I recently came across this very touching story during our recent priests’ retreat, showing the immense faith that some people have in God.
In his ministry in India, our retreat master had the opportunity to meet a married couple, both of which were active in ministry. They were learned university professors, and had three children. Apparently, their youngest son was born with a rib cage that somehow stopped growing, meaning that as he grew, his chest would be constricted more and more, and the prognosis was that he would die by the age of 18. This sadly did happen. They also had a daughter who had earned two doctorate degrees by the time she was in her mid twenties. But it was also at this time that she tragically met with a road accident that claimed her life.
What made me sit up and listen to the story of this couple was not so much their double tragedies in life, which I am sure were heartbreaking in themselves, but the fact that our retreat master said that never once did he hear them ask God “why”? He said that they were a deeply faithful couple that loved God and submitted humbly to a plan that was not theirs to determine or to direct. This couple were not simpletons nor ignorant about matters of the faith either. Highly learned, they were also highly spiritual. In fact, they are now running a free college for poor students who cannot afford an education, equipping them with degrees for life.
How is it that some people can encounter such tragedies and not be angry with God and walk away from their faith? I personally know of many who have had lesser pains in life, and took the very first exit out of the church in anger and resentment. I am sure that there are many who are reading this post who personally know of people who have either blamed God for afflictions in their lives, or are punishing God in some unspoken way.
The largess of one’s heart is not something that one is automatically born with. Most of the time, it takes a careful nurturing spirit and a willingness to be formed. What most of us struggle with is that the real lessons that magnify the chambers of our hearts to love God for who he is, are lessons that come very often through tears, sorrow and pain. Whoever wrote the words of the Salve Regina prayer during the Middle Ages must have known this to be true, when he spoke about the ‘lacrimarum vale’, or the valley of tears. Many a faithful pilgrim in life have walked this valley, and this couple seems to have made repeat visits there.
Does God delight in ‘testing’ our faith? A very interesting question but also a very commonly asked one. Does it mean that when people are already walking very closely with God in life that they should be spared from suffering and trials? That certainly cannot be true. Even holy people suffer much. Think of Padre Pio and Therese of Lisieux. These are just two examples of holy people who suffered much. Just last week, I found out with sadness that my spiritual ‘mentor’ Fr Ronald Rolheiser is being treated for colon cancer.
Maybe it is a false question to ask if God takes delight in testing our faith. A more relevant question to ask ourselves is what limits are we willing to take our faith to when our hearts are asked to stretch to accommodate God’s love that often takes on so many different forms that we are not prepared for. After all, that is the main task of our spiritual life – to keep enlarging our hearts and stretching ourselves we are made in God’s image and likeness. Most of our lives bear terrible scars because when our tragedies struck, our hearts of love were stiff and not supple. A great hallmark of a true athlete is one who doesn’t easily get injured because his muscles, ligaments and tendons have been repeatedly stretched and can take the stresses that pushing one’s limits causes.
One of our common tasks in life is to become spiritually lithe, to allow our very selves to take on not just our load, but to share the loads of others along life’s journey. ‘No pain; no gain’ is a phrase many trainers like to use to encourage their charges. Perhaps this is true for our spiritual lives as well.