A word of warning: this is some intense stuff.
There are things one is not to discuss in polite company. Tea partiers. Salaries and costs of homes. Personal sexual escapades. And thoughts like, “What the hell is God doing, anyway?”
I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. Probably for about four years, if I’m really honest. I am Catholic, and I have no interest in leaving the Church. I’m not the best Catholic, and I’m not the worst. I don’t endorse some of the things the Church has gotten into, and I’m just absolutely disgusted and infuriated by other things, but my faith is a Catholic faith, and my method of worship is a Catholic method of worship, and so there I stay. But for the last few years, I’ve had what more Godly people would call a crisis of faith. Alright, maybe a mini-crisis.
This will not come as good news to the parents of my godsons, by the way.
It started with my grandmother’s death. No, not her death. Her dying. It was the first time I ever really got angry with God, a concept that I previously could not even fathom. But my grandmother had been sick for 17 years. She had devoted her life to God and serving Him. There was evidence of this throughout the house. Not the clutter of ostentatiously pious bric-a-brac, but some serious signs of ecumenical and sacrificial dedication. All of her children went to Catholic schools. She held some fundraisers and organized others for the parish. She helped put together plans for major Church events. She sang in the church choir. Articles were written. Honors were presented. When I called to tell her, on Easter 2000, that my mother’s mother had passed away, the first words out of her mouth were an awed, “Praise be to God.”
I didn’t blame God for Grandmom’s Parkison’s Disease. I don’t believe God causes bad things to happen. I get a little frustrated with people who say someone’s death, particularly an untimely one, was God’s plan, or that God wouldn’t give them anything that they can’t handle. I don’t believe that God plans for a teenager to be shot to death in the middle of a street. I don’t believe that God would “take” a life willfully, would steal a child from his mother and condemn her to a lifetime of unimaginable heartache. I’m not even convinced there is a “plan.” My way of summing this up is to say, “God is not a carcinogen. God gives us life. Life gives us cancer.” I truly do believe that.
But in July of 2007, my grandmother developed pneumonia. I was in France when she was hospitalized, but I had a horrible feeling something was wrong at home, and as I stood in the gift shop at Sacre Coeur, staring at rosaries, a voice in my head kept saying, “Grandmom. Grandmom.” I found out when I got through customs back in the States that she was quite ill, and the family had thought we might lose her while I was away. When I arrived at the hospital, straight from the airport, she seemed relieved to see me. She had thought she might not. And as I kissed her goodbye at the end of the visit, I admonished her not to say such things.
She nodded once and winked at me. “Right,” she whispered, unsmiling.
Of course, we both knew she was dying. Pneumonia is what most often claims the lives of Parkinson’s patients. She went home, but for a month, she slowly deteriorated. Then she took a turn, and I sat by her bedside at home as she slept something like 20 hours one day. Late in the night, just before I went to pick up my father from the airport and bring him to her, she woke up, held my hand, and asked me to sing “Ave Maria” to her, right there and then. She told me not to forget that I was to sing it at the funeral.
The next day, she had more energy, and she was awake most of the time. With my father back from Florida and her family assembled, it seemed all the pieces were in place. “I wonder what we’re waiting for,” she said to me.
I remember praying that God would have mercy and take her peacefully, that He would be mindful of all she had given to Him, of how she had literally and figuratively sung His praises all her life, of how she and my late grandfather had raised their family to be faithful.
But dying, it became increasingly clear, is a thing one does alone.
“Are You even listening?!” I finally screamed at Him in my head. “Are You paying attention?! Do You even care?!”
It was another week before she passed. I had had to go home, and go back to work. My father called at 6:20am from the airport in Florida, where he had been bound back north after he, too, had had to return to work. I never cried for Grandmom. I was only relieved that her suffering was over, and I believed she had been reunited with my grandfather and her parents. I was at peace with her death. I helped plan her funeral Mass, and I sang the “Ave Maria.”
But I was pissed at God. He didn’t help her. He let her suffer. After 17 years of a degenerative, humiliating, painful disease, He let her actual dying take a month. Her body was exhausted and aching, her lungs were damaged, her soul was crying for Him. But He let her die on her own.
And I started to realize the many things for which I had faithfully prayed that were never granted.
There’s a sweet saying about being grateful for unanswered prayers. There’s a parable about footprints in the sand. They are nice thoughts. I suppose they are a comfort for those who find themselves praying all the time for something that never happens. Not material things, not trivial things. Real, important things. It used to comfort me to think of the gifts of an unanswered prayer, until I realized how many of them there have been.
There are tragedies large and small literally all day long. Some of them you know about. Others you don’t. Sometimes the details of someone’s personal pain are so horrid that it’s just not necessary to impart them on the world. And then sometimes, there are catastrophic global events. 9/11. Katrina. Indonesia. Haiti. Japan. There are photos and videos of unrelenting waves marching through and obliterating towns and lives. Of cracks opening up in the earth and swallowing people up. Of buildings crumbled into piles on top of entire families. Of cars swept out to a sea that was once a mile away. Of a man clinging to his rooftop, spotted by helicopter crews, ten miles from a new kind of nowhere, nearly insane with worry about what had happened to his wife.
Eli, Eli, lema sabbachtani?
People say everything happens for a reason. I used to believe that, but I don’t anymore. I can’t see the reason for things like the human nightmare of massive earthquakes and tsunamis. Sometimes things just happen and they’re horrible and there’s no reason for it at all. But I believe we can find good, that we can force good to come out of those horrors. And I do think life is sometimes a mercurial thing, with connections we could never fathom. I have said that if 20 pints of blood donated for one sick loved one couldn’t save them, but a single one of those pints went on to save someone else, it was worth the sacrifice. I believe in miracles. I believe that maybe God did send those helicopter crews. That maybe it was a miracle that that man survived. That maybe it is God’s work when a rescue team pulls an old woman out alive from the rubble of a building that fell ten days before. I believe with God, all things are possible. But they don’t feel very likely.
And so, more and more, I wonder. Why do horrific things happen over and over in places where no one has anything to begin with? Why do some families endure innumerable heartaches and struggles? Why do individuals battle for years with everything from loneliness to illness to addiction, begging for help from God all the time, trying to listen, trying to be open to a voice, and never seem to get it? When people pray for help, does God ever answer? Of all the people who send prayers to heaven, to how many does He truly respond?
One person’s miracle is another person’s coincidence, and a third person’s logically explained development. I have always been taught that faith is the key. Keeping faith, even when it wavers, even when one doubts, is the most important thing. And so I continue to believe, however imprecisely. But the way I believe has changed. I no longer pray for myself. It seems that all the prayers I can remember saying in which I asked God for some benefit (and I have never prayed for anything material) went unanswered. Some of my deepest needs haven’t opened any other doors for me. But it also seems that, when I have prayed for others, there have been some responses. So I continue to offer fervent, faithful, hopeful prayers for those who are ill, who are dying, who are struggling, who are seeking. Perhaps selfishness is the problem; asking for something for oneself, however deep and spiritual the need… maybe that’s not the point.
From this, another belief evolves: that we should be the answer to each other’s prayers. Since the days of Job, we have questioned whether God tests us. I think being “tested” with cancer or abuse or depression or job loss is just cruel, and runs counter to the loving and forgiving God who came to us through Jesus Christ. A God who would test His faithful with such pain is not a God I want to worship. And so I do not believe that we are tested by God. But I am beginning to believe that when we see people suffering, the answer to our heartfelt prayers that God help them… is that we help them. Maybe that is what the faiths of the world mean when they teach us to recognize the God in one another, and in ourselves. Maybe prayer is just supposed to be a way to open up our hearts, minds and spirits so that we can be angels for each other.
I do not know how best to help the people of Japan. I do not know how to help the people of Darfur, or North Korea, or Iran. There are so many who need so much. It’s overwhelming. It is easier to help those I can see, those I know, those near whom I live. I do not know how to be an angel for people on the other side of the world. I am powerless to stop their horrors, and it does not seem that God will stop them, either. I can pray for them to find food, shelter, medicine, missing loved ones, peace. And now, the only thing I ask God to give me is grace. To accept, to give, to love, and to try. Sometimes that’s all I ask for because I just don’t think He’ll give me anything else. Sometimes, I’m fairly sure it’s all I need.