I wish that I could say that I have submitted and relinquished my will entirely to God. I can’t say that, yet. I’ve spent more days sitting beside my husband in hospital rooms than I care to count. Hospital visits are a monthly, weekly, or bi-weekly occurrence for us. I have had to stand by in horror and fear watching my husband nearly lose consciousness and cough blood into bowls. I have had to quietly finger my Rosary through Divine Mercy Chaplets with tears streaming down my face while my husband lies in the hospital bed next to me completely disoriented. My husband is 40 years old. He’s not 70 or 80. He’s 40. Each new episode reminds me that I may become a widow at any point: next week, next year, in ten years, twenty years. We don’t know, but we know this disease could become unmanageable at any point.
In truth, the possibility of my becoming a widow or him a widower has always been the case because we don’t know what will happen from day-to-day. Death comes at God’s appointed time and often without warning, but there is something different about finding out that my husband has a rare and dangerous auto-immune disease. It makes that reality tangible. It is front and center in our lives. He has good days and days he suffers greatly. Each new day brings more uncertainty. In that uncertainty, God is calling me to trust Him and love Him fully. He offers His Sacred Heart to me each day and I only need to fully accept that love in all of its awe, wonder, joy, terrible suffering, and sorrow.
The furnace of love is suffering
When we enter into our vocation the fire is lit and the furnace begins to warm. It is through our vocation that we learn to relinquish ourselves in self-emptying love. This process is often slow and painful. We are often reminded of our selfishness and weakness when confronted with those God has given us to care for and love. This is just as true for the priest who has been entrusted with a flock who he must teach, lead, and walk with in periods of joy and sorrow, as it is for the husband and wife who move towards Heaven together with or without children. Love demands a relinquishment of self. Divine Love requires the total relinquishment of self to God. Often, we must learn to relinquish our will to God through trials of fire, that is, suffering.
In this you rejoice, although now for a little while you may have to suffer through various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold that is perishable even though tested by fire, may prove to be for praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.
1 Peter 1:7
God uses these trials to teach us to love. In standing beside my husband through agony and suffering, I am taught how to love as God loves. This life isn’t about amassing as many pleasures and material possessions as possible. Life is about loving others and learning to love with the love of Christ. This love is not sentimental and very often it doesn’t “feel” good at the time. It is a love grounded in the reality of the Blessed Trinity in all of its great mystery.
Learning to trust when we feel helpless
If there is one word that can sum up how I have felt these past few months it is helpless. When my husband gets really sick, all I can do is care for him and be present to him. I am not able to make him feel better. I cannot cure him. I cannot take away his pain. I have to stand by his side and give him completely back to God in the face of total and utter helplessness. It is in this helplessness that I am learning trust.
God is teaching me that I can’t change any of this because it is His plan, not mine. No matter how much I want to grasp at a false sense of control, I do not have any control. I can fight, kick, scream, cry, or flee, but God truly is the “Hound of Heaven” and He isn’t going to let me go far. He is there no matter how much I hurt, no matter how scared I feel, or how helpless I am in the face of my husband’s suffering and the pain our daughter is carrying from seeing her father suffer. In the end, all I can do is turn to Him and relinquish my heart, my will, my plans, and my dreams to Him. He is my Father—as He is your Father—who loves me with a pure love that I cannot fully comprehend. All of this is for my good, even though I can’t see it or feel it at times. Faith isn’t about how we feel. It is choosing to believe and knowing God is there even in periods of darkness and dryness. Faith employs the faculties of the soul—intellect and will—and is not dependent upon the passions (emotions/feelings).
What being a saint actually means
When I first got married and I came back to the Church, I prayed fervently for God to make my husband, me, and any of our children saints. I meant it at the time, but I did not understand what I had asked for then. My faith was newer and filled with some false notions of piety that are common among reverts and converts. My idea of holiness was largely sentimental, and for lack of a better word, shallow. I didn’t understand what it takes to make saints. Now I know.
God is answering my prayer. That doesn’t mean I am even close to being a saint. I have a very long way to go. This just means that I understand now what He is asking of me and what I asked of Him in that prayer. He wants all of me. Everything. I don’t get to hold back any part of myself or my life from Him. It also means that suffering is necessary. It is not the greatest evil, as our culture would have us believe. In fact, oftentimes, we miss out on growing in our faith, depth, love, and understanding when we flee from suffering. This does not mean we should be looking for suffering. Send the hairshirt back to Amazon and don’t go out into your backyard looking for sticks for self-flagellation. This means that God is going to allow us to suffer at different points in our lives. Some of us may suffer more than others for reasons that will remain mysterious to us on this side of eternity. I think, from a practical perspective, some of us are harder headed, so we need longer in the furnace of refinement. I know I am hard headed, and far too often, hard-hearted.
Being a saint means to be like God. We are called to love like God. The Church Fathers understood that we are called to be divine. A friend of mine recently commented to me on Facebook: “We are beasts who are called to be gods.” This is exactly how the Church Fathers saw it and this is indeed our call. Ask anyone who has been woken up from a sound sleep by their husband calling out for them because he’s about to collapse on the floor or is coughing up blood again, how long it takes the meat (our body) to wake up and want to help. Our weakness says “sleep”, but love says “serve” until we have nothing left to give and then Christ will give the grace to do even more than we ever thought possible.
How did the God of the Universe, creator of all things, love us? He died a brutal, torturous, humiliating death for us on a Cross. The God of the Universe gave us everything: Himself. He shows us complete and total self-emptying love on the Cross. That is the very same call for you and for me. A saint loves as God loves. A saint desires to give everything to God. They hold nothing back and they joyfully accept whatever life brings. Growing in holiness means learning to joyfully embrace the Cross. Most of us aren’t quite there yet, but if we truly want to be a saint then we understand what God is really asking of each one of us. The joy part can be difficult for us in the face of suffering. It’s a process, but God will help and guide us as long as we turn to Him constantly. We must give everything to Him and trust that the glory He has in store for us is far greater than any debilitating disease, natural disaster, violence, or suffering that we may endure in love and hope here on earth. We live in the hope that regardless of how terrible the refinement in the fire may be, we will be made new creations worthy of Heaven in the process.