Today is the Feast Day of Our Lady of Sorrows, which in itself sounds oxymoronic to me. Somehow, “feast” and “sorrows” just don’t mix well in my mind. But in the Catholic understanding of spirituality, those two things do, indeed, go together. We understand that Jesus suffered, and his beloved mother also suffered, perhaps, on an emotional level, even more greatly than He did.
It only naturally follows that when we find ourselves suffering, on any level, that we can unite our suffering with theirs (and that of many, many of our Saints) and find meaning in it. And, if in today’s mixed-up world, one can find meaning and eventually even joy, in suffering, then that is a cause indeed for a feast.
In my own life, I have endured what, for me, is quite a bit of suffering. My experiences are nowhere near as painful as others’, to be sure, but they are my own. I have a dear friend who, over the past couple of years, has had to walk through some very dark and terrifying times with one of her children. She sat up many nights, overwhelmed with fear for her child, praying like crazy, not knowing if he was going to succumb to madness, or if it was just a passing teenage phase. I once shared with her how much I admire her courage and strength, and that I thought what she was going through was the worst thing I could imagine. She later told me that she was shocked to hear that from me, because, to her, all the things she has watched me walk through were far worse! (I still disagree, btw.)
But my point here is that suffering, like anything else, is relative, and can only be measured subjectively. But, having experienced, in the space of one year, the death of my father, my father-in-law, our beloved dog, our home burning, a hurricane, a flood, an earthquake, extreme financial stress, and several other things I don’t even care to mention, I think I can honestly say that I have learned a thing or two about suffering.
The first thing I’ve learned is that I am, actually, grateful for it all. The obvious fruit is that I was forced to fully rely on God, and let go of all pride in my own accomplishments. But there is a hidden, unexpected and very sweet fruit, as well. Because I have suffered, I have discovered that I have a lot more mercy and compassion for others who are suffering. I am much less quick to judge others, and much, much quicker to forgive. I no longer scoff at people who are depressed, or discouraged. I’ve been there, and I know how it feels. For me, pain has not only made me stronger, but it has made me much, much softer.
The next thing I’ve learned is that those who have not suffered much tend to be very judgmental and rigid. They still operate under the illusion that they know all the answers and have control of things. They still believe that they know better than anyone else how to raise their children, or how to be a proper (fill-in-the-blank). For example, I have a friend whose husband used to be quite sure that we were raising our son very badly, and that he could do better. Until one of his children absolutely brought him to his knees. Now, I would have NEVER wished that on my worst enemy (or his daughter!) but make no mistake: it turned his world around. He now says things like “You just never know what kids will do. You do the best you can, and love them no matter what.” Gaylon and I nod knowingly and agree gently.
I think one of the biggest sorrows of my life has been letting go of some of my dreams. For example, I’ve always dreamed that I would have lots and lots of children, and they would all live nearby. We would have big, joyous holidays and get together to celebrate important events in each other’s lives, like Weddings, First Communions, Confirmations, Graduations, Birthdays, so on.
But God seemingly had other plans for me. I was not able to have as many children as I had hoped, and the three amazing children I do have were all extracted by C-section, instead of being born peacefully at home, as Gaylon and I had dreamed. And now, they are not all living nearby. My oldest son lives on the East Coast, and apparently his wife is set on moving as close as she can to her own family. Which is, of course, much farther from us. It is killing me to realize that I will never get to be near my grandchildren on a regular basis. In fact, this is a much bigger blow to me than any of the sorrows I have ever had. I struggle with this on an almost daily basis, trying to reconcile my perceived loss with what I have dreamed of for so long.
I thought by now that we would be living on a big, self-sustaining farm, somewhere in the lush and beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains of Western North Carolina, with chickens, maybe some goats and sheep, and an organic vineyard. Instead, we are in a suburb in a very large, dry Texas city. (Note: We actually love it here, and have made more friends in the past year than we did in all the years we lived in North Carolina, which is proof that sometimes what I dream is not nearly as good as what God has in store for me.)
So, yes, letting go of dreams is hard, and sometimes overwhelmingly sorrowful! But if I offer these things up, give them to God, He turns them into blessings and I find myself much richer than I could have imagined, spiritually, emotionally, mentally. I find that I really can “celebrate” my sorrows. Sort of like what Dolly Parton’s character, Truvy, said in Steel Magnolias: “Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion.”
Sorrows are a given in this life. How we handle them determines whether they become ‘feasts’ or not. While I may have to take time out and weep now and then, I know that as long as I keep my sights on our Lord, and accept whatever He gives me, it’s going to be okay, and even better than I could have hoped for.