Monday, June 11, 2012

Allowing others to witness our sufferings in life

American poet and author Ella Wheeler Wilcox who died in earlier part of the 20th century is arguably best known for her work “Solitude”, which was first published in Feb 25, 1883.  
Many readers of this blog would be familiar with the first two lines of this poem:

Laugh, and the world laughs with you;
Weep, and you weep alone.

Actually, this thought is not highly original.  In fact, it appears to be something that multitudes of people concur with, causing these lines to be widely accepted as true and reflective of the human spirit, heart and mind.  Wheeler’s work seems to put in words the attitude that many people have when broaching situations of joy, hope, celebration, and festivity, as opposed to situations of pain, sorrow, suffering and sadness.  It has something to do with the ego, where we don’t want others to know about what pains us, what kind of failures we have gone through, and the sufferings that are filling our lives.  But when it comes to life’s successes and achievements, where ‘good news’ is obvious, we have not much problems in shouting it out to the whole world. 

Perhaps two examples would make this clear. 

About a month ago, a young married couple for whom I had the privilege of officiating at their Sacrament of Holy Matrimony miscarried their first child at its first trimester.  I was notified of the news of the wife’s pregnancy when she first knew about it, but at their request kept mum about it.  Part of me wondered why they wanted to keep this good news quiet, but was later to find out that it was because they wanted to be ‘secure’ and ‘sure’ about the baby’s health till it the mother had reached the second trimester of her pregnancy.  However, just before that, the wife miscarried.  Needless to say, the both of them were devastated.  In my conversation with them, I asked them to continue to pray, but also to ask for the community’s prayer the moment they know that they are expecting the next time, and not wait till they had the all-clear from their gynaecologist. 

I have in my experience with parishioners and friends, also come across many elderly and physically ill, who have said that they do not want to be a burden on their families and loved ones, especially when they became old and sick.  As such, many of them wanted to keep their illnesses to themselves, and keep up appearances in public where hardly anyone knew of their suffering.  Some of the elderly sick go to the extent of, apparently, staging and planning it so that at their moment of death, none of their relatives would be around them.  Of course, this can never be ascertained, but the families and loved ones of these deceased ‘planners’ are confident that the circumstances around the person’s final moments of death (usually in a hospital) were made such that they would not be seen at the final moments of their lives on earth.

Before I continue, perhaps a caveat is required here.  I am not saying that we should advertise our suffering in a loud and even boastful way, so that we gain the pity and attention of every person around us, a-la many American television talk-show programmes where a person decides to do a 'tell-it-all', usually in the name of claiming their proverbial 15 seconds of 'fame'.  Neither am I saying that we should make sure that everyone we know surrounds our deathbeds and sees us taking our final breath of life. 

But the essence of this reflection is this - that even though the words of Ella Wheeler Wilcox are poetic, the true Christian is one who deeply knows the power of a praying community, and needs to be careful when applying Wheeler's words to all of that our lives have to offer. 

The expectant couple needed the strength of the praying community around them from the moment that they knew that they were going to be facing the next nine months with some anxiety and stress.  An expecting couple waiting only until the gynaecologist were to give them the all-clear after the first trimester was over, before telling their friends to pray for them, would be akin to saying that prayers were unnecessary in the first trimester.  Would this not make prayers a bit like ‘window dressing’ after the fact?  If the first trimester of foetal development is considered to be the one that requires most care, concern and attention, should that not include the spiritual care and attention as well? 

There are a lot of myths, especially where the Chinese are concerned, surrounding death.  The faithful Christian needs to be aware that some of these actually do border on superstition, which has no place in the life of the Christian.  Death is not taboo to a Christian.  In fact, a well prepared-for death should be life’s sweetest and most exciting moments, because it will be the time to prove that our faith is indeed true, and that all that we have lived for is going to be encountered in all its richness and glory – the mercy of Christ.  As such, we should not be afraid to give our loved ones the golden opportunity to pray for us at the ‘hour of our death’, as we pray the words of the beloved Hail Mary prayer.  In fact, it would be a great privilege and honour.  It could make our great desire to die alone and with no one around seeing us breathe our last, a sign instead, of our great pride, egotism, and even selfishness which many of us allow to die only after we die. 

The Catholic Church has beautiful prayers that are meant to be prayed at the point of death, and as a priest, I have only been asked to do this once in my eleven years of priesthood.  Nothing is more beautiful than having a family around the bed of a dying family member, responding to the litany of saints asking for their concerted efforts in imploring the mercy of the Lord, and the one dying seeing and hearing this community’s act of faith.  It is a sacred moment which few have readily embraced.

The Church celebrated the Solemnity of Corpus Christi yesterday, and there are multifarious dimensions of this rich mystery which we are slow to appreciate and behold as Catholics.  It goes far deeper than just Christ’s real presence in the consecrated host.  Christ’s real presence is also lived out in our lives, in our very being after we communicate with him at Mass.  The two examples of today's reflection are very real ways in which the presence of the body of Christ becomes real outside of the Eucharist. 

By all means, laugh, knowing that the world laughs with you, but when we know that our weeping is also a very real human condition, we must join willingly with our weeping brothers and sisters too, so that when they weep, they will have the confidence that we are weeping with them too.


  1. Hi Fr Luke

    With the recent experience of my second pregnancy and birth of my daughter, I cannot agree with you that we should not be afraid to let others see our sufferings. From the moment my pregnancy was known, there were of course encouragement and congratulations. However, mostly are very inconsiderate 'good intentions' that hover around 'Chinese superstitutions' that have absolutely nothing to do with being a Christians. Some of these things were harsh enough to drive me into depressions and I almost did what I would have regretted for the rest of my life! What kept me going? The love of Jesus for me.

    Now that things are better as my daughter is six months, I find the very same people laughing and merrymaking with me again! Wheeler is right - when we laugh, the world laugh with us, when we weep, we weep alone.

    Oh thanks be to God and to my Beloved Jesus, we do not weep alone for He wept with us, even when none did! Yes, what kept me going in such times, when I felt so burdened, so abandoned, even by God, He, Jesus, was the one who understood and quietly wept and consoled me when the rest of the world did not. For this alone, not to mention all the past accounts of His deep love for me, I know I am blessed and given Grace beyond my understanding. Indeed, Corpus Christi offered me a chance to truly experience what it really means to have His Precious Blood and Body emptied for me.

    Thank you Father for this topic. My prayer is that with this experience, I can pray more effectively for those who are in the same plight as me for His Grace and Mercy to gain greater Wisdom and understanding to imitate Him and to unite our little sufferings onto the Cross with His. Someone said to me, God loves you very much. Yes, I know, He loves me so much that He sends His Beloved Son to die for me, an unworthy servant, and allow me to have this One True Friend in my life! Thank you Heavenly Father.

    And thank you, Fr Luke


  2. I like “....the true Christian is one who deeply knows the power of a praying community, and needs to be careful when applying Wheeler's words to all of that our lives have to offer....’’ and
    “..but when we know that our weeping is also a very real human condition, we must join willingly with our weeping brothers and sisters too, so that when they weep, they will have the confidence that we are weeping with them too.’’ - because these two quotes- succinctly summarize what should be our Christian approach and attitude to suffering/sorrow..... for both the ‘victim’ and the ‘community-support’.

    The story of Job in the Old Testament and of Bartimaeus, the blind man in the New Testament –shows a striking similarity in that both the friends ( and wife of Job) and the Jewish community ( of Bartimaeus) were adamant in believing that both Job and Bartimaeus were guilty of bringing upon themselves their pitiful conditions and as such they were being ‘punished for their sins...’ This seemed to give the observers/supposedly supporters the right to sanctimoniously admonish the ‘’sinners’’ .......thus adding on to the burden of their sufferings ! Human nature is no different now as it was then ..... so it comes as no surprise, that some ‘’sufferers ‘’ are still diffident to share with the community their sorrow or sufferings. Besides, when one is faced with a debilitating illness, such parsimonious sympathy and or tongue-lashing can practically shrivel one up – perhaps leaving the sufferer more withered than the poor cursed fig tree.

    Fortunately, such ill-informed sympathizers are few and far between today. When I was critically ill I had my fair share of Eliphazs, Bildads and Zophars but I also had many visitors who like Our Blessed Mother, visited but spoke little and through their quiet and self effacing ways and prayers made me see that they cared , for I was part of them – the community. Many of them have through the years become firm friends. Through them I have also learnt how lovely it is to have people to laugh and share my joys with, but more wonderful still – a community to lean on, - to weep with when necessary, -to encourage and pray together when the storm of life seems to overwhelm and Jesus seems to be content with sleeping through it all!

    God bless you, Fr.

  3. The poem you quote was framed on my bedroom wall when I was a child and it did me great harm, as it's sentiments were reinforced by my mother, regularly. As a young woman who suffered miscarriage and then was unable to conceive again, I fell into a deep depression, from which a wise counselor helped me to recover.Part of my recovery was to re-write those words of Ella Wheeler Wilcox. The new words were: It is good to confide in certain Godly Christian people, so that you can receive the support you need. The very first person in whom I confided has now been my greatest friend for 34 years. Because I made myself vulnerable and confided in her, she did likewise, and we forged a truly great Christian friendship.
    I totally agree with your final words: By all means, laugh, knowing that the world laughs with you, but when we know that our weeping is also a very real human condition, we must join willingly with our weeping brothers and sisters too, so that when they weep, they will have the confidence that we are weeping with them too.
    Thank you for this post. May others be helped by reading what you have written here :)