[Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared June 15, 2019, at the Register. On Dec. 17, Amber VanVickle was diagnosed with stage IV cancer; readers who wish to support Amber and her family may contribute at this GoFundMe page.]
I remember distinctly a night that had a great impact on my soul, a night that led to a great searching and seeking.
It was late. I was sitting amid beeping machines around the hospital bed of my newborn daughter. She had just had extensive back surgery for severe spina bifida, only a few days old. She was more tubes and bandages than sweet baby-soft skin. I sat with a broken heart in quiet questioning to our Lord. We had prayed for a miracle that had not come, and the result had been nothing less than torturous — physically for our daughter, in every other way for us.
At this same time, a beautiful miracle had occurred for an acquaintance of ours. Like the miracles of old — a life-giving, awe-inspiring, faith-enriching healing. We rejoiced in it with all our hearts. A letter soon circulated that this miracle occurred, firstly, because of God’s great love for the couple. As I read the letter late that night, sitting next to my daughter, my heart broke even deeper. What did it mean for us that the miracle had not come? Did God not love us?
It’s easy for us to read the Gospel accounts and see only the thread of one miracle story after another. But there are hidden golden threads that seem too often unnoticed, and it seems as if our Lord utters them in quiet desperation: “You seek me… because you ate your fill of the loaves,” “Unless you see signs and wonders, you will not believe,” and “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”
Perhaps the Lord is telling us that his love is not measured simply in the physical, in the miracles and the healings, but perhaps even more so, in the absence of those. That his love is shown, even more deeply, in the crosses, the trials and tempests of our lives, in the seeming absence of his power and love. That God permits sorrow and suffering for the very end of drawing us into himself, for an intimacy and sharing-in that could not be achieved any other way than through a share in his passion: “You seem, Lord, to give severe trials to those who love you, but only that in the excess of their trials, they may learn the greater excess of your love.”
Too often the spiritual life, that continuous road of handing our lives, hearts and wills to God, is depicted as an effortless adventure, that when we turn to God all will be well. Many times I’ve heard, “Just sit back and wait and see what the Lord does!” as if a firework show awaits around every corner. But as St. Teresa of Ávila says, “They deceive themselves who believe that union with God consists in ecstasies or raptures, and in the enjoyment of him. For it consists in nothing except the surrender and subjection of our will – with our thoughts, words and actions – to the will of God.”
God is a consuming fire, a fire that “breaks, blows, and burns and makes us new,” as John Donne writes. God’s love is one that enflames but also one that purifies:
“For you, O God, have tested us; you have tried us as silver is tried. You brought us into the net; you laid affliction on our backs; you let men ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water; yet you have brought us forth to a spacious place.”
The absence of God’s miracles does not signify the absence of his love but the very presence of it, an offering of it and invitation to greater intimacy, a sharing in his life so efficaciously achieved by the stripping and fire of the cross: as St. Teresa Margaret writes, “Since Your life was a hidden life of humiliations, love and sacrifice, such shall henceforth be mine.”
Perhaps the sadness and frustration we hear in the voice of Christ is because of his desire for true love, a love that flourishes in the dark valleys as well as the peaks of life, a love that is not dependent on getting “our fill of the loaves,” a love that is pursued and sought not because of signs and wonders but because of who he is, a love that is tested and tried and found pure and true. He gives us this opportunity of love through the cross and sufferings, even more so than his miracles. As St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus prays, “O Lord, you do not like to make us suffer, but you know it is the only way to prepare us to know you as you know yourself, to prepare us to become like you… because you wish that my heart be wholly yours.”
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.