By Daniel Martins
Susanne, my late mother-in-law, was a devout believer. Raised in a strict Anabaptist faith community, she left that tradition as a young adult over what she thought was an excessive legalism, joyfully embracing a more mainstream evangelicalism, in which she professed an experience of the freedom inherent in the gospel. Susanne lived 98 years. In middle age, she endured a bitterly painful divorce. In time, she remarried happily, but in her mid-70s, her husband developed Alzheimer’s, to which he succumbed about five years later. Around the same time, her osteoporosis flared up and affected her for the rest of her life, presenting substantial pain-management challenges.
When one is in pastoral ministry, it’s usually a risky proposition to don that hat with family members. I would generally advise against it. Nonetheless, in the last couple of decades of her life, it was clear that Susanne was, by any definition, suffering. My instincts just kicked in on one occasion, and I found myself reaching out to her pastorally. My “go to” move in such a situation is to help a person put his or her suffering in the context of the suffering of Christ, and to see it as potentially redemptive, as grist for the Holy Spirit’s mill of sanctification. As soon as I began to go that direction with my mother-in-law, though, I could tell it was a dead end. To my surprise and disappointment, despite decades of faithful practice, she had no capacity to understand her suffering in the light of God’s redemptive purposes. She could only see it, somewhat ruefully, as God being upset with her about something.
One of the true gems of the American Book of Common Prayer is the collect appointed for Morning Prayer on Fridays and at the Eucharist on Monday in Holy Week:
Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified, mercifully grant that we, walking the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace…
The way of the cross, the way of suffering, is supposed to be, for the believing Christian disciple, “none other than the way of life and peace.” Such life and peace are granted, if we believe as we pray, not in spite of the trials our lives lead us into, but precisely in them and through them.
This is astonishing just on its face. Yes, we all generally recognize that voluntary discipline that has pain and suffering as a by-product — exercise regimens and the like — can lead to desirable results. But in no other area of human endeavor, apart from the paschal mystery, is involuntary suffering, not as a by-product but as the thing itself, held up as the very instrumentality of progress.
Suffering can be fruitfully understood under the category of loss. I suffer grief if someone close to me dies, because I have lost the quotidian experience of that relationship. I suffer anxiety if I am terminated from a job because I have lost a source of income, or part of my sense of identity, or both. I suffer when I stub my toe because the resulting physical pain deprives me of the ability to live my life as I would prefer. Other sources of suffering — embarrassment, humiliation, anger — are also all occasions of loss.
None other than the way of life and peace.
I married my wife, Brenda, Susanne’s youngest daughter, in 1972, when I was yet 10 days shy of being able to buy alcohol legally. I have, in effect, never been a single adult. Brenda and I are the epitome of the aphorism, “opposites attract.” (If you are fluent in Myers-Briggs, I’m an INTJ and she’s an ENFP. Do the math.) Over the last 49 years, our differences have indeed caused sparks to fly from time to time.
A little more than 20 years ago, I had an epiphany one day as I was carrying out a task Brenda had asked me to perform which I considered foolish. As I was beginning to give way to resentment, I was suddenly led to ask the question, “Would I rather be relieved of this foolish task, or would I rather have Brenda?” I didn’t have to ponder that question longer than a nanosecond — I would rather have Brenda. The mere fact that she had asked me to do something was reason enough for me to do it, even though I thought it was pointless. Moreover, it was completely within my ability to do it — to suffer — cheerfully, out of love, rather than grudgingly and out of resentment. It was an opportunity to embrace the suffering of carrying several heavy, awkwardly shaped, and splinter-strewn objects up and down precarious sets of basement stairs. I became a slightly different person that afternoon. An experience of suffering had led to repentance and amendment of life, and I was aware of it happening in real time.
A short while later, our relationship hit a seriously dangerous rough patch. To be honest, we almost didn’t make it. The fact that our marriage is still intact — indeed, that the happiest period of our time together was still ahead of us at that point — is a testament to abundant divine grace and mercy. Throughout the crisis, which lasted the better part of a year and, I’m quite certain, meets any plausible definition of suffering, I was once again challenged to change, to grow, to repent, to amend my life. I’m a long way from sanctity, but I’m less of a long way than I was two decades ago before that crucible of suffering.
One of the insights I eventually came to is that Brenda is, quite literally, God’s gift to me. I have always loved her, but I haven’t always liked her, and it is precisely in those moments of not liking her that she is most a gift. She is for me, for my sanctification, for the perfection of my holiness, and it’s a process into which suffering is hard-wired. (I like to think that I am also God’s gift to Brenda, and that I am for her in a corresponding way, but that’s not my story to narrate.)
Nearly five years ago, just when we were happier together than we’ve ever been, Brenda began to show signs of compromised short-term memory. In February of 2017 she was diagnosed with Mild Cognitive Impairment, and the following July it was determined to be Alzheimer’s-based. I have now recently retired, under conditions that were overshadowed and structured by her illness. Instead of a “drink in the hand, toes in the sand” retirement in a warm climate of the sort I had imagined, we live in a 1,500-square-foot Chicago apartment in a building bought with two of our kids, precisely so they could be a support network for me in caring for their mother (and they are very much indeed just that).
None other than the way of life and peace.
So … the operative descriptor for my life is “constrained.” I care for a person whom I deeply love, but who is ever more disoriented in her own home. Brenda can’t be left alone safely for more than about 15 minutes. I can’t just go out for a walk or run an errand spontaneously; I have to arrange for “coverage.” She can no longer take any meaningful share in the chores of running a household, so it all falls to me. Out-of-town travel for such things as conferences and board meetings and speaking engagements is not now an option for me. I can’t even pray as I am accustomed to, as my routine is always subject to interruption so I can be available to her as needed. This is all an experience of loss, of suffering. We’re not yet at the point of placing her in a memory-care facility, but we can see “there” from where we are. That will bring me some respite, but also deprive me of her domestic companionship, which is not nothing, accelerate the outworking of the grieving process, and be a source of anxiety over the enormity of her suffering. The online calculators I can find project Brenda’s life expectancy at between three and five years, and her passing will be yet another occasion of loss, with the attendant suffering of grief — my own and that of our children and extended family. The parameters of my life are, at least for the mid-term future, constrained by the shape of my wife’s illness. The scope and range of my life is ever smaller, and that is an experience of loss.
And the amazing thing is that, even in her decline, Brenda is still God’s gift to me, still for me. I am persuaded that the very constraints against which I chafe are tools in the hands of God for my growth in holiness, to “school” me in repentance, in “walk[ing] in love as Christ loved us,” of loving my wife, one interaction at a time, as Christ loves the Church. Every time I pause a TV show or put a book down to listen to her speak, every time I get up to show her where the kitchen is so she can throw a tissue away, every time I moderate the tone of my voice because I know that loud talking troubles her, every time I slow the pace of my walking to her pace even when I would like to be getting more vigorous exercise, every time I check the impulse to respond with annoyance or irritation to something she says or does, I am being molded in a minute way, made just a tad more fit to live one day in the unfiltered presence of God. Brenda is still for me.
Jesus bids those who believe in him to take up their cross daily and follow him. I have no doubt that, for some, identifying the cross that needs to be taken up is a matter of careful discernment. I don’t have that problem, which is itself, perhaps, a mercy. My cross is in bed beside me, or across the living room, or in the passenger seat next to me. If I would be a disciple of Jesus, I must daily care for her who is his gift to me. In that caring lies the way of the cross, which is, after all, none other than the way of life and peace.