“All sunshine makes a desert.” It was an old Arab proverb, according to the instructor of a Bible study I attended shortly after returning to the Catholic Church more than twenty years ago. I remember being struck by her words as she proceeded to discuss the topic of suffering. I could definitely identify with the proverb’s meaning.
We don’t really learn or grow if we don’t experience some sort of discomfort. And yet, when we are in the midst of the pruning, the stretching, and the dying to self, most of us—and I put myself on the top of the list—whine and complain, asking God to relieve us of the very thing that he just might use to perform a miracle in our lives. Those not-so-fun periods are made so much more worthwhile when we look to the saints for examples and for a helping hand.
A Blessing in Disguise. Back when I heard that proverb, I was dealing with some unsettling circumstances that had rocked my world the year before. I had been a successful local broadcast journalist and was reaching a high point in my career. Or so I thought, until I was unexpectedly fired. One night, I was reporting the lead story live on the 10 p.m. news, and the next morning I was walking out of the TV station with a box of belongings in my hand. The station decided that they needed some on air changes, and I was one of them. As I was leaving the station that day, I thought, “Now what?” My coveted career was suddenly gone. Not only that: my marriage was a mess.
Quite frankly, my career success had almost cost me everything. My whole life was about the career—me, myself, and I. The long hours, along with the nonstop phone calls and requests to work another weekend or holiday, had taken their toll on my marriage and my emotional and spiritual well-being. But I kept pressing on, thinking that things at home—along with my stress level—would take care of themselves.
As it turned out, the firing was a huge blessing in disguise. When I hit rock bottom, I had nowhere to go but on my knees and back into the arms of Christ and a supportive, loving husband who was praying for me. My husband had been back in the Church for about a year, and God was preparing his heart to help me find my way home. It was a long journey, but eventually, I made it out of the dry, self-absorbed place I had been living in for years.
What Can I Learn From This? If we’re honest with ourselves, we can look back over our lives and realize that the important lessons are learned most frequently from disappointments, mistakes, interrupted plans, and even tragedies. Suffering often confronts us with the need to make key choices.
The saints knew this. And they have taught me to use troubles or suffering for good. Of course, I’m tempted to ask, “Why me?” But I try to say—and I admit this is still not the first thing that comes to mind when something goes wrong—“Okay, Lord, this stinks! Now show me what I am supposed to learn from this and how I can use this pain to make a difference.”
The life of just about every saint can offer guidance about how to grow through suffering. Take your pick! However, it is Pope John Paul II especially who has helped me wrap my mind and heart around the connection between love, life, and suffering. He was able to love the Lord and life no matter what type of evil or suffering he witnessed, either personally or in the world around him. His life demonstrates that good can and does come from suffering; his battle scars helped to make him who he was.
John Paul knew about the importance of family because he lost his immediate family at a young age. He was able to stand up to oppressive regimes and actually helped effect huge political change—as a survivor of World War II and later living in a Communist Poland, he knew what the loss of freedom meant. He had great sympathy and empathy for the sick, having experienced his own share of physical pain. As he pointed out, our salvation, true happiness, and real freedom cannot be separated from suffering and, in particular, the cross of Christ:
Christ did not conceal from his listeners the need for suffering. He said very clearly: “If any man would come after me . . . let him take up his cross daily” (Luke 9:23). . . . Christ also said that his disciples and confessors would meet with much persecution, something that . . . happened not only in the first centuries of the Church’s life . . . but also came true in various historical periods and in other parts of the world, and still does even in our own time. (On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering, 14)
A Much Better Place. Thanks to saints like John Paul II, I’ve tried to learn something from my trials and turn obstacles into opportunities. Now when I look back at my painful experience of losing my job, and when I think about all the struggles my husband and I went through, I realize that without those difficulties, we would never be where we are right now: in a much better place in our relationship with each other and with Jesus.
Indeed, all sunshine does make a desert. Rain is needed to make the flowers grow. But suffering is never permanent: “The God of all grace who called you to his eternal glory through Christ will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you after you have suffered a little while” (1 Peter 5:10). The cross always leads to glory.
Adapted from Girlfriends and Other Saints: Companions on My Journey of Faith by Teresa Tomeo (The Word Among Us Press, 2016).