Ever since I got engaged (and more recently, pregnant), well-meaning friends, relatives, and former students have said some version of the following to me: “I can’t imagine someone who deserves this more than you do.”
And part of me wanted to believe that. After all, hadn’t I waited over a decade to meet the right man? Hadn’t I persevered in my ministry as a high school theology teacher, even at schools with clueless administrations and lackluster Catholic identity? Hadn’t I suffered enough in hours of therapy sessions in which I talked about trauma I wanted so badly to forget?
That same part of me wanted to say, You’re right. I’ve paid my dues. I deserve to get married and have kids.
Thankfully, that part of me didn’t convince the rest of me. I knew--thanks to the wisdom of the saints and my knowledge of Scripture and the number of people in my life (not to mention in the wider world) who have suffered more than I have, who have borne crosses heavier than mine, and who are still waiting for their vocation, for respite from intense suffering, for reconciliation with someone they love, or for healing--that I didn’t deserve Kristian.
I don’t deserve to be married and pregnant with our first child. Just like I don't deserve to receive the God of the Universe in the Eucharist as often as every day. Just like I don't deserve God's mercy in the face of my sin. Kristian, our marriage, our baby, our current newlywed happiness, the Church, the Sacraments, friendship, the beauty of the world...these are all gifts. Everything is grace.
And I can't help but wonder why the Lord gave these gifts to me. Why did I get married before some of my friends who are older than I am and have been waiting on their vocations longer than me and deserve (in my human estimation) to be married more than I do? Why did I get pregnant right away when I have dear friends and family who have been trying for years and haven’t conceived? Why has my pregnancy been relatively easy when some women have hyperemesis gravidarum? Why? Why? Why?
I have no idea.
I do not understand.
I didn’t understand when I was single for over a decade of my adult life, crying out to the Lord for the fulfillment of my vocation, while so many of my closest friends, my two younger siblings, and even my former students got married and started having kids.
I didn’t understand when someone incredibly close to me revealed that she had been sexually abused as a child, and had been carrying the burden in silence for almost 18 years.
I don’t understand when I read about the suffering of children in Syria, the families eating out of garbage dumps in Venezuela, the persecuted Christians in Egypt, or the women right here in the US who are pregnant and alone.
I don’t understand. And I don’t have any neat and tidy platitudes or answers to give anyone.
I do know this: I am not God. I cannot see the big picture. I cannot possibly hope to understand the whys and wherefores of the Cosmos. And thankfully, as a Catholic, I am not expected to simply accept these injustices as “God’s will”, full stop.
I can be sad and angry. I can ask questions. I can be honest with God about how difficult it is to live in such a fallen world.
One of the best things I’ve ever read on the topic of why God allows suffering is from a collection of Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI’s essays on the Eucharist, God is Near Us:
Romano Guardini, who in his inclination to melancholy often felt the dreadful and painful aspects of this world most grievously, like a burden laid upon him personally, said many times that he knew that at the judgment God would ask him about his life. But he was waiting for the judgment to be able for his part to put questions to God--the question about why creation exists, about all the incomprehensible things that have arisen in it as the consequence of the freedom to do evil. The judgment means that God puts this question to himself. Hans Urs von Balthasar expresses it this way: Those who defend God are not convincing; God has to defend himself. "He did it once, when the Risen One showed his wounds...God himself has to invent his theodicy [an explanation for the seeming lack of justice in the world]. He must already have worked it out when he endowed men with freedom (and thus with the temptation) to say No to him, to his commands." At the judgment, in response to our questions, the Lord will show us his wounds, and we will understand. In the meantime, however, he simply expects us to stand by him and to believe what these wounds tell us, even though we cannot work right through the logic of this world.
That’s a tall order: to trust in God’s love and his power to save in the midst of so much injustice. But that’s exactly what Christ did on the cross. Which is why I have such a difficult time praying in churches without legit crucifixes: because it is only in keeping my eyes fixed on the God who chose to suffer with us that I can persevere through suffering--my own or that of those I love.
Because even though I’m married (yay!) and pregnant (yippee!), I know that suffering will continue to touch my life, because I am human and living in a fallen world. I know that I will still have moments where I wonder why God is allowing this, that, or the other thing to happen.
But I also know that these undeserved gifts are opportunities to grow in gratitude and wonder at a God whose love is more superabundant than we could ever imagine. A God who, while He allows suffering for reasons unknown to us, also makes possible the deepest joy. And often it is the depth of our suffering that makes the joy possible.
I’ll close with another favorite quote from Papa Benny, which has been on my heart quite a bit lately:
Now, some might say, is it right to be so happy, while the world is so full of suffering, when there is so much darkness and so much pain? Is it legitimate to be so defiantly joyful? The answer can only be a yes! Because saying 'no' to this joy benefits no-one, it only makes the world darker. And those who do not love themselves cannot give to love their fellow man, can not help them, can not be a messenger of peace. We know this from our faith, and we see it every day: the world is beautiful and God is good and He became man and entered into us, suffers and lives with us, we know this definitely and concretely : yes, God is good and it is good to be Man. We live in this joy, and try to bring this joy to others, to reject evil and to be servants of peace and reconciliation. (Source)
And so, dear reader, if your heart is heavy with the weight of your own suffering or the suffering of others, know that you are not alone: the God of the universe knows your pain more intimately than you can imagine.
And if your heart is bursting with gratitude right now because of the gifts you’ve received, rejoice! Embrace it. Share it with others. But remember that none of us deserve these gifts; everything is grace.