When we imagine our lives, suffering is hardly a chapter we write in. For me, it was a topic I always shied away from, the chapter I would skip over. The notion of suffering being a “gift” or a “blessing,” I would scoff at.
Suffering, however, would write itself into my life and my motherhood, more than I ever could have imagined.
Sometimes the hardest part in coming to terms with suffering are the memories we have already imagined. For me, this was the picture that would be resting on my shelf, a picture of steppingstone children, born one after another, standing side by side, awkwardly, silly, gangly. I could see it, and I wanted it so desperately. But God had different plans, and that picture soon began to fade into impossibility.
Seven years ago, our second child was born eight weeks premature. Max was diagnosed with severe brain damage, resulting in severe cerebral palsy. I remember after the doctors told us, I could only stand there dumbfounded: “What do you mean… I don’t understand…” This was not how our story was to unfold, not what was meant to be, not the picture on the shelf. Surely it couldn’t be?
So we begged God for a miracle. We “claimed” that he would be healed as many told us to do, and I demanded of God, in “faith,” that my son be healed. Because wasn’t that who God was? Didn’t he say, “ask and you shall receive,” that if I had faith the size of a mustard seed…? Hadn’t I been faithful, always dutiful in my faith? I had been good — wouldn’t He give me good things?
“You are thinking of God as ‘Santa Claus Jesus,’” my dear priest friend said. I remember furrowing my brow, because of course it couldn’t be as childish as that… could it? So we chased after the miracle and took my son to every healing Mass, asked every priest to pray over him, and he was not healed. Dismay and doubt set in. Over time I tried to rebuild my understanding of what it means. God must want us to be patient. God must want us to trust and then it will happen. For years, I relied on this. The miracle will come — just not now.
The year Max turned five, our one-year-old daughter, Josephine, had a stroke. Once again, I stood dumbfounded before the Lord: How could this be? We had suffered so much already — why is this happening? “God is testing you.” “This is spiritual attack,” many tried to say, out of comfort, because, they with us, stood in disbelief. And maybe it was and maybe it wasn’t.
Again, I tried to define who God is and what this means. How is it possible? Has he turned his face from us? I turned to the Scriptures, mainly the Psalms. It must be that I don’t have enough faith. I must “hope against all hope” like Abraham and then my prayers will be answered. I’m too fickle, too unbelieving. I’m not holy enough. Almost frantically, I entered into my prayer life. I must get closer, then I’ll understand… then, if I have true faith, my prayers will be answered. But below stood a shaky ground.
Less than a year and a half later, our second daughter, Louisa, our fifth child, would be born with severe spina bifida, leaving her without any use of her legs, and a genetic disorder too crushing to transcribe. During the pregnancy, we had held on to hope for another miracle; we had a beautiful venerable whose intercession we begged for, we had devoted Carmelite sisters whom we love, who carried us through with their hope and prayers., But in the end, again, it wasn’t God’s will.
A part of my heart died on that operating table. A part of me died to hear the words, “We have found the defect… we will prepare her for transport…” as I fumbled through questions, “What does she look like?” “What color is her hair?” “What does she weigh?” As my heart died at the knowledge that, no, she was not healed, that this was not like so many other stories I had heard. “Our child was supposed to have this… he was born perfect…” No, once again this was not our story. Did God see me? Did He realize the cruelty of the situation? Was this the end of me? Did the Lord realize the pain? Three flukes, three diagnoses that “shouldn’t have happened’, that “didn’t make any sense” that were “never seen in one family,” “no genetic link.”
Maybe I don’t want a God who would do this to me. Maybe it is less painful to not believe. Maybe it is better to believe that awful things happen to you and a benevolent God is not watching over you. Because how is it possible?
I found myself standing in a wasteland, barren and ugly, asking, “What is the point of all of this?” Is this the way life was meant to be? I was angry at the “happily ever after” stories because life was no fairytale.
Stripped and broken, I stood with nothing left of my heart. Only then could I finally say: I know nothing, Lord. Who are you? Reveal yourself to me! Breaking, burning, testing, touching, the Lord revealed himself and my heart to me.
It took three of the greatest heartaches I could bear for the Lord to reveal what I had made of my faith, how I had loved him in my happiness and abandoned Him in my heartache, how I had created a false identity of him. Three traumas stripped me of a love of God that was unworthy of him. A love distorted by motive: “God please heal my son…God, please heal my daughter.” Three heartbreaks that finally had me asking, Lord, who are you? What do you want from me? How can I love you in this moment?” Three trials that brought me to my knees, where I could finally utter, “Lord, not my will, but yours.”
And what did I find in the surrender? Peace, lightness, freedom. The Lord took the chains. The Lord took the chains of bondage from a love that was built on demands, manipulation, fear and desperation. Bondage from a love that had become bitter, angry and oppressive. Bondage from a love that was superficial and unworthy of the name. I found freedom to love him for who he is; freedom to love God because he loved me so desperately first. Despite my burdens and my heartbrokenness, because of my crosses, I was finally able to say to God, “I love you, always, always, always.”
I have learned to stop asking why, and to start asking what. As Father Jacques Phillip says, to have “courage” to leave some questions unanswered and ask, “What does God want from me?” Freedom. Broken chains. Freedom in knowing that it’s not my picture, but God’s. Freedom in knowing that God’s ways are beyond us, beyond our understanding. Freedom to know that God will do anything to bring us to him, even break our hearts, because the reward is so much greater.
Amber VanVickle, a homeschooling mother, has a degree in English from Franciscan University of Steubenville. She lives in Pittsburgh with her husband Dave and their five children.