Tag Archives: illness

Making Sense of Suffering

By guest writer Sarah Coffey.

Why do we suffer?

I’ve wrestled with this question and with God for a long, long time. It’s still a struggle sometimes, more often than I’d like to admit.

If God is so good, and if God loves me like He says He does, then WHY do I have to fight a chronic illness? Why do I have to watch my family members suffer? Why did my grandfather have to die a slow death from cancer? Why did my grandmother have to suffer so much with loneliness and illness? Why did her death have to be slow and painful, too?

I’ve never understood suffering. The first time I came face to face with people telling me that suffering is redemptive is when my husband (who was at that time my boyfriend) lost his mother unexpectedly. I read things about suffering. Catholic things. Things written by literal saints.  They told me that suffering — the pain of losing someone, the pain of seeing someone else hurt, and your own hurt be it physical or emotional — can bring you closer to God. It’s redemptive and salvific.

But suffering didn’t do that for me — it didn’t bring me closer to God. Instead, it made me quite frustrated, and even mad at Him.

This was not just a battle I faced every so often, when a big life event like someone becoming sick, hurt, or dying occurred. No, this was something I faced every month for the past several years as I battled the effects of endometriosis and severe PMS (medically diagnosed as PMDD, which goes WAY beyond typical premenstrual mood swings) plaguing me every four weeks and many, many days in between.

Relentless pain, emotional turmoil, and at times, the feeling of being incredibly depressed for days that interrupted almost every facet of my life and relationships. It made me constantly say WHY, God, WHY do I have to deal with this, when you could so easily will it away? Is this fun to you? Am I just not faithful enough, tough enough, strong enough to deal with this, because this sucks so much?

My dislike — no, loathing — of suffering went on until a few months ago when after it looked like just about every feasible medical option for treating the ridiculous effects of this awful illness had been tried and found wanting. That’s when, by God’s grace, I finally relented in my anger and took this struggle to the foot of the Cross. I prayed that if this was a struggle I had to deal with, that God would give me the grace to carry it better. That He would help me understand this Cross and have peace with why I had to carry it. Just as with St. Paul wrote, that God won’t take away the thorn in our side, but He’ll give us the grace to deal with it: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

My answer, my help in understanding this suffering and all others came in the form of a talk by none other than Fulton Sheen.

I watched a clip of him giving a talk, in his lofty, articulate, awesome voice about a time he had a toothache as a child. To paraphrase, he was a young boy and he HATED going to the dentist. But he developed a severe toothache — an abscess, even. He hid it from his father as long as he possibly could to put off going to the dentist, which he HATED and wanted to avoid at all costs. But his father eventually found out. And took him to the dentist.

Now, mind you, this was the dentist’s office in like the early 1900s. So you can imagine the kind of suffering that went on in there when you came in with an abscessed tooth. Fulton Sheen talked about how, as the dentist began to work on fixing his tooth, Sheen became so upset at his father, wondering why he wasn’t helping him, protecting him, sheltering him from this immense suffering of the dentist treating his tooth.

At the time, as a child, it didn’t make sense to him. But his father knew that ultimately, even if he protected his son from this momentary suffering of going to the dentist, which he really hated and didn’t want to do, it would be very bad, would result in even more suffering, and at that point in time could eventually have caused serious illness or death if left untreated.

Fulton Sheen’s father allowed him temporary suffering for his ultimate good.

And it sort of clicked after I listened to this story. God doesn’t enjoy watching us suffer no more than Fulton Sheen’s father enjoyed watching his little boy writhe in pain in the dentist’s chair. For Fulton Sheen, his father allowed suffering because it was for the good of his ultimate health. For us, God allows suffering because it’s for the good of our souls.

When I heard suffering presented in this way, I was able to finally pray, Lord I don’t like this suffering. In fact, I HATE IT. But if this is for the betterment of my soul, I trust in you, I trust that you, the loving Father that you are, know what is best for me, and that you’ll give me the grace to bear it.

It became so much easier to carry that cross.

Peter Kreeft wrote, in Spiritual Direction from St. Thomas Aquinas, that “Nothing more powerfully helps us to bear pain than the realization that God wills it.” And I can say that in my own life I have experienced that this is true.

Not more fun — as the struggle was and still is definitely there. And I. don’t. like. it. But seeing it as something God allows for my ultimate good — something that can help me grow in faith for the sake of my eternal salvation — helped make me less bitter and more at peace.

I was challenged again by this as I watched my grandmother suffer in her last few weeks of life. And in watching my family members suffer, too, as they experienced her suffering at her side. Those questions crept back: Why, God, why do you allow her to suffer so much? Why can’t you just take the pain away?

But I am not God. So I don’t know why these things happen. But He does know why. And His ways are higher than mine. And just as Christ’s suffering led to the resurrection and the promise of eternal life, God allows our suffering to bear the fruit of our redemption — even though we probably can’t see it now or even until after our own death.

Our sufferings here on Earth make sense if we trust that there is something after this earthly life. If there’s nothing after that, then suffering means nothing. It is just endless pain and sadness and sorrow and heartbreak. But if there is something beyond this, as Jesus promised and as the Church teaches, then our suffering has so much meaning. Because God wills it for sake of our eternal salvation.

Peter Kreeft also wrote, “… God in His wisdom wills that we suffer because He sees that we need it for our own deepest, truest, most lasting good, or the good of someone else.” For our own deepest, truest, and most lasting good. May this truth help us to take suffering to the cross, and say Lord, use this to mold my heart even more into Yours so that I may spend eternity with You.

_____

Originally published at Sarah Coffey.

Sarah Coffey is a convert to Catholicism who enjoys delving into Church history and the Theology of the Body. She is blessed with a wonderful family, husband, and a cat named Stella (as in “Ave Maris Stella”, of course).

A Journey Home

By guest writer Louis Felix Figueroa.

My body was strung out on the couch and pain filled every part of me. This was the changing point of my life. I had thoroughly been a product of modern society, relativistic, an adherent to indifferentism, a modernist in many respects. Many until this point had regarded me as a very understanding guy, compassionate, knowledgeable of the world. In reality, I knew nothing. I was arrogant, filled with pride, and though I had love it was incomplete. I had to be completely humbled to realize my true identity and see the greatness of God who created me.

As a child, I learned like most Catholics through Sunday school. I had been baptized at birth, received First Communion, but I wasn’t instructed much beyond that. I can remember having a deep love for God, but I wasn’t taken to Church very often and I was exposed to the occult. My parents practised Santería, a practise as a child that I abhorred, but this would be my entrance into the world of the occult and my confusion about religion. As I grew up, my parents left Santería; however, my father avoided church like the plague and my mother, fearful of saints from her exposure to Santería, rejected Catholicism for what would seem like ages. I still had a love for God and would walk into the neighborhood Church on weekdays on my way home from school and pray, but I never attended Mass on Sunday. I never went to confession; in fact, I began to know less and less of my professed religion.

At the age of 13, I left home and attended school in a town in Connecticut. It was a big change from my hometown of Bronx, New York. I still felt some connection with God and prayed quite often, but wandered further and further from Him, as I had no real foundation. I took what I had learned in school and constantly applied it to my life. I was fortunate enough to have a host family with whom I stayed with on occasion and they would include me in their church-going activities. It was marvelously wonderful to be exposed to the Bible, but I had no clear or definitive understanding of it. I became ambiguous about homosexuality, premarital sex, masturbation, and many other sensitive topics. I also saw God as a method to obtain things and no longer my close friend whom I had known in my childhood. Times were becoming darker.

As I went through my high school years, I became more deeply involved in the occult, though there was always a voice trying to keep me away. I remember, looking back now, something telling me that this was all wrong. I was stubborn to say the least. I wasn’t a malevolent fellow and wished no one any evil, as best as I could remember I was just horribly confused. I practiced tarot cards, and I guess you could say that there were things which were around which gave me answers to the questions I wanted answered. That is putting it simply.

I eventually joined the United States armed forces. The branch is not important. It was here that I became more familiar with aspects of Wicca and Satanism. There were actually servicemen and women who practiced both, and no, I was not a Satanist. However, I had become vastly interested in Wicca. At the same time, I was becoming an excellent soldier. I excelled in many aspect of war fighting and leading. Slowly, but surely, I began to develop a sort of hubris about me. I felt there was a power that controlled something, but I became further from it. Years had passed and I began to look at myself and I didn’t like what I had become. I was kind at times, but I could flip a coin and become utterly ruthless. What I found more disturbing was that I longed to cause damage. I had less and less peace in my life and a voice could be heard very faintly. This voice told me to turn to God, but I was too powerful or so I thought.

My life began to slowly unravel and I sought respite. I didn’t trust Christianity, yet! I began to read works by the Dalai Lama and about different aspects of Buddhism, but something deep down told me that I wasn’t supposed to give up Christ. I know it doesn’t quite make sense, but this was how things were happening. I began to hang out with Protestant friends and attended services with them, but I wasn’t convinced or moved. I felt like it was more acting than anything. They were kind to have shared their faith with me, but it would have impressed me more if they had been living it. I had some Catholic friends whom I associated with and they brought me to Mass. As I went to the Mass, I was distressed. I said to myself: “I am Catholic? I know nothing of my religion!” Still, I hadn’t been motivated enough to do anything solid, except read the Bible on occasion.

It was toward the end of my military service that I said to myself, I have to change. I have to find God. I have to go back to the Catholic Church. The voice in me was yelling now; it was no longer a whisper. Yet, I was still obstinate. I came home from service and was contemplating entering Special Forces and in the midst of this I was struck ill. In my illness, my mind was made clear. It was like an intimate conversation with God. I knew then that I could not return to what had help make me what I was, but had to become something new. I started to read and read and read. Every book that read was inexplicably linked to the next without my intention and before I knew it, I was reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Code of Canon Law. I was digesting the Bible and swallowing books on the saints and I just could not stop. I was like starving child eating a long overdue meal. Then the moment of truth came, the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Over 18 years of sins upon my chest to offer to my Lord with sincere contrition. It wasn’t too long after this that I considered the priesthood, but one step had to be completed first. I was finally confirmed at the age of 24. However, I did not become a priest. I found my vocation was to be a husband, but this was not a decision that was taken lightly; rather I fought with myself for almost 3 years. Nevertheless, I now strive to serve in any way that I can.

I can honestly say that my life finally has light in it. The world makes sense and my place is understood, as is the infinite mercy of my Lord. Many who knew me as a soldier and know me now would say that they don’t know me. I am not the same person.  I was still the guy they had known who would listen to the multitude of their problems for hours on end, but my approach toward helping them resolve their problems had changed. I looked deeper than the superficial considerations that I had previously focused upon. I now understood that there was more to the world, and what I had once held to be true held partial to no validity. They could see that I loved, but my love extends further now. They don’t understand my view of the world and why I reject so much of what modern society holds true now. My only reason is that Divine Truth demands it, and once you see it you can never go back to darkness.

I went down to the lowest parts of the mountains: the bars of the earth have shut me up for ever: and Thou wilt bring up my life from corruption, O Lord, my God. When my soul was in distress within me, I remembered the Lord: that my prayer may come to Thee, unto the holy temple. They that in vain observe vanities, forsake their own mercy. But I with the voice of praise will sacrifice to Thee: I will pay whatsoever I have vowed for my salvation to the Lord.
(Jonah 2:7-10)

I live each day now and I am grateful. There is much more to my life than what I have shared, but sometimes we must endure that ‘Dark Night of the Soul’ and it is through the humbling of ourselves that we truly begin that conversation with God. My ignorance, my arrogance, me… I kept myself from God. I thank God for all I have been through, much of which I will probably never pen, but I am most grateful for God humbling Himself so much as to talk to me. It has been partly through this that I have begun to ponder how great His love really is.

Deo Gratias.

____

Louis Figueroa is a father and a husband. He sees everything in life as pointing to something greater than himself. He is a cancer survivor, and suffers from a rare neurological illness, but sees that all things are opportunities to live our faith.

Music inspired by wife’s illness, recovery

(c) 2015 Photo Courtesy Stephen and Afton SylvesterWhile many newlyweds spend their first few months experiencing the joys and challenges of married life, Musician Stephen Sylvester and his wife, Afton, were struggling with a surprising and potentially devastating medical diagnosis. Recently, Ignitum Today Columnist Heather Renshaw sat down with Stephen to chat about life, faith, and Sylvester Band’s campaign to record music borne from that difficult yet inspiring time. Parts of this interview was edited for space and clarity. 

Ignitum Today: Okay—so let’s get to know Stephen Sylvester—the man, the myth, the legend. Where do you come from, and what was your faith life like when you were growing up?

Stephen Sylvester: (laughing) Oh, Lord…well, Stephen the Catholic musician began as an Alabama native who grew up listening to his parents sing. I’m the oldest of 10 children, and the Catholic faith and music are probably the two things that my family is most recognized for. I started playing for the youth Mass at my old parish in Mobile, Alabama when I was in high school, and by the time I graduated college and started working, I was an accomplished worship musician.

IT: You’re one of those “slash” people, right? I mean, you’re a youth minister-slash-musician. How did that happen?

SS: It was sort of forced upon me at first: one of those, “Oh, you play guitar and sing? Here’s a youth Mass you’re now responsible for” situations. I really enjoy doing both, although it can start to consume your weekends.

IT: But at a certain point, it became something you owned—that you wanted to do?

SS: It definitely was. I think the first time I really started treating the music as a prayer was while I was leading music for a Sunday night Mass. I just sort of lost myself in praising God, and I found that I could still fully concentrate on what I was doing. After that, I knew I had been given this amazing gift, and I knew it was important for me to continue to share it with everybody.

IT: Wow, that’s amazing! When did that happen?

SS: It was during the spring of last year, actually, so not that long ago. I had been leading liturgical music for a while, but it just “clicked” at that point. It wasn’t really easy after that per se—that’s not the right word—but the music felt much more authentic. I didn’t ever feel like I was distracted from Mass by the music I was playing after that; it was more like it helped me enter into the liturgy. And, in turn, I think it helped everyone else do the same thing.

IT: Awesome. So you just celebrated your first wedding anniversary, right?  Congratulations!

SS: Oh, thank you! Yeah; we actually went through some pretty tough stuff at the very beginning. About a month after our wedding day, my wife’s parents split up, which was really hard on her, and about a week later, we found out that Afton had leukemia.

IT: Oh, Lord, have mercy! That’s a whole lot to handle on top of getting used to married life! How did you cope? And … is Afton okay now?

SS: I know,(c) 2015 Courtesy of Stephen and Afton Sylvester right? I’d like to say we prayed a lot, but honestly, it was just a lot of nights comforting each other as we got used to the new normal. Afton cleaned the house from top to bottom when we got home, because that’s her de-stress method, and I wrote songs, which is mine. And now she’s just fine!

She’s actually due to have our first baby at the end of October, and her doctors think that there’s a very good chance that she will make basically a full recovery. So, even if she doesn’t go into total remission, she will still have a normal length and quality of life.

IT: Praise the Lord! That is incredible! You must have had a bunch of prayer warriors going to bat for y’all.

SS: I know for a fact we had, like, a prayer army! We’ve actually heard from a lot of folks that the way we handled the whole situation inspired some people to return to their faith. I didn’t think at the time we were doing anything spectacular, but I guess God was working through us the whole time.

IT: Amen! So, you said that when all this craziness was happening, you turned to music as a stress reliever. Is this when you started to write your own stuff?

SS: Yeah, that was my coping mechanism. Writing down what I was feeling became how I would figure out what I was feeling. I’d tried my hand at writing songs before, and they all sucked (laughs). But what was coming out of this really difficult experience was actually pretty beautiful. I wanted to look back on it and not remember how awful it was, but how much Afton and I have changed for the better since then.

IT: So, I heard a rumor that you’re hoping to do  something pretty big with those songs.

SS: (laughs) Well, over the summer, I felt really compelled to record the songs I had written. And almost as if to confirm that I should, some friends of mine who are amazing musicians jumped on board to help make it happen. I sort of asked God to let me know if now was a good time. On paper, it really doesn’t seem like it, but everything falling into place so quickly seemed to me to be a pretty clear sign.

IT: When do you begin recording, or have you already?

SS: Not yet; we have to raise some money first. We wanted to do this thing right, so we’re going to a legit studio in Fairhope, Alabama, and we’re going to have everything professionally mixed and mastered. The total cost is going to be about $7,000. We started a crowdfunding campaign to help, though. And it seems like a lot of people want to help.

IT: Very cool! Please tell our readers more about the campaign.

SS: If you go to kickstarter.com and search for Sylvester Band it’s the first thing that come up. The incentives range from a digital single to stickers to a copy of the finished album to a house concert; it just depends on how much you want to donate. And the campaign is only going until October 1st, so we have to raise the full 7K before then, or else the project gets halted for awhile.

IT: Ooh! So people need to get on it, then, yeah?

SS: Please! I’ve been bombarding social media all week asking for folks to share the link to the Kickstarter [campaign]. That’s what will really help us, getting the word out. And, of course, prayers! Those help!

IT: Awesome! What do you think listeners have to look forward to? How would you describe Sylvester Band’s sound?

SS: Well, I think we have a message of truth and beauty that is not explicitly Christian, so we have the potential to reach a much broader audience than just Christian music listeners, although I’m sure everyone will enjoy our sound. We’re a mix of roots rock, bluegrass, folk, and 60’s R & B, plus some blues influence. We actually have a demo up on soundcloud that is a hint of what we sound like. You can check it out here: https://soundcloud.com/sylvesterbandofficial

We’re planning some local concerts for now. If we suddenly explode into popularity, then we will definitely tour the parts of the U.S. where folks want us to come. One of the potential extra things we will do if we raise more than our 7K goal is to do a release party here in Fairhope [Alabama].

The main thing is that we will make the EP available on formats like iTunes and Spotify so everybody can hear us. We really want everybody to hear us! I hope people decide to support us both because they like the message and they dig the music.

IT: Amen. Music with a message. I like it. Let’s get everybody over to Kickstarter and make this puppy happen!

SS: Let’s do it!

IT: Thank you so much for your time, Stephen, and for what you’re doing to build up the Kingdom of God. Blessings to you and your family!

SS: It was a pleasure talking to you, and may God bless your family as well.

(c) 2015 Photo courtesy Stephen Sylvester

Columnist’s Note: For the “Rolling Stone” (aka uncut) version of this interview plus some fun facts about Sylvester Band’s frontman, please head over to RealCatholicMom.com. -HR