Finding God’s Mercy in Our Suffering

In conjunction with the Year of Mercy, Pope Frances declared in Miseracordia Virtus that “God’s mercy is not an abstract idea but a concrete reality.” 2016 turned out to be year that God’s mercy has been shown to me in abundance. The Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary provide a framework for sharing how that unfolded for my family, and by extension some of the ways that the Church helps reveal God’s mercy to us all when we suffer.

The Agony in the Garden
Last summer, my mom had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and began chemotherapy, and I was deeply involved in helping my dad care for her. Over Christmas I developed a severe illness which resulted in a hospitalization. As I waited on tests, and thus proper treatment, my condition deteriorated rapidly. I could not help but think of Jesus’ agony in the garden. There are moments in life when you are just going to sweat some blood. This was a time to stay in the moment and not look too far ahead. During this time of unknowing, I found it helpful to pray the liturgy of the hours. The psalms anticipate these emotions and much more, and they help develop perspective. The Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick helped strengthen and support me. The Church teaches that visiting the sick is a corporal work of mercy, and it was such a blessing every time the hospital ministers brought communion. That was a moment I could let my defenses down, let God know how I really felt, and experience God’s merciful love.

The Scourging at the Pillar
After a diagnosis of lupus and some stabilization of my symptoms, I was able to go home. Two days later, my mom went into hospice, and I was way too sick to be with her nearly as much as I wanted to be. The doctors told me to avoid work and crowds, including going to Mass, and I felt deeply separated from that support as my siblings and I tried to help our parents through that dark hour. When illness gets a foothold in our lives, it can bring along its friends, fear and despair, and shine a light on our desire to be in control. This is to be expected, and that expectation can help us resist. It was a comfort that this was unfolding during Lent – all over the world, we knew people were with us in the desert with its promise of purification, joining us in prayer, fasting and almsgiving. When my parents and I were unable to attend Mass, we were able to view Mass online or on television, connecting us to the larger community as we prayed, “Lord, have mercy.”

The Crowning with Thorns
As my condition slowly improved, my mother’s rapidly deteriorated. The cancer left my family scrambling as out-of-town siblings arrived to help. The prayers we memorize as children offer us words for times like this when we have no words. Each time I left my mother’s bedside, she asked to pray the “Glory Be,” “Our Father” and “Hail Mary.” Afterwards, she would drift off with her lips moving, as those prayers helped send her into deeper interior prayer. Mom told me often that she was offering up her suffering for her children and grandchildren, a tradition that gives our suffering meaning. Spiritual works of mercy include praying for the sick, and I can attest it helps. My mom, my dad and I all received beautiful prayer blankets, cards and home visits. At every Mass we always remember to pray for the sick in our intentions and our Eucharistic prayers. These concrete acts build a strong and merciful foundation that offer great sustenance at such moments.

The Carrying of the Cross
Within a few short weeks, mom entered her final days. We were fortunate to be able to gather as a family with her to help her carry her cross. When she lost consciousness, we noticed that when we would pray the rosary with our mother, her breathing would change to match the rhythm of the prayers. A lifetime of prayer had prepared her for that moment. Our prayer was heartfelt – Lord, have mercy.

The Crucifixion
The time came, as it eventually does for us all, when it was time for mom to cross over from this life into the next life. The Pastoral Care of the Sick offers a commendation of the dying, which includes a litany of saints that we prayed with our mother. Viaticum offers “food for the journey.” We were able, during our bedside vigil, to settle on readings and songs for mom’s funeral, which she hoped would evangelize her grandchildren. We knew we could not hold onto her; our faith tells us that the tomb precedes the resurrection. This is the deepest heart of faith that our mom passed on to us. The Mass of Christian Burial gave us the opportunity to pray the scriptures and songs we had prayed at her bedside, but this time surrounded by our faith community. The graveside service honored her body which had been such a good temple of the Holy Spirit for 82 years. We took great comfort in all this, and continue to experience God’s loving mercy as the Church prays for the dead at every Mass, on All Soul’s Day, and in a particular way during the month of November.

We are fortunate to have a Church that helps us reflect on the great mysteries of suffering and death. The Sorrowful mysteries are accompanied by the Glorious, Joyful and Luminous mysteries, and our faith tells us that while darkness may have its day, good will always have the last word. I have found much new life in the months since my mother died. By Easter, I was able to return to Mass and active ministry at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. My prayer life is deeper and new interests help me to find enjoyment in life even as I work through grief and major adjustments in my lifestyle. My compassion has grown. My family has drawn closer together from our shared experience, and we have grown more unconditional in our love for one another. My siblings and I collaborate to support our dad, who misses his wife of 60 years very much. Our need for mercy never goes away. We are surrounded by a communion of saints, named and unnamed, the living and the dead, all of whom point us toward a deeper experience of God’s mercy as a concrete reality.  •

by Cathy Cobb

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