Monday, July 25, 2011

Stretching our hearts for greater love

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.


  1. thanks Fr Luke for time and effort to do a blog post every Monday. I was feeling very very dispirited and was seeking answers and solace. Fr Huan in one of his talks told us to live the good fridays of our lives. I asked God how many good fridays do I have to go through and the good fridays seem to come every other day and not even on a weekly basis!I try to take consolation from homilies I hear and I then I tell myself that its just me grasping at straws and kidding myself that God had a message for me in that particular homily.
    anyway your post gives food for thought.

  2. Non-Instant NoodleJuly 25, 2011 at 5:59 PM

    In a world of instant- everything (instant noodles, live information, cable news, internet searches), the intellect would definitely want an instant reply from God too. Hence, a learned spiritual person does sound like an oxymoron in today’s secular world. Who has the time to sit in silence when one is in turmoil?

    Over time, I have discovered the best way to deal with the rotten eggs that life has thrown at me is to remind myself of this mantra – “to live in the mystery”. This “mystery” is not about something I will never know of, instead it is to acknowledge the mystery of God’s unfathomable wisdom. I live with the hope that one day, perhaps at the end of day, this wisdom will be revealed to me. It is with this stillness and peace that I find faith.

    Fr Rolheiser – It is indeed sad to hear that he has colon cancer. I pray that he will recover soon. It was just early this year I had the opportunity to hear him speak. Interestingly, it was about “radical discipleship” where one was asked to “give one’s death away”, i.e. we can still be Christ’s light in our sufferings and passivity. I didn’t think he knew he would be treated for cancer later on.

  3. As a follower of Christ,'our common task in life is to become spiritually lithe'.Doing this is definitely full of pain,and at the same time there is lot of gain too.Thank you Fr Luke and may god Bless you and be with you always.