Inevitably, within a week or two of Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, all Catholic mom Facebook groups are abuzz with the same question, “I’m breastfeeding…what should I do about fasting? How do I fast when I’m pregnant?”
In my almost eight years of marriage, I’ve only had to fast from food for one Ash Wednesday. Every other Ash Wednesday or Good Friday of my marriage, I’ve either been pregnant or nursing a baby. (In answer to the above question, breastfeeding and pregnant women are exempt from fasting from food on these days, and may choose some other penitential practice, instead.) I find plenty of other possibilities for “fasting” that doesn’t hinder my ability to provide nourishment for the baby I’m growing. Social media fasts, fasting from sweets, fasting from TV…the possibilities really are endless, and all can help to free up my heart for God.
However, for four of those Lents (including this one), I was pregnant. During pregnancy, I suffer from a rare pregnancy complication known as hyperemesis gravidarum. In laymen’s terms, it means being gripped by a severe form of morning sickness for the entirety of my pregnancy (and sometimes after birth, as well). Pregnancy, for me, means weight loss, meals that resemble fasting meals (as my food tolerance drops significantly), dehydration, hospital trips for IVs to combat dehydration, all day nausea that is debilitating (to the point that I am often too sick to leave bed or care for myself, especially in the beginning of my pregnancy), and of course dry heaving and throwing up. HG pregnancy requires both oral and often subcutaneous or IV medication to manage nausea. (During my current pregnancy, I am on a combination of three oral anti-nausea medications and a subcutaneous pump, in order to function somewhat normally.) HG pregnancy takes its toll on a family, and is a cause of mental and spiritual suffering, as well. It takes a lot of mental strength and spiritual grace to not suffer a breakdown when faced with perpetual nausea for the better part of a year.
Hyperemesis gravidarum is one example of suffering among many. Many women suffer other complications during pregnancy, many people suffer from chronic or terminal illness. Others suffer from mental health diagnoses that cripple them, and make daily living difficult. Others suffer from the grief of losing a loved one. Still others suffer from profound loneliness, or infertility. Some suffer from a combination of the above.
Even those not facing crippling, life altering health conditions, know suffering in their daily lives. In this fallen world we’re living in, suffering is an inevitability.
Lent is an opportunity to face suffering head on. For those who are not currently enduring the trial of constant suffering, it is an opportunity to willingly embrace penances – little sufferings voluntarily undertaken. Especially in a culture that is actively working to seek comfort and avoid suffering, choosing penance enables us to be reminding of the value of embracing suffering in love, as Christ did on the cross.
But what if this Lent, you find yourself face to face with chronic suffering? What if your days are already filled with suffering and opportunities for self-denial? What if that chronic suffering is not one you’ve chosen, but one you are forced to endure?
For those facing chronic suffering, Lent is a season of hope.
Those already facing significant suffering in their daily lives can still choose a penance to undertake during Lent. They can still give up sweets, or Facebook, or a million other little things…but they don’t have to. Because, those who are enduring chronic suffering have already had their Lent chosen for them.
So, what do we do when we find ourselves handed suffering, especially debilitating, chronic suffering? How can we approach Lent when we find ourselves in this position? In this case, God invites us to center our Lent on the cross.
We know that the cross is our only hope…but what does that mean? Before the death and resurrection of Christ, suffering was meaningless. It was often viewed as punishment for past sins. In our own time, suffering is likewise viewed as wasteful and meaningless. Unborn children diagnosed with a disability are often aborted. Elderly or terminally ill people are being told that assisted suicide is “death with dignity,” rather than being honored and respected for embracing suffering even unto death. There is dignity in suffering because of the cross. This belief is a challenge to modern sensibilities.
This perception that suffering is a waste, an undignified existence, is entirely contrary to the message of the Gospel. God-made-man embraced the cross and suffering. Rather than a wasteful act, it was an act of profound love. Christ embraced the cross to open up the gates of heaven to us, forever. In no way was God obligated to take on this suffering, but he did it for love.
If we are really fortunate, our chronic suffering will obviously reveal a call to love. As difficult as it is to endure hyperemesis gravidarum, it is easy to extrapolate its connection to love.
I have three living daughters, and one sweet little boy in heaven. By its very nature, the cross of hyperemesis gravidarum is a call to suffering in love. I look at the faces of my older daughters, feel the swift kicks of my unborn daughter, and think often of my son. I would willingly experience any one of those pregnancies again, in exchange for the goodness that is each of my children. It is impossible for my suffering not to be laced through with love for them.
But my suffering is not just about loving them. It is about encountering God’s love more deeply. This is my fourth pregnancy, and during my first two pregnancies, I struggled a lot with the unfairness of my suffering. Hyperemesis gravidarum is diagnosed in 0.5-3% or all pregnancies. The vast majority of mothers never experience it. For so long, I wished I didn’t have to endure it either.
However, in this pregnancy especially (my first after losing my sweet son) I am aware of the gift or having the opportunity to suffer in love. It would be easy to become very bitter about having to suffer each day – but God is inviting me to something more. He is inviting me to embrace my cross, and to offer it always back to him – uniting it to his own suffering on the cross. We are all familiar with the advice to “offer it up.” Offering it up begins with a simple prayer, offering your suffering to that of Christ’s on the cross. But “offering it up” does not end there. Offering it up, necessarily, ends with love.
When God chooses our Lent for us, when he allows us to undergo suffering, he is really giving us an invitation. We are invited to realize that we need God to endure suffering – for suffering is truly impossible without grace – but we are also invited to realize that because of the cross suffering is forever tainted with love. Suffering needn’t be meaningless. Even the worst of sufferings can be transformed into a prayer of love, when united with Christ’s suffering on the cross.
Suffering is not some senseless thing to be avoided, as prosperity Gospel preachers would have us believe. When we suffer, we are not suffering because of our lack of faith. We are not suffering because of our lack of prayer or gratitude. We are suffering because we are living in a fallen world, a world that is no longer Eden, and that is everywhere touched by sin. It is not our fault, and it is not an indicator that we are failing in some way.
God permits suffering, because he permits us to the gift of free will. Truly free will always chooses the good, but our fallen will often doesn’t choose the good, and so suffering and sin have entered the world.
In the midst of that suffering, God invites us to hope. The cross is no longer something to be feared and avoided. The cross is an invitation to love. It is an opportunity to draw near to Christ, who endured the ultimate suffering.
This is the invitation God offers those of us who are already suffering this Lent. He invites us not to suffer alone, or in fear. He invites us to give our sufferings to him in love, and to allow him to make that offering into something beautiful.