How prayer can transform even the deepest suffering
The following letter was written by a young Catholic mother (Kari) who, last March, gave birth to her ninth child–Peter Francis. Just four days after his baptism in early May, Peter Francis died in his sleep, at six weeks of age. Relatives and friends, their parish and Catholic school communities all shared in the family’s joy at his birth and in their sorrow at his death. They also prayed and performed countless little acts of love to help lighten the burden of the grieving parents and siblings. Less than three months later, Kari was hospitalized and, again, family, friends and community came forward to help them bear another cross. Kari wrote to thank them and to share “the graces that have come” from their personal experiences.
Well, my dear friends, here we are again.
Thank you for accompanying us on our journey yet again. I say “our” because you, our family, friends, and community are a part of this and are taking on and carrying another cross, all together. If you have made us a meal, watched our children, offered a ride, said a prayer, even had a kind word or thought, you are a part of the way of this cross. You have stepped into this mystery before us, this mystery of suffering. There are numerous books and articles on the topic of suffering—exploring its meaning far better than I could ever articulate, but I thought that since you have chosen to embrace this cross with us and have helped us carry it thus far, I should share with you the graces that have come from our own personal experiences and observations.
First of all, let me clear the air on a few particulars and details, as I don’t want any undue sympathy or concern. The nuts and bolts are such that I went in last Tuesday for outpatient surgery to remove a kidney stone I’ve had since being pregnant with Peter. Surgery was routine, but they discovered 49 more stones in there. Let me clarify that I had no idea that the stones even existed until they begin to make their grand entrance, or rather exit, and start moving. After the surgery, I was uncomfortable, but walked out hand-in-hand with my new good friend Percocet.
Came home that night, took all my drugs, but spiked a fever Friday. They admitted me into the hospital. Fever wouldn’t subside so I couldn’t leave. Developed a cough. X-rayed my chest on Sunday and discovered I have pneumonia! Gave me different antibiotics, was finally fever-free for 24 hours, so they released me Monday morning. Now I’m waiting for the pneumonia to be entirely cleared so they can finish the surgery and remove the rest of the stones, scheduled for Friday, July 29th. It really sounds comical to me as I write it. But I want to assure you that I am truly feeling well now and the cough is almost gone.
Full Disclosure: When I first arrived Friday night and they admitted me, quite frankly, I was annoyed. I didn’t have time for this. … I had a basement that needed to be painted, a cousin coming in to visit us, my goddaughter’s baptism to attend to on Saturday, Danny was getting overwhelmed by the demands of the kids, school uniforms needed to be ordered, etc. But the fever would not subside. I couldn’t leave the hospital, but I really didn’t have time for this.
The sweet, little elderly African-American lady next to me with dementia was no longer sweet, as her IV alarm kept beeping nearly every 10 minutes, every time she bent her arm.
“Ms. Parks, could you please straighten your arm?” I would annoyingly speak through the curtain that separated us. “Uh hum.” she would say, but move nothing. I realized, she couldn’t understand my requests. … so the beeping continued, all through the day, and then, all through the night. And yes, the fever wouldn’t subside. Wonderful. Another night.
This was the first 24 hours. Curtain closed. Heart closed. My cell phone was dead. My TV didn’t work. God had so much more he wanted to teach me. But how could he, with such a closed soul?
Shortly thereafter I got my charger back from Danny and plugged in my phone. I started receiving texts and e-mails about prayers being sent my way. Danny was sharing with me about all the ways our friends and family were chipping in to watch the kids and make dinners. I noticed my heart was gradually starting to open and I could see what was going on around me. Marylou asked to send out prayer requests and, initially, I was somewhat hesitant because I did not want undue worry or attention. I then gave her the green light and immediately, prayers were pouring in. As the prayers poured in, so did the grace. I suddenly realized that I had a unique window into the routine occurrence of something utterly heroic that goes on day in and day out.
Your prayers gave me the courage to pull back the curtain and meet my roommate, who taught me so much about docility and gratitude for the little things. My children, all 8 of them, came up to visit one evening and she could not stop talking about all those little boys that came in the room. She repeated over and over, “Did you see all those nice little boys that came in here the other night? That sure was nice of them little boys to come up and visit me. I do hope they come visit me again soon.” I fed her meals, she fed me humor.
I started to see the hospital and its care as something entirely different. People here are carrying tremendous crosses, they are suffering greatly. Saturday night, I even woke up to the sound of the woman next door, dying.
They were yelling at her, “Mom, stay with us. Mom, stay with us.” The daughter was crying, “Did I kill her? She said she was thirsty. I gave her a drink. She started coughing. She stopped breathing. Did I kill her?” No, of course you didn’t, but then it hit me. This is like Calvary. Hospitals are present day Calvaries. People are dying, they are on their “crosses,” crying out in the same words of our Lord, “I thirst!”
Blood is being shed, and the nurses are constantly drawing it, only reminding me of the blood of the cross. Some people aren’t dying, of course, but there, carrying a cross of disease or pain, only for a short time, like me. The nurses are there to be like Veronica, wiping our faces, and Simon of Cyrene, helping us carry our burden. The weeping women … they are all there.
And why, why does this still exist? Why does Calvary never go away?
Because Christ did not die once and for all to wipe away all suffering. He wiped away all sin, not all suffering. Christ came and showed us how to suffer, how to offer this suffering back to the Father in love, in union with his ultimate sacrifice on the cross, making our offered suffering redemptive.
In a mysterious way, when we give our suffering back to him, it is Christ who is suffering through us. He took it on, and when we invite him into our suffering, we ask him to take our place and he suffers it for us and in union with us. It is through suffering that we grow closer to Christ and his love, and we grow closer to our own humanity, to all of humanity.
Pope Francis once said that the Church is like a hospital, where sick people come to be healed. I saw that a hospital in turn, is like a church, for this is where sacrifices are being made and offered.
Suffering allows others the opportunity to share heroic acts of love. So often, suffering can lead to a growth in charity and in love for those near to the one who suffers. Christian charity will continue to exist as long as we have suffering. “Whatever you do for the least of my brothers and sisters, you do unto me.”
The moment the e-mail was sent out, charity burst forth from all of your hearts, with prayers, meals, playdates, cards, etc. Your love grew because my suffering–brief and little as it was– existed. The "world’s" love grows because somewhere suffering exists. It was an honor, truly, both to observe and to receive. The irony in all of this is that none of us wants to be the sufferer, yet our faith teaches that the sufferer is the one who is truly blessed. The Beatitudes assure us of this.
I would not have realized any of this had it not been for your prayers. Guaranteed. And this is what prayer does. Often it does not really change the situation, but it does change your heart. It allows you to see Christ within the situation and to see the greater plan he has in store for all of us. It allows the curtain to be drawn, the curtain that divided my roommate and me, and the curtain that divides heaven and earth, God’s view and our view. Our crosses can become our greatest blessings, but truly, only through prayer.
After 3 days, I walked out of the hospital more alive and renewed, which I saw as a symbol of resurrected joy. I felt as though I was more fully alive—not because of my health, but because of my newfound awareness of the spiritual realities around me, because of the suffering I was allowed to experience with and through Christ.
Thank you for journeying with us on our Calvary from the death of Peter Francis, and now on our Via Dolorosa of the kidney stones—the stones I had and tried to pass while 34 weeks’ pregnant with Peter. They remind me of Peter. In a sense, they still link me to Peter. After all, Peter does mean rock. Both are extremely painful experiences, one emotionally and one physically. But both have brought our family and our community closer to God, to his sacrificial love, and to the eternal realities around us.
As we move forward, I encourage all of us to share our hardships—not for attention, but for much needed prayer. How strong and holy will our families and communities be if we continue to pray for and rally around all those suffering—-not always changing the situation, but changing hearts. Allowing us to see as God sees.
Oh and one last thing … that curtain I mentioned, which symbolically separated me from the heavenly realities around me … when I finally pulled it back, I discovered my roommate’s name: Frances.
With love and tremendous gratitude,