When the Pain Doesn’t Make Sense: A Catholic View of Suffering

Gabriel Gillen wasn’t sure what he was going to do with his life after graduating from college, but during his family’s Thanksgiving reunion he was quite vocal about the poor choice he believed his older sister was making.

She was a member of the 82nd Airborne, an elite division of the U.S. Army. Gillen was struggling to understand how she could turn down a promotion to Captain and an opportunity to teach at West Point to get a Masters in Theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.

Gillen 01“I thought she had gone Bible Belt crazy,” said Gillen, who would one day become a Dominican priest. “I started riling her. ‘So what are you going to do with that degree? Couldn’t you get that part time and still teach at West Point? Take classes somewhere else? It would be a greater witness to teach at West Point. You’re throwing your life away!’”

But nothing he said dissuaded his sister, who had rediscovered her faith and who told him she knew this was what she was supposed to do. Unfortunately, his sister never got her degree. She died of leukemia at Memorial Sloan Kettering, the famous cancer hospital in New York.

When his sister left this earth, Gillen left the Church. He started to question everything. He needed to understand the problem of pain. He looked at philosophy, and eastern mysticism. He look anywhere and everywhere, except his own faith tradition because he thought he knew what the Church taught. But even beyond the grave, Gillen’s sister wasn’t finished reaching out to her little brother.

Angel solo with blue background“She had written a letter to a friend of mind that got him through Ranger school,” Gillen said. “He ended up going to Steubenville. He got engaged, broke it off,
and became a priest. Long story short, he got me out to Steubenville, brought me back to confession and daily Mass. I ended up joining a missionary order and then the Dominicans.

“My first assignment as a Dominican was Sloan Kettering! I almost said, ‘I can’t do this.’ Then, I realized I was able to relate with people, to share [what had happened in my own life]. People are angry. They direct it toward you. I was able to not be afraid of that; to talk them through that. I got it.”

Dominican Father Gabriel Gillen, O.P., who is now director of the Rosary Shrine of St. Jude in Washington, D.C. and who recently visited EWTN to talk about the Angelic Warfare Confraternity (see last weeks’ blog), said that, while he was at Sloan Kettering, he sometimes found himself ministering to people in the same room in which his sister had died.

“At one point, a lady was yelling at me because her daughter was dying. I was walking out of the room, and I really felt like I heard, ‘Get back in there!’”

carrying the crossWhen he returned, the woman who had booted him out was shocked.

“I said, ‘God hates suffering. This is why God took on suffering – to destroy death.’”

As they spoke, Father said she finally understood why Christ – and therefore His people – had to suffer. As Father says: “Once we understand why Christ had to suffer, everything else makes sense.”

To help us understand this spiritual reality, Fr. Gillen loves to use analogies from the natural world. He came upon one of his best analogies after being asked to give a talk on suffering to a group of children at a Wyoming Indian reservation who had been through a lot of trauma. After spending much time before the Blessed Sacrament, he still didn’t know what he was going to say. But, as he was leaving the church, his eye fell upon a statue of Our Lady of Grace, especially her foot under which she crushes the head of the serpent.

Our Lady of Grace

Our Lady of Grace Framed Artwork, available from EWTN Religious Catalogue, http://bit.ly/OurLadyofGraceArtwork.

He remembered a story he had heard about snakes. Until 1895, if someone was bitten by a snake, they died. But Albert Calmette, a French scientist and protégé of Louis Pasteur, discovered that if you milk venom from snakes and give it to sheep – to a lamb – you get an immune response and the blood of the lamb becomes an anti-venom.

Says Fr. Gillen: “No matter how big or how small, when we give the venom we’ve been stung with to the Lamb of God, He turns it into something else in the Body of Christ.”

As Father says, “You can’t make this stuff up! Suffering was useless until Christ came. Nothing was redemptive. Now it’s different. Even a deadly doses of venom can be cured with the Resurrection. Everything has been recreated.”

Crowning with thornsFather says many in the Early Church couldn’t understand how someone could be both fully human and fully divine. The Jews couldn’t accept the Messiah because they believed he was supposed to reign like David and be greater than David. They couldn’t understand that He was coming twice: first as the Suffering Servant and then in Glory.

The early Church used the term “Christ the Victor,” who was purposely taken into the prison of death, Father said. Early icons showed him kicking down the door and releasing Adam and Eve from their cell.

“Christ allowed Himself to be imprisoned so He could break open the doors. That’s how the Early Church used to describe suffering. Later, St. Basil described suffering as justice. Man had sinned and had to pay the price. It’s helpful to go back to the Church fathers.

“We get scandalized because we’re always wanting to be the Messiah and not the Suffering Servant. As sons and daughter of God, we want to be princes and princesses and to enter into His reign. We don’t realize we have to be Suffering Servants because He wants us to rescue the rest of the body that is still sick!”

Nail and crossSo how do we heal from the evils that are perpetrated upon us? We look to the Master. St. Peter denied Christ three times. After the resurrection, Christ appeared to the apostles. Three times he had Peter go back and revisit the evil of his denial. Three times, Peter affirmed his love, thereby undoing the denials and redeeming the situation.

“God sometimes has us revisit things to transform them so they won’t haunt us,” Father Gillen said. “I didn’t want to go near Sloan Kettering. We get caught up in the storms. But with Christ, we can walk on water. He says, ‘I want you to be totally free.’”

Today, secular psychologists sometimes help patients heal by reframing traumas from the past, but Father says God goes much deeper. He goes back and fills those things in us that need to be filled. In fact, many Popes have spoken about “returning to the School of Nazareth.”

Guy in hospital room“The only holy family was the Holy Family,” Fr. Gillen said. “Every family has different developmental stages. All have been given certain things or not given certain things. At your current age, you might have forgiven everybody, but you need to go back to those different ages. The nine-year-old [you], the 15-year-old [you], has to be filled with the things you weren’t filled with. God really goes back, out of time. You can go back to different stages with Mary as mother, Joseph as father, and Jesus. You can go back and nurture [your earlier self] and remove things.”

Father says we can pray the rosary and place ourselves at the different stages of Christ’s life.

“Feel the great love the Blessed Mother had, not just for Jesus, but for all the people who will be baptized into Christ. We need to place ourselves into the Body of Christ and let Jesus and Mary and Joseph fill us. That’s spiritual passages.”

CrucifixionSo let us go to the School of Nazareth, as Father suggests, and let God in. Let us ask Him for healing. Meditate on His Word and His life. Ask Our Lady, our Mother, through the mysteries of the rosary and other Biblical scenes to help. Turn to St. Joseph, foster father of the Savior and a carpenter, to help craft something beautiful out of something that may be very ugly. If we do this, then we will be able to resonate with Father Gillen’s final words:

“Evil is a lack of goodness; it has no substance. Lucifer imploded on himself. He was an angel, but instead of going outward in love, he became a black hole. God doesn’t create the void [which is how those who have experienced a tragedy sometimes feel]. He fills it. He allowed himself to be swallowed by death for three days; He went into a spiritual darkness that God did not create.

“You cannot fill a black hole on an actual level. How do you fill it on a supernatural level? Only God can do it. [God] allowed His uncreated light to be swallowed into that black hole to fill it and that’s how he destroyed it, so the game is never over. There is nothing in life we could be hit with that could destroy us.”

Amen Father Gillen!

Want to learn more? Fr. Gillen recommends: “Behold the Pierced One,” http://bit.ly/PiercedOne by Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) and Part 1 of “My Way of Life,” which he calls “a devotional way of going through the ‘Summa,’” by Fathers Farrell and Healy, http://bit.ly/MyWayofLife. Father likes the section about the angels. You can also watch a homily Father Gillen delivered while at EWTN this past November at http://bit.ly/FrGillenHomily.

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3 Responses to When the Pain Doesn’t Make Sense: A Catholic View of Suffering

  1. Dr. E O'Brien says:

    Superb words to live by.

  2. Laura J Dennis says:

    Such an awe inspiring real life story of faith, determination, acceptance, patience & love!!!
    May God continue to give you strength & bless you always!!!

  3. Susan Isaacs says:

    ‎7/‎28/‎2018 [ I apologize for the long winded letter I write to you but something inside of me told me to mail it to you. ] I need to tell my story to whomever will listen. I’m a 59 year old mother of one. My husband and I have been married 35 years. It’s been a tough and delightfully fulfilling life for me. You see I have had M.S. for 41 years and now I have been diagnosed with ovarian cancer recently. God wants me to do something for him but I’m not sure what. Let me start from the beginning. I have asked the holy spirit to guide me in this venture. You see I was adopted by a loving couple William and Audrey Wermuth who could not have a baby. The way she described well it sounded like endrometosis. I know I spelled that wrong but I’m using voice activated software. So they looked into adoption. I was adopted through Children’s home of Cincinnati Ohio. Then 10 or 11 months later they adopted my brother Steve. We are not blood related. I have always teased Steve that I was the oldest child in the family. They asked my parents if they would consider adopting another baby. With only one parent working and having promised the judges to give us college educations they couldn’t go back on their word. When we were adopted our parents’promised the judge that they would give Steve and my self college educations. They did so. Steve had a master’s degree in health business management and I’d received a degree in nursing. My father worked hard having his own printing business and my mother was a stay at home mother. Mom was my best friend. I believe children get whatever they want now a days. My son did which was a disservice to him. My husband and I met through a mutual friend in college. Jim and herself just didn’t work out on the dating front. With me being in college and Jim being in computer science at the same college we just hit it off. We were engaged for a little over two years. We were two infatuated young adults. At that time I was protestant and Jim was catholic. Some people call them” a cradle catholic “. We had tried to get a priest to approve of the wedding ceremony but they wouldn’t because we had to have weeks of classes before we were married. Of course love struck young adults that we were we didn’t if agree and we got married in my church. Looking back now as a convert I shake my head at how hormone driven Jim and I were. I came from a strict German type family background. I proudly say I was a virgen on my wedding night. I thank my parents for that. They were sweet and strict at the same time. My husband tells me that Audrey had her tact removed being that she told it like it was whether you liked it or not. I think I’d turned out like her Being a convert I’d tend to be very strict in my Catholicism. My brother used to call me Sister Sue. I went in under Pope John Paul the 2nd. My favorite pope of all. Of course I’m biased. My mother-in-law who was catholic I’m sure prayed for us big time. She was a very devout catholic. I’m sure it hurt her when we were married protestant but she was a very patient person. My husband renewed his faith when I became catholic. Then two years later my father and mother became catholic. My father’s side of the family was catholic. I was my mother’s sponsor that night. I was so proud of them that evening. I always looked up to Mother Angelica because she was like my mother who told it like it like it was! They told the truth whether you wanted to hear the truth or not. When he became catholic, my father, said he felt like he had come home. Half of his family was Catholic his father was catholic his mother protestant. Let’s get back to my diagnosis of my multiple sclerosis. I was in nursing school and I developed foot drop. I scoured my nursing books looking for what it might be. At that time dad was teaching me to drive a stick shift and he thought I was using that as an excuse not to drive a stick. So a neurologist Dr. Armitage suggested it might be a spinal tumor needless to say the test result didn’t show any presence of a tumor. Meanwhile the foot drop eventually left. I’d basically diagnosed myself as having M.S. Something kept telling me that I was right. So after our marriage nothing more showed up. Then we waited to have a child this was five years into our marriage. My mother in law suggested we wait to have five years together as a couple and so we did. We wanted a formal diagnosis of my M.S. And they took a spinal tap and the M.S. showed up in that spinal fluid. We were told that M.S. is usually not transferred in the family. Occasionally it can be but rarely it’s not. So we decided to have a baby. He was born on October 7 1987. During the year’s Dr. Reed treated me with steroids. I was in relapsing/remitting stage of my disease. I’ve always had a positive attitude with my life. Jesus has gotten me through 40 years of my Multiple sclerosis. I believe that my M.S. was so very slow I became comfortable with it. Adapting over the years. If I didn’t have to my savior at my side all the time I would be lost. I guess feeling comfortable was a sin in its self if you look at it that way. Father Terry always said that I’d beat my self up for no reason. I was too critical upon my self. I’d told him that I identified myself with the sorrowful mysteries. He said you also have the joyful, glorious and Luminous Ministries. Now I have ovarian cancer. Jesus wants me to do something but I don’t know what unless it is to tell others about trial’s and tribulations, but you see I don’t look at them as trials and tribulations. I see them as gifts and a treasure. You see he is molding and shaping me to a new life to come. Am I scared? Of course any human being would be if they were human at all but I’d have to look at a bigger picture which is a new life to come. If a person has no faith they would be lost.. In my opinion. After 40 years of M.S. I knew Jesus had my back. I knew before that. I knew that as a child. I guess I always have. My adopted mother was very faith filled. That time she was protestant. When I would come from school she would be reading the Bible. Anyway I’m finished for now. I hope you find this readable and making sense. My name is Susan R Isaacs. I live at Maple knoll nursing home. My address is. 11100 Springfield pike, Cincinnati Ohio, 45246. Thank you for reading my letter God bless all of you at EWTN and I hope Mother Angelica becomes a saint one day. In Christ’s love and friendship, Susan Isaacs PS: I hope this gets to Father Gillen. I needed to tell my story. Thank you Susan Isaacs

    Sent from Outlook


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