|“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” —St. Paul, 2 Corinthians 12:9
My mother, Ruth Moynihan, passed away this evening, peacefully, in Connecticut, in the United States. She was 85.
She had struggled for many months as a motor neuron disease took away her ability to walk, to talk, to swallow, and finally even to be, in this world.
In her last hours today, we prayed a rosary. Yesterday, the parish priest visited, and anointed her, and gave her communion. As night came on, I read the Book of Ruth to her.
As she grew weaker, she suffered greatly. Yet she was never demanding, self-centered, or impatient. Her greatest concern was always that my father, 92, have his eye-drops in the evening. She died as she had lived, for others.
As she lay dying, one of my sisters found among her boxes of papers writings of hers we had never seen before.
Among them were two pieces I thought I might share with you.
The first is a meditation on the redemptive meaning of human suffering. She published it 51 years ago, when she was 34, in the August 1967 issue of Marriage: The Magazine for Husband and Wife.
So That The Life of Christ May Fill The World With Love
Marriage, August 1967
By Ruth Barnes Moynihan
“Gladly therefore I will glory in my infirmities, that the strength of Christ may dwell in me.” So wrote St. Paul, one of the strongest saints in Christian history.
How much more must all Christians learn to echo his words in our turbulent modern times!
For today every thinking Christian, and every other thinking person as well, is caught up in the confusion of both religious and secular revolution.
Public wars and sorrows mingle with private anguish to create a sense at times, of total personal weakness and infirmity…
How many forms does personal suffering take?
As many as there are human beings, I suppose.
But broadly speaking, we can describe them as either physical, mental, or spiritual in nature.
Physical suffering is unavoidable in life.
All our work, and even our play, involves a painful growth, learning, and finally aging process, which can be compared to the bumps and bruises that are part of the world.
A man practices his trade or profession only by spending his time and energy on his machine or his books or his travels.
A skier must take his falls, a housewife (advertising notwithstanding) her dishpan hands.
Furthermore, we are all subject to illness of various kinds and degrees.
Whether we bear the misery of a common cold or the nightmare of terminal cancer, we all have to face our physical infirmities with or without a Christian spirit.
Mental suffering is also an inevitable part of life.
The worries of a mother for her children, the grief of seeing the death or sickness of someone we love, the fears of failure in our duties, are always hidden or plain in the business of living…
And then there are the huge sorrows some lives have to bear.
Parents of a deformed or retarded child; a sincere unmarried girl who discovers she is pregnant; a man or woman who has been deserted by his or her spouse… a family which has been orphaned by disaster — such people know the meaning of suffering and weakness in all its depths.
Above the physical and mental suffering are the spiritual torments which sooner or later, more or less often, face the searching soul.
First of all, there is the “simple” question of virtue.
Even though we have the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule, as well as the guidance of society and the Church, real virtue requires a struggle that goes far beyond mere obedience or ethical certainty.
Virtue, or rather holiness, requires a life-long interaction between the demands of our existential situation and the principles we live by.
To do what is most loving may actually involve a total wrenching of our own hearts for the sake of the other.
Parents who love their children cannot be unwilling to punish or deprive them now and then.
Just as a doctor must often cause pain in order to cure, a Christian must often choose between quick, inadequate solutions and a temporary pain for the sake of long-term growth.
Without ethical standards we could not make such choices.
And without acceptance of suffering we could not carry them through.
But added to the whole problem of virtue there is, for the religious person, the problem of faith itself.
Faith is not merely a clinging to the truths of our religious creed.
It is a radical commitment of the human soul to God, of the natural elements of life to the supernatural action of God.
It is also the certain cause of suffering as well as joy, for our own sinfulness and the imperfection of human life form the unavoidable cross upon which all human faith is nailed.
“My grace is sufficient for you, for strength is made perfect in weakness,” God said to St. Paul.
And every man of faith, suffering his fleshly thorns, must accept this truth again and again until his death.
How can God allow such torments?
We all cry out in pain and there is no certain answer.
We can only choose to believe that it all makes sense and will be equalized in the infinite mercy of God — or that it does not.
For the Christian there is only Christ hanging upon His cross, sharing our misery and rising from the dead with His promise of eternal life.
But how do we bear the sorrow while we live?
How do we find the strength to kneel alone in our own small gardens of Gethsemane with all our human infirmities crying out to the Lord that we might be relieved?
Well, of course, we can rebel.
We can give up our faith and refuse the cup of pain.
I will be happy, our hearts cry out, and we run from responsibility, avoid the bruises of hard work, drown ourselves in alcohol or sociability or mediocrity.
More and more deeply we despair of meaning while our own rebellious behavior makes our lives more meaningless…
Another means of dealing with suffering is endurance…
Faced with the loss of someone we love, the immediate reaction can perhaps be nothing else, for there is no choice but total sorrow and total acceptance.
By means of endurance we can find the strength to throw ourselves into physical or mental labor, to keep our bodies and minds busy until the pain is cured or lessened.
We can even pretend to be happy, smiling and laughing with others though every nerve in our bodies may be crying out it isn’t true, it’s all a fake — I’m miserable!
And by the natural strength of a human smile, we are gradually enabled to share in the smiles of others — and the supernatural smile of God upon our puny efforts.
But there may be times in every life when suffering seems beyond all endurance.
Our bodies ache to the very limit of Consciousness, our happiness seems totally destroyed, our souls lie in darkness and dejection where love is lost, hope seems impossible, and even faith is an empty dream…
The atheistic Existentialism of absurdity provides no peace of Soul — only a means of temporary respite, an excuse for continuing to roll the stone of Sisyphus.
Only Christianity gives human meaning to chaos.
Christ has taught us by example as well as word, that even the most terrible suffering in human life can be part of our Salvation — in the fulfillment of the world.
It is not only the future “reward in heaven” that makes Christian suffering meaningful.
It is right here on Earth in the world of time and human action that love as sacrifice may achieve results.
By enduring the unendurable, by pursuing the impossible, Christians become the channels of God’s goodness and holiness…
By gladly glorying in their infirmities, they reveal to the world the strength of God — strength so great that it could make an insignificant, self-righteous, physically weak little man like Paul into one of the moving spirits of human history. The nature of European civilization, and now gradually of the whole world, was radically changed because St Paul “fought the good fight” and “ran so as to win.”
Of course, most of us will never have the opportunities or the influence of such a man.
But it is possible, and necessary, to make all of our own sufferings into fruitful sacrifices.
Even when we cannot imagine any good results, even in the utmost loneliness of heart and soul, we can offer our sorrow for the specific good of someone else or some good cause and trust in God’s care to use it accordingly.
Often we hear of a teacher who influenced one of his students toward greatness without even knowing it.
Children go out to meet the world with courage learned from their mother who thought she had none.
Men are inspired to support or promote a work of justice or charity because some other person died or suffered in order to begin it or make its need known.
Writers and artists live in poverty, die in ignominy, only to have generations feed upon their thought, build upon their work.
There is, at the same time, an extraordinary comfort to the suffering soul to know that even in the dryness of an apparently hopeless faith, a Christian has the right to be certain that God will use his sufferings wisely in the total scheme of life.
We can smile through our pain, keep interior peace in our tears, for His gifts are sufficient for us, and His strength is made perfect in our weakness.
Gladly therefore should we glory in the midst of our weaknesses, so that the life of Christ may eventually fill all the world with love.
And then, written in the careful, elegant handwriting of a young girl of 10 years, in pencil, was this poem:
By Ruth MacKenzie Barnes (October 1943)
I love October bright and golden
Blue skies, bright eyes, shining faces
Lovely weather, noisy birds
Fly for lovely far-off places.
Happiness lives in the air so clear
Everything’s pleasant that meets the ear
Everything’s lovely that meets the eye
A beautiful month to be born, or die.