On July 24 this year, the second anniversary of my final profession of vows, I had the privilege of joining two other Sisters in a visit to a former student’s house. Her father, Jim Weeks, had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer two and a half years previously, when she was in my class. Now, the family had just received a heart-wrenching diagnosis: the cancer had spread, and Jim was told that he had only one to three more weeks.
The visit with the Weeks family during this time was probably one of the greatest blessings God has given me during my religious life. To be standing with this family, looking straight at death, and to see their faith and utter trust in God is a grace I will never forget. What struck me most that evening was Jim’s attitude toward this time, which he knew was his last on earth. While clearly grieving over the recent diagnosis, Jim expressed that losing someone we love, as his daughters were about to, is a part of life that he himself had experienced with his own parents, and he was glad that he could be home with his daughters, so that they, too, could experience the joy of that time.
The joy of the time of the last moments with a loved one, the last moments with their father! Every person I have shared this with — all themselves people of great faith — has been in awe of the tenacity of this statement! This was clearly not some sort of Pollyanna-ish approach to suffering. Jim was both clearly suffering from the loss with which he and his family were confronted and completely believing from his own lived experience that there would be joy in that loss.
In the eyes of the world, all of this is impossible. Those who see with their own eyes instead of with the vision of God cannot comprehend how suffering can have any value, let alone that it can be coupled with true joy — that in fact true, deep joy often and sometimes only comes through great suffering.
But as Christians, we know that we have a God who, in unimaginable physical and emotional suffering, experienced true joy — the joy of accomplishing our salvation that we might also share in the Beatific Vision that He enjoyed. We have a Mother who, in the unspeakable suffering of watching One — who she knew was not only her beloved Son but also her God — be brutally tortured and killed, rejoiced in that moment of pain that He had saved both her and us. In the Passion of Our Lord, both for Himself and for His Mother, joy did not come despite the suffering, but because of it!
As Jim Weeks saw, all those who suffer the loss of a loved one — or who grieve over any kind of loss — with the eyes of faith, are free to discover the joy that comes through suffering. Our suffering can be redemptive in this way, not only for others for whom we offer up our pain, but also and perhaps even primarily for ourselves.
When faced with her father’s terminal diagnosis, Jim’s youngest daughter, my former student, reportedly quoted Blessed Chiara Luce Badano’s statement of faith during her dying days: “Jesus, if you want it, I want it, too.” If we truly make this prayer of Blessed Chiara Luce’s and MacKenzie’s our own, we will not be saying it as though to force ourselves to want whatever suffering the Lord might allow to come our way. Rather, we will be allowing ourselves to recognize “the joy held in store for us” through the particular cross He holds out to us with love, trusting always in the sweet joy of knowing His presence with us beneath it.
Sr. Mary Martha Becnel is a member of the Ann Arbor-based Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist.