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Is Suffering Evil?

Last Monday while I was in the adoration chapel, a former client of mine, Mary Grace Schneider, arrived for one of her weekly holy hours.  I noticed that there was something different about her, but it didn’t register in my brain until she asked me to pray for her.  That’s when I realized what was different.  She had walked into the chapel without a brace or other walking device, something she had not been able to do for several years.

I originally met Grace in 1992, when she hired me to represent her.  She had been seriously injured as a result of an automobile accident.  Initially she put off hiring an attorney, but finally called me because she was concerned about her deteriorating condition and the extensive amount of treatment she was receiving.  By the time I met with Grace, she had already accumulated more than fifty thousand dollars in medical bills.

When I met Grace, she was 26 years old.  She reminded me of my sisters and my aunts on the Williams side of my family.  She was confident, independent, self-reliant, smart, focused, determined, aggressive, and sassy.  She was married and had a nursing degree from Bradley University.  She had everything going for her.  Her husband had a good job at Caterpillar and shortly after they were married, they bought their first house.  Three years after they were married, they started construction on a new home.  Life was good.

The accident happened in November of 1991.  Grace had just started a new administrative level nursing job and was heading home from work on Interstate 74 near downtown Peoria.  Because of a car accident on the Murray Baker Bridge, there was a long line of traffic that was stopped in front of her.  After she slowed down and stopped behind the last car in the line of other stopped vehicles, her car was hit from behind by a station wagon that was travelling at full speed.

Grace was taken by ambulance to St. Francis Hospital.  When her husband arrived, he was told that there was a chance she wouldn’t make it through the night.  A few days later, they wondered whether she would ever be able to walk again.  Even more alarming was the constant burning pain she had in her foot and leg.

Over the next 5 years, Grace had to go through physical therapy to learn how to walk and write again.  In addition, she had to cope with the never-ending burning pain that had spread from her foot to her hand.  During that time, she lost her mother, her career, and a baby through a miscarriage (her second miscarriage).  She went through 4 surgeries.  The pain she was having was caused by a rare neurovascular disorder, Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD), which causes pain on the scale of bone cancer.

With RSD, anything that stimulated her nervous system – wind, bright lights, loud noises, light touch – caused searing pain in her leg and hand.  At the time of the accident, little was known about treating RSD.  (Since then, doctors have discovered several ways to achieve remission for newly diagnosed patients.  Unfortunately, anyone having the disease longer than a year has little hope for relief.  The best that can be achieved is modest pain control with morphine or other drugs.)

In 1997, after a successful pregnancy, Grace was blessed with a new baby girl.  Two years later, her second daughter was born.  After the birth of her daughters, she became serious about her faith.  A good friend encouraged her to explore and learn more about the Catholic faith.  She turned to the Blessed Virgin Mary for assistance and our Lady guided her to a deeper meaning and understanding of the pain and suffering that our Lord endured.  Grace stopped questioning the authority of the Church and went to confession, something she hadn’t done for several years.  After that, Grace started spending time with our Lord in the adoration chapel.  It was only then that she found peace.

In 2004, on Good Friday, Grace heard the following words within her heart, “Will you turn the evil of suffering into a sacrifice of love for Me?” She felt that God was calling her to offer what she was going through as a sacrifice of love for Jesus.

When Grace told me about the “evil of suffering” message, I was surprised.  My first thought was, “Is all suffering evil?”  I did some research and found Salvifici Doloris (The Christian Meaning of Human Suffering), an apostolic letter that was written by Pope John Paul II in 2006.  In his letter, the Pope said that suffering and evil are identified with each other because suffering generates the feeling that a person is cut off from good.  Since being cut off from good is an evil, the cause of suffering is an evil.

Just as an evil can cause pain, sorrow, disappointment, depression, and, at times, desperation, suffering can cause those same feelings and emotions.  The message of the Pope in his letter was that the mystery of suffering is revealed in Christ through the love that can be shown in response to: (1) our own suffering; and (2) the suffering of others.

I started out by telling you that after Grace walked into the adoration chapel, she asked me to pray for her.  In the 20 years I’ve known Grace, she has never asked me for prayers.  Why now?  I asked her and she told me what she’s currently going through.  She said that over the years, the RSD has spread throughout her body.  At one point, she was also diagnosed with multiple autoimmune diseases which led to her being put on chemotherapy drugs to keep her from drowning in her own fluids.  (The autoimmune diseases have caused her body to attack itself.)  I asked her to write down what she told me and send it to me.  Here’s what she sent:

I keep trying; failing many times, but trying to peacefully offer whatever I have to Him in hopes He accepts my offering and gives it meaning by uniting my suffering to His Passion and Cross, thus becoming a small portion of Redemptive Suffering.  But now, I’m really struggling.  Just 5 months ago, I purchased an electric wheelchair because my illness had progressed to the point it was extremely difficult to walk, even a few steps.  Every task was becoming a major effort.  Breathing was a challenge, swallowing was becoming a problem, reading was impossible.

I was hospitalized in Nov. and Dec. this past year.  While being treated it was discovered I might have Myasthenia Gravis, a disease that causes extreme weakness of every voluntary muscle in the human body, including those used for breathing.  The Dr.’s gave me the only drug known to help.  Almost immediately strength was returning.  Soon I was able to walk enough to put the electric wheelchair away.  Difficult tasks became much easier.  Unfortunately, the medications I’m on have serious side effects: liver toxicity, bone marrow depletion, serious lung infections, even cancer.   One medicine’s warning label reads “Deaths have been reported in patients using this drug as prescribed from the first dose without warning.”  Ironically it is because I am doing better that I am struggling and it is for these very medications I am asking for prayers.

I really want to ask you to pray for me to be able to keep these drugs, especially the one which is responsible for the return of muscle strength.  I want to ask to keep these drugs because just a few short months ago I was feeling like a worthless bump on a log.  I couldn’t care for my family in any manner I valued as a mother.  I didn’t feel like I was truly alive anymore.  Instead, I felt I was barely going through the motions of being alive, even struggling at times to breath, talk and swallow.  In short, I was suffering extreme amounts of pain while trying to hide from my family.  I was waiting to die.

Since I have been on this newest medicine I went shopping with my girls – first time ever – at an outdoor mall.  Sure I took breaks in the car while they looked for items to show me, but I was physically with them.   Both girls, now 12 and 14, said they never thought we would go shopping together in a store.  One even said that to my Dr. and told her how excited she was to have a mom who can do things with her again.  Now I can go to watch them in sports, plays, music performances, or whatever they are doing for at least a short time.  I have the strength to cook dinner for them at least a couple days a week.

All of that was impossible just 5 months ago.  At least some of the time I feel alive, somewhat productive, and doing some of the things I believe moms should do for their families.  Yet the doctor may have to stop the drug helping the most.  I am to travel to St. Louis for testing to determine whether I can stay on the drug.  While this drug does nothing directly to help with my pain, it makes the pain more bearable by allowing my life to have meaning to me again.

Obviously I fear losing this medicine and returning to my weakened state.  Yet, maybe this is what He is asking of me.  I can’t imagine going back to being a bump on a log again.  Not cooking or cleaning, not shopping at all, leaving the groceries to my husband who is already doing so much more than I believe he should have to do.  I don’t want to go back to sitting in my wheelchair and facing life in a nursing home before I’m 50 or 55.  I certainly don’t want my children to see me that way again.  I want to feel valuable, and even as I am now, I struggle to find value in what little I can do.  In my heart, when I felt those words “Will you turn the evil of suffering into a sacrifice of love for Me?” I said yes.  Now, having experienced just what those words really mean, I fear saying yes again.  So, while I want to ask you to pray for me to keep my medicine, I need to ask instead for your prayers imploring Him to give me the strength to do whatever it is HE WANTS ME TO DO, and to live it out peacefully, if not joyfully.

I have had friends say to ask people to pray for keeping the meds, and certainly if it’s not His will, I won’t keep them.  But that’s not the point.  He commanded us twice to love Him and our neighbor.  He even showed us what that looked like when He gave up His Will to the Father so we could be saved.  Love is a willingness to sacrifice our wants and desires, our will to the Father for the benefit of others. That is what is meant by laying down one’s life for a friend.  I know I can’t do this halfway.  I need His help to lay down my will out of Love for Him.  Only He can ease my fears and restore His peace within me.  Why do I want to do this?  Because I truly believe it was He who asked me to “turn the evil of suffering into a sacrifice of love.”  Satan doesn’t want sacrifices or love.  And in the end, I really hope to hear Him say “welcome home,” or even better, “well done my good and faithful servant.”  So now I’m praying for the strength to let go of what I want, what I feel is best, and let Him take over.

This week we will be reminded of the passion and suffering of our Lord.  I wanted to share Grace’s personal story in the hope that it would help you better understand the mystery of suffering.  I’ve already offered up a holy hour for Grace and her family.  I’m going to offer up another holy hour for her this week.  When I asked Grace if I could share her story with you, she hesitated, then agreed.  She did you and me a favor by sharing her personal journey.  You may want to return the favor by saying a prayer for her.

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4 Responses to “Is Suffering Evil?”

  1. Rosemary Says:

    I will offer a mass and communion for Grace this week. Thank you for sharing this incredible story. Every lent Georgette and I talk to eachother on Ash Wednesday and say Happy Lent because every single year for the last 21 years we have both suffered (it seems more than usual, but it probably isn’t). Just yesterday, we talked about the many people suffering that we know including Andrea. In the past 4 years Andrea has offered so much and has offered her suffering up for others and this letter is such a good reminder that we all have to! Thank you for reminding me and others that it is God’s will, not ours. Well written.
    Love, Rosemary

  2. Sister Roberta Houlihan, CSJ Says:

    Harry, not much time – computer has been down a few days, so need to play catch-up.
    Beautiful story of God’s work through Grace! Thank you again!
    The date chosen for Listing our Convent is April 23 – again – lots to do. Blessings for these Holy Week Days, Triduum and for Eastertide.
    Sister Roberta

  3. Harry Says:

    Thanks for your comment, Rosemary. I’ll offer up a holy hour, Mass, and rosary for you and your family next week.

  4. Harry Says:

    Thanks Sister. It’s amazing how dependent we have become on our computers. I hope you have a blessed Easter.

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