Coping with suffering

There are times in all of our lives when things seem to be going just swimmingly, and there are others when you feel that things just can't get worse. You feel pummeled, punch drunk, staggering from one day to the next just praying that you can get through it without breaking down. Events conspire to leave you stressed, angry, upset... perhaps even more so when the source of these feelings comes from things that have happened to others that you love dearly. Your compassion for their suffering risks turning into something darker, angry, something that eats you up from within.

Well, myself and members of my family have been through, and are still going through this type of experience. The tragedy of my 24 year-old nephew's suicide last Feb. has its source in other hidden tragedies that go back nearly 60 years, many of which have only come to light in the last few years. This purging of darkness that so many of us in my family have been carrying deep in our hearts has been incredibly painful, but necessary for God's healing to begin its work. It has also been a source of unexpected graces... members of the family drawing closer than ever before, defences coming down allowing real heart-to-hearts for perhaps the first time ever... a real closeness developing where before their was distance and indifference.

All of this has also shaken to the core the faith of certain members of my family, and I can understand this totally given the dramatic nature of events. I find myself in the position of being the youngest of 5 children (8 years between me and the next youngest), having to minister to the rest of my family, including my parents. Much of the time it involves simply offering an unjudgmental ear or a shoulder to cry on. But I have needed their support and encouragement too. We support each other and will continue to do so.

How have I personally coped during this difficult time?

First of all, prayer...

The structure of my daily life as a Brother has been such a saving grace for me, offering routine and stability, light and grace, when inside my mind and heart all is at times chaos and darkness... "dark night of the soul"? Been there, done that, got the t-shirt, the soundtrack cd, the tattoo even!! :-) Times of prayer with my fellow brethren are precious oases, but so are the unstructured times of personal prayer that I try to incorporate into my daily life as a teaching Brother: the little moments when I try to re-centre everything on God. Before school in the morning just after breakfast and at night in my room I very often sing and pray along to modern Christian rock songs and make their words my own. When I can, I also attend a Monday evening Charismatic prayer group (about 60-80 people). Most times I will come away having had an intimate encounter with Christ able to smile again freely: a sign for me that the darkness has (if only temporarily) lifted.

Secondly, the friendship and love of others...

I have been so lucky to have such wonderful confrères in community here in Liverpool and in the wider congregation (England, France and beyond). Their support and patience is such a help to me (eg. when I oversleep and miss morning prayer :-). I have also been so, so lucky in my life to have made such wonderful friends. I've already mentioned how important my family have become to me. I do feel truly blessed.

Sport and music...

These are amongst the strategies of self-defence that I use. Long-distance cycling in particular is such a great way to switch off and forget other worries, especially when you are riding with a club group, riding hard up and down hills and mountains in N. Wales. After 7 sponsored cycles in the last 15 years, I'm hoping to do another one in our May half-term (John O'Groats to Land's End, a route I did in 1995) to raise money for the 2 places we worked at in Togo, W. Africa 3 months ago (a school and an orphanage). See the links opposite for photos from my last long-distance jaunt to Santiago de Compostella.

When talking to my new spiritual director recently about all this "stuff" he said he was amazed by the extraordinary, tragic story I told, but also by the extraordinary way I told it. He said that he didn't pick up a single note of rancour or bitterness which, given the nature of the events I was describing is, I suppose, rather surprising.

This is in no way at all due to any personal fortitude or virtue I may have, but rather down to God's spirit working in me. At the times I have felt the most "pummeled, punch drunk and staggering", I have had only one possible course of action left to me... to hand everything over to God... "I can't cope, Lord. This is too immense, too big for me. I can't carry it alone." Of course, God doesn't want us to try. His Son has already carried everything for us and will continue to do so if we let him. But in the midst of our suffering, God asks us to do more than that, for our own benefit: to lift our eyes to the heavens, to behold his Son, to offer ourselves to him and offer to take up His Cross with him. This may seem like madness! Why ask for more pain and suffering when you can barely cope with what you already have to carry? To think this way - understandable though it may be - is to forget the words of Jesus:

‘Come to me, all you who labour and are overburdened, and I will give you rest. Shoulder my yoke and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. Yes, my yoke is easy and my burden light.’ (Mt 11:28-30)

I have always felt a great affection for Simon of Cyrene, to the point where I wrote a short story about him (see here). In deep humility, I imagine Jesus and myself on the way to Calvary, helping each other to carry their cross.

It is possible to go through the kind of suffering our family has been through and yet retain a heart anchored by God's deep graces of peace and joy. Possible, not easy. It requires you to hand over your whole life to Him, and be prepared to let him "take you where you would rather not go" (Jn 21:18 - Jesus to Peter).
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