Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
One of the curious side effects of my line of work as a Catholic writer is that people will sometimes confess very odd phenomena they normally won’t discuss with people who aren’t known for believing in miracles. Some years ago, a woman I know cleared her throat awkwardly, looked very sheepish, asked me, “If I tell you something that happened to me once, will you promise not to laugh at me?” and (when I promised) told me a very strange Tale of the Unexplained.
She was a diabetic. She found out she was diabetic, she said, when she had gone into a diabetic coma a few years before and had to be rushed to Ballard Hospital in Seattle. She soon came around, but for a day or so, she was well enough to be bored, but not quite well enough for the doctors to let her go.
So she lay there in her bed twiddling her thumbs. Presently, she became aware of a sound from the other room: a sound she took for a radio broadcast. As she listened she realized that it was the sound of a Mass being said. Being a lapsed Catholic and having nothing better to do, she lay there and listened.
As the liturgy went on, she listened to the music, the readings, the homily, and the prayers. When it came to the prayers of the faithful, she heard them pray for the repose of Father So and So’s soul and, to her surprise, they also offered a prayer for her.
Immediately, she started trying to figure out how somebody on the radio would be praying for her and she concluded that the Mass must be broadcast from St. Martin’s College in Olympia, some 50 miles south of Seattle. She assumed this because her mother worked at St. Martin’s.
So when her mother came to visit her she thanked her for enrolling her for prayer and told her she’d heard the broadcast.
Her mother said, “What broadcast?”
She replied, “The broadcast of the Mass from St. Martin’s.”
Her mother said, “We don’t broadcast our Mass.”
My friend was taken aback. “Well, I heard it!” she said.
Her mother asked her what she heard and she described the liturgy, homily and prayers precisely. Her mother looked thoughtful and said, “Yes, that’s what happened. But we don’t broadcast our Mass.” Just to be sure, they checked with the priest who celebrated. Nope. No Mass broadcasts. The priest remarked to my friend, “It would appear you were given a rather singular favor by our Lord.”
My friend, after relating this strange story, looked at me with pleading eyes, hoping I would not think her crazy. “Do you believe me?” she said, clearly worried I would laugh at her.
Actually, I did believe her. She was pretty obviously telling the truth. And she had nothing to gain from such a tale.
So I told her, “Yes, I believe you.” She looked deeply relieved. Then I asked her if she’d gone back to Mass as a result of this experience.
“No!” she said. “Why would God allow me to have diabetes?”
It is to shake one’s head.
I thought, “Sheesh, lady! What do you want? An engraved invitation?”
My pal Dave has an entirely different approach to the whole suffering thing. For him, the question is not “Why does God allow me to suffer?” Rather, it’s “If God himself has to suffer, what makes me think I’m so special as to get a pass? We are, after all, talking about the worship of a crucified God who warned us that those who would walk in his footsteps must likewise carry a cross.” Dave thinks that’s going to involve Christ’s followers in a spot of bother now and then.
That sort of thinking, though it probably accounts for why Dave will never be a pastor, is well-grounded in his work as an historian of 20th Century Eastern Europe and has stood me in good stead in my own times of suffering. The option has never been “Shall we suffer?” The option has always and only ever been “Shall our suffering be a doorway to heaven—or not?”
I suspect that many—indeed most—people who think they disbelieve in God are really just angry at him. It’s hard to believe he loves you when you are suffering great pain or loss. But the Sign of the Cross is the sign that God is with us in our suffering. Not merely “with us” in that empty, tedious Hallmark greeting card way. (Dave also remarks “When people say, ‘I’ll be there in spirit’ what they mean is ‘I won’t be there.’”). Rather, God is with us—right at our side—in the very worst suffering the human person can endure. Hunger, homelessness, fear, whisper campaigns, loss of friends and loved ones, terror, betrayal, kangaroo courts, excruciating physical pain—he’s felt it all. Attempting to get rid of him by an act of anti-faith will not make the hurting stop: It will merely make it meaningless. With him, the suffering can do more than mean something: it becomes the prelude to our glorious resurrection in the Victor over death.