Less than two years into her marriage, Marie received the crushing news that she had multiple sclerosis. She and her husband, Jim, were devastated, their hopes for a beautiful future dashed. As they searched for cures, their emotions oscillated between anger and resignation. Sometimes they prayed more.
Marie’s physical strength and agility diminished rapidly. Within four years of her diagnosis, she was bedridden. She died six months later, at the age of twenty-eight.
I never met Marie, but through a friend, I followed her ups and downs and prayed for her daily. I only wish that I could also have given her a copy of Benedictine Sister Anne Field’s new book, Blessed by Our Brokenness. This personal reflection on suffering is both realistic and inspiring, as it delivers on the promise of its subtitle: Finding Peace in the Challenges of Aging and Illness.
Losses Can Be Gains. In my work as a professional counselor, I often see people like Marie and her husband, who have met with some adversity that reduces the amount of control they have over their lives. It could be job loss, an accident, a serious illness, the death of a family member, or a problem related to aging. Because of it, some of these people are filled with depression, grief, and anger.
One of the most helpful approaches for these hurting individuals is simply listening to their stories and reflecting with them on their sufferings. Slowly, this kind of empathy, guided by the Holy Spirit, can help a person accept his or her loss and thereby enter into a process of healing. This is the approach that Sister Anne has taken in her book. In a meditative manner that prompts the reader to ponder his or her own experience, she explores some universal challenges of physical suffering—anger, loneliness, dependence, self-pity, and the loss of various abilities.
Without ever suggesting that God causes such losses—or "diminishments," as she calls them—she insists on the peace and growth that come once we learn to "befriend them and turn them into blessings."
Using examples from her own and other people’s lives, Sister Anne describes, for example, how God speaks to us in new and deeply personal ways as our outer senses recede and our inner senses grow. Then she guides the reader through the process of acceptance and points to exciting horizons: "From the moment we accept the diminishment, we set our face forward, not backward. The future opens out ahead of us with untold possibilities" and reveals "the new role that God is offering."
The Tasks of Aging. Sister Anne speaks especially from her experience of the diminishments connected with aging. She describes the frustrations of unsuccessful hip replacement surgery that left her unable to walk. It was the resulting loss of physical mobility that led her into a new "inner journey" in her relationship with God. She also shares about her hearing loss and the sense of isolation that has come with it. This, too, has been a gateway, she writes: "an invitation to enter into the silence of the heart and ‘hear what God the Lord will speak, for he will speak peace . . . to those who turn to him in their hearts’" (see Psalm 85:9).
Experience and observation have made this author realistic about the difficulty of accepting diminishments. Nonetheless, she insists, each loss presents tasks that must be accepted and worked through. One of them, she says, is simply to remember and give thanks for what we can no longer enjoy. Recalling "dearly loved sights, sounds, textures, smells, flavors" from the past enables us to acknowledge our losses and surrender them to God.
Another task of aging has to do with negative memories. In one of the most engaging sections of the book, Sister Anne leads the reader on the journey of revisiting the past. "With our hand in God’s," we review each stage of our life, handing our sins and failings over to him. We ask his forgiveness and confront the memories bravely and honestly until we find ourselves "liberated from past pain." Then, with no unfinished business remaining, we will be free to hear Jesus calling: "Come, I am sending you to show my healing love to all who suffer."
Seize the Moment. Blessed by Our Brokenness takes a decidedly countercultural approach to aging, illness, and disability. "It is not a matter of enduring passively, waiting for death," Sister Anne insists, but of utilizing our remaining energy to build up the kingdom of God. To the elderly, in particular, she says: You still have many opportunities to contribute to God’s creative work. Every chapter explores these possibilities in greater detail.
Using Scripture and real-life examples to make her points, she explains how people who are physically weak can be the presence of the Holy Spirit to those around them. With hearts rooted in God’s peace, they are "a lamp in a dark place." Through their love and attention to others, they have a quietly evangelizing and healing effect. They strengthen the whole church by offering their special gifts of persevering prayer and suffering in union with Christ.
"People may grow old and frail, but they still have their task in this world, and who knows if they may be the ones to save the rest of society and renew its vision?" It is a strong, empowering message—and not just for the elderly and the Maries in our midst.
For each of us in our setbacks and struggles, this perspective opens a door of grace. Sister Anne’s richly sensitive look into the mind and life of a person who is struggling with diminishments is a gift to the whole church.
Mary Ann Russo and her husband live in Mt. Airy, Maryland.
Blessed by Our Brokenness: Finding Peace in the Challenges of Aging and Illness, by Anne Field, OSB (softcover, 120 pp.) is available from The Word Among Us at 1-800-775-9673 or online at www.wau.org.