Suffering Gracefully

A new book tells us how the saints did it—and how we can too.

Suffering Gracefully

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“How do I go on, Lord?” That’s what my friend Michelle is asking. Not long ago, she went to bed feeling fine—and woke up mostly paralyzed, unable even to call for help.

Despite a hospital visit and a battery of tests, she still has no diagnosis. The bills are mounting up, caregiving is eating away at her husband’s work time, and her kids are impatient for their ener­getic mom to bounce back. There are new tensions with relatives. And now her recently widowed mother’s brain tumor has recurred.

Suffering is an inescapable part of life. Yet sometimes, when one kind of suffering cascades into a series of other adversities, even faith­ful Christians like Michelle may feel troubled and perplexed. Author Woodeene Koenig-Bricker has expe­rienced this more than once in her own life. But in the process, she has found the advice and encouragement she passes along in Facing Adversity with Grace: Lessons from the Saints.

No Pious Fairy Tales. What I most appreciate about this book is its diversity of topics and examples. It addresses fourteen different kinds of suffering, highlighting the experi­ence of particular saints who faced and coped with each one. Some of these adversities—physical pain, grief, and mental suffering, for exam-ple—are common themes in saints’ biographies; others, like weight issues, divorce, and addiction, are more unexpected.

The lives of these men and women are fascinating, and Koenig-Bricker strives to present them accurately, without falling into pious tales that gloss over their failures. I appreciate the “reality TV” spectrum of human nature that emerges. Here are people who struggled, as we do, but who responded to grace and grew holy in the process.

I was moved by Padre Pio’s frank admission of what it cost him to bear the stigmata, the marks of Christ’s passion. “I am dying of pain because of the wounds and the resulting embarrassment I feel deep down in my soul,” he wrote his confessor. And this, from Mother Teresa to her own confessor, in the chapter on mental suffering: “When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven—there is such convincing emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul.”

It’s inspiring to learn that St. Pio found peace in seeing that his suffering had a purpose. And to discover how Mother Teresa kept loving and trusting God during nearly fifty years of darkness. By choosing to do “the next right thing,” she closed the door to the “dark night” that might have taken over her life and hijacked the mission God had given her.

Hands-On Help. Facing Adversity offers much more than interest­ing stories and inspiring thoughts. Readers will also find “genuine, practical measures” to help them rise above adversities and enter more fully into the peace and joy that Jesus came to bring us.

I found the chapter on addictions especially interesting in this regard. It centers on Venerable Matt Talbot, an alcoholic who fought his habit with a variety of physical and spiritual dis­ciplines. (He went to daily Mass for more than forty years!) His exam­ple is instructive for anyone who is in bondage to an addiction, whether it be drink, drugs, gambling, pornog­raphy, or even a socially acceptable behavior like workaholism.

Likewise, we can learn much from Rita of Cascia and Catherine of Genoa, the two saints featured in the “marital discord” section. One lesson is the difference between accepting a suffering you can’t escape versus just settling for it.

Settling means you become a victim… . . Accepting means you recognize—and act upon— those things that are within your power and leave the rest in God’s hands. In a difficult marriage, this might mean that you accept the reality of your spouse’s temperament, but you don’t settle for being battered.

Each chapter ends with relevant prayers and a “For Consideration” set of questions that highlight key points. Short but pithy, this section can help readers reflect on their struggles, develop an action plan, and evaluate their growth.

The Big Picture. Facing Adversity zeroes in on specific saints and suf­ferings, but its opening and closing chapters address larger questions. Why does God allow suffering? Does he want people to suffer? Can suffer­ing have a purpose? Using personal examples, along with insights from saints and other spiritual writers, Koenig-Bricker treats these complex issues with such clarity that I can see myself repeating her answers to my kids. Here are some observations that struck me:

On whether it pleases God when we bring suffering on our­selves: I “absolutely believe that God does not want us to suffer but wants us to live abundant lives. While we all will experi­ence some pain, … becoming entrenched in suffering is not honoring God, nor is it living abundantly.”

On a healthy response to suf­fering: “The saints didn’t view their suffering as a way to make God love them but rather as one of the methods that God allows to refine, shape, and guide them into holiness.“

And, quoting Pope Benedict XVI on the mystery of suffering: “… one day, I will understand that this suffering was not empty, it wasn’t in vain, but behind it was a good plan, a plan of love. It is not chance.”

God is good. Our suffering is not for nothing. And we never have to face it alone. With the help of God and the example of the many saints who have gone before us, we too can stay the course and walk the path to holiness. n

Patty Whelpley lives in Vienna, Virginia.

Facing Adversity with Grace: Lessons from the Saints, by Woodeene Koenig-Bricker (softcover, 176 pp.), is available from The Word Among Us at 1-800-775-9673 or online at www.wau.org. If you’d like to read an excerpt, please visit our website and click on “Books.”

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