately misses her daughter, I find great comfort in the account of Jesus’ response to death in Luke 7:11-16. The passage tells of a widow whose only son had died. When Jesus met the funeral procession coming out of the village gate and saw the widowed mother’s grief, “his heart overflowed with compassion” and he was moved to raise the young man from the dead. I cannot help but wonder if Jesus’ heart overflows with compassion as he sees me weeping for my child, longing to hold her again. I think that it does because Jesus is intimately acquainted with the pain of death. I believe that Jesus is still moved by grief.

Judgment

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When my oldest daughter was a year old, she had her second anaphylactic reaction. After several hours of observation and doses of epinephrine, we were cleared to go home. Getting home posed a problem for me, though. An ambulance had taken us to the hospital and the only car service in the city that had car seats was not readily available. My husband was working several floors above us in the ICU where he was trying to keep several patients alive. Our parents and siblings were all at least four hours away and our friends and cousins were at work.

I decided that the best way for us to get home would be to take the subway that stopped across the street from the hospital. This was a reasonably good option with one critical flaw: my daughter’s reaction had involved vomiting and we didn’t have any clothes to change into. I wiped off as much vomit as possible and braved the subway. After all, it was well past rush hour, so I assumed that the train would be pretty empty.

Unfortunately for us, and for everyone around us, the train was not empty. In fact, there was only one seat available and that was sandwiched between two men in suits. Cradling my exhausted child in my arms, I wiggled in between these men, presumably spreading the smell of vomit throughout the train car as I did so. Not surprisingly, the stares we got on that short train ride were not friendly. In fact, it seemed that the one thing on everyone’s mind was: what is she thinking, bringing that sick kid onto the train? Everyone, except for me, that is. All I could think about was how I was going to get my terrified, wiped out and drugged up one year old to walk a mile home from the train stop without a stroller.

I learned that day that our judgments about people and their actions can be completely off base. I am sure that, had the people on that train known the real backstory behind our train ride, they would have been incredibly kind and helpful. However, they did not know the true story. Instead, they knew that a stomach bug was the most likely reason for a vomit-covered mother and child to get on the train at a hospital stop and, as a result, they glared and stared. I would have done the same if the roles had been reversed. It made me think about how often my own assumptions about others are wrong.

Unfortunately, the lesson that I learned that day doesn’t necessarily translate into changes in my thoughts and behaviors. I am often guilty of jumping to conclusions about those around me without having all of the information. In fact, since the death of my youngest daughter, I have found that I am constantly judging others. Sometimes, when I see mothers surrounded by several children, I conclude that they have the family life that I wanted, even though several of these mothers have later told me that they have also lost children. Other times, I judge other mothers who have lost children thinking, “at least they got to know their child,” or “their loss was so early that it must not have been as painful as mine.” What heartless nonsense! I became acutely aware of these nasty judgments while I was reading a news article about Debbie Reynolds’ death the day after her daughter’s death. The article was discussing the possibility that Reynolds died as a result of her grief and, sadly, instead of feeling compassion for another bereaved mom, my first thoughts were about how weak she must have been to not survive her loss. How horribly disgusting is that?

The thing is, though, I suspect that I am not the only one who finds themselves making more judgments about others after the loss of a child. In fact, I have heard many grieving mothers talk about feeling guilty about the conclusions that they jump to. I have also been the recipient of a bereaved mother’s judgment when she responded to my concerns about my daughter’s life-threatening food allergies by saying that they are a minor issue compared to the loss of her own child.

The sad truth is that grief-stricken moms are often very different from the gentle, broken woman that we see in images of the Virgin Mary at the foot of Jesus’ cross. Instead, we make rapid and harsh judgments and these judgments are often terribly wrong. I understand that we are hurting and that there are few things we can imagine that could hurt us more than we are already hurt. Still, we have to remember that others are hurting, too, even if their hurt is different from our own. Other people have backstories that we don’t know, stories that would change the way we viewed them. We need to be open to those stories and to the pain they entail.

Grieving the loss of a child leaves us with a choice: do we allow our pain to make us more compassionate or do we let it lock us up in a tower of self-pity and self-righteousness? Do we let God comfort us so that we can share His comfort with others, or do we wallow in our own suffering? 2 Corinthians 1:3-5 says Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ.” Let’s be comforters and not judges. Let’s show His love and not disdain. Let’s use our suffering for growth and not get stuck in the mire of self-righteous sorrow. He has been so good to us, so kind, so loving. Let’s share His goodness, kindness and love with our hurting brothers and sisters and leave our judgments behind.