What I Learned at MD Anderson (Part I): The Power of Presence and Wrestling God

My heart broke a few times today, especially as I kept having to look reality in the eyes and admit the Truth: sometimes God gives us too much to handle.

I was sitting there in a room full of people, half of them patients and half of them caregivers. I had just walked through multiple hallways and corridors to reach this one little room where my older brother digitally checked in so that he could be put in line for his routine bloodwork.

As I sat there “reading” my book, I knew that I could barely comprehend the words on the page because my head was swimming.

 

…I just wanted to curl up in a ball and cry…for a long time.

 

This isn’t exactly a new experience for me, but this piercing was so palpable it was difficult to control my emotions. I like to consider myself pretty in control of my emotions, which is why most people have never seen me emotionally “losing it.” But I do. And this day, the reality was that these emotions were coming in waves, huge and random waves, the kind that act like a riptide and pull you further and further away from the shore.

I was thinking how much time I had spent on my cell phone that day, hoping for some way to distract myself. …but I didn’t want to stay there in that space. I wanted to live the reality around me. I failed often, but I tried. And that was really hard. If you’ve ever challenged yourself to do that, you know what I’m referring to.

 

It’s called being present.

 

Presence.

 

It’s real. It’s difficult. It’s exhausting.

 

And it’s necessary.

 

As I looked around the room, I couldn’t help but think how this is perhaps some of the most sacred ground I have ever walked. I remember a professor of mine talking about hospitals being that kind of a place, and in that moment I couldn’t agree more.

 

Yeah, I’ve been to Rome.

I’ve been to Assisi.

I’ve been to some of the holiest places on the planet.

But Christ hasn’t called me to stay there; He hasn’t allowed me to build a tent upon those “mountaintops.”

 

They’re gifts, but they’re moments that pass away.

 

He’s called me to be present to my reality. He’s called each of us to be present to our individual realities. Not the virtual ones, the real ones. Not the ones we post on social media, but the ones that no one knows the depths of, except for the LORD. Not the realities that pass away, but the only One who never changes.

And that’s why I’m writing this.

This isn’t a romanticized life. None of us lives perfect lives. Social media is not real life. It can be used for good, but it can never replace real relationships.

We live real life, a beautiful integration of the really real, the kind of things that break your heart and the kind of things that put you back together again.

I am not writing this with the intention of posting about the beauty of suffering, wrapping it in a pretty bow and making it out to be a feel-good story. That’s not at all what I’m going for here.

 

What I’m trying to express here is the reality that life is only this moment.

 

My sanctuary has to be the present moment, for what else do I have? I only have this moment—right now—to live and to love, to offer myself and the gift of my presence to another.

Suffering is real.

Pain is real.

Darkness is real.

So as I sit here at MD Anderson, I need to speak reality. There are no pretty words or perfect homilies that can ease my pain when I look around and see that far-off look on so many of the faces around me. I know all too well what that look means because I’ve seen it for many years on the faces of those I love the most.

…the faces that stare off into the distance as their minds swirl with questions and worries and fears…the expressions that confirm for me what I already know—anxiety is tying tangible knots in their stomachs as they beg the question “Why?”.

My intelligence can be my own worst enemy as I seek to understand so many of the events and experiences of my life. …especially the ones that most do not know about.

We all have them.

 

We all have those spaces and places that reverberate with

the question of “Why?”

 

Recently, a friend asked me what God had done in my past that proved to me I could depend upon His faithfulness in the future. I had to look at her and honestly respond that I didn’t have an answer for that; that right there is the exact space where the LORD and I are wrestling.

That question comes back to me now as I sit here in this room surrounded by strangers, everyone carrying the burden of sorrow and suffering. This is the kind of place where laughter and joy seem almost disrespectful. This is the kind of room that is brimming with fear, and the weight of it all can prove to be too much. I hear in my head all the pretty things people tell us in regards to faith, how the LORD will never give us too much to handle. …how we just need to pray harder. …how God’s will is exactly what we need and most want.

…and it makes me angry.   Really angry.

I used to feel guilty for that anger, but not anymore. The LORD has brought me to such a place that I feel like in sharing my reality, I can help give others permission to live their own. I can help those who serve those in places of suffering to be better able actually to see the person whom they have encountered.

 

Redemptive suffering is real. Grace is real. Hope is real. Joy is real.

 

I can talk about redemptive suffering and give you all the theoretical points. …but only when the LORD has allowed me to drink bitter gall that I would rather not drink am I able to truly speak on redemptive suffering. …and only then do I realize that sometimes being a support to someone means that I don’t try to convince them of some need to “offer it up.” It means I need to love them. I need to realize that I am not going through and cannot understand in the depths what they do.

 

To reverence the other is not to run; it’s to be present.

 

Only Christ can understand in the depths the weight of our experiences. Only Christ has the power to transform even those ugly, dark spaces into light. I may feel alone but reality is that there is no place or experience or trauma or fear or hurt that is too dark for our God:

If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.

 (Psalm 139:11-12)

As I sit here, wrestling with the LORD and praying for the grace to trust His light defeats all darkness, I realize more clearly this deeper reality to which He is inviting me.

I realize the deeper reality to which He is inviting all of us.

It’s the reality that the most authentic and powerful praise is one that is willed, borne out of the well of our suffering and despair: “Out of the depths, I cry to you, oh God” (Psalm 130:1). The most eloquent Magnificat was not spoken with words. It was lived.

 

“And Mary stood at the foot of the Cross” (John 19:25).

 

She stood.

 

The deepest experience of faith looks like a woman standing at the Cross of her dying, innocent Son, crying the tears that have run for so long that sobs do not even come anymore.

To deny someone’s experience of Good Friday is to deny his need for the Resurrection.

Pietà
Pietà in St. Peter’s Basilica (Photo taken by me)

We must allow those around us the freedom to feel what they are feeling. Yes, we do our best to hold out our hands and help pull them forward, so that they pass through and move beyond the trough of despair. …but before we try to convince them that faith looks like a moment of shining wonder and ecstatic delight, let us recall reality.

 

Jesus did not say to her, “Woman, stop crying. Be happy. Offer it up.” He said to her, “Woman, behold your son.”

 

He didn’t offer to take away her pain. He offered her someone to walk with her.

 

And sometimes that Person is Him. Only Him.

 

That is our call. We are the ones called to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. We can reach places that priests and religious sisters cannot. We are called to be in the world, but not of it. We are called to have intimate relationships with Christ. We are called to be the saints of the new millennium. We are called to be the Body of Christ, a light in the darkness and a hope for the suffering.

I can’t take away my brother’s cancer.

I can’t take away the pain of my mother as she watches the effects of cancer on her son.

I can’t take away the helplessness of my father as he realizes that he cannot do anything to control the disease.

I can’t pretend like life is easy and like everything is perfect.

 

But I can be present.

And honest.

And real.

And I can say that my answer to the question of God’s providence needs to be based less on my understanding and more on my knowledge of who God is.

I base my faith not solely on my emotions, for those can lead me astray.

I base my faith first and foremost on God’s identity.

That’s the whole crux of it. Faith is not a pretty rite of passage; it’s a hard walk to Calvary.

 

That ends in death.

 

Death to self.

 

…and only then is there a Resurrection.

 

By day the LORD commands his steadfast love; and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life. I say to God, my rock: “Why hast thou forgotten me? Why go I mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?”As with a deadly wound in my body, my adversaries taunt me, while they say to me continually, “Where is your God?”  Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.

(Psalm 42:8-11)

 

So, dear friends, whatever struggle is the hardest and whatever situation in your life right now feels the darkest, I want to encourage you to keep wrestling. I want to encourage you to keep asking “Why?” I want to remind you that “darkness is as light” to Him, and He has not abandoned you, though your circumstances and emotions taunt you as if He has. His identity is Father, and His faithfulness is eternal.

 

This journey is difficult, and this praise is a sacrifice.

 

But the Resurrection is coming.

 

That’s a promise. Hold onto it.

Posted by Sarah Denny

Sarah Denny earned her B.A. in Theology from Our Lady of Holy Cross College and her M.A. in Theology from Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans. She is currently studying for her PhD in Bioethics at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum in Rome, where she travels a few times a year for intensive classes. She has a Certification in Health Care Ethics from the National Catholic Bioethics Center and has worked at the Woman’s New Life Center in many different capacities since 2010. Whether working as a para-professional counselor for women in crisis pregnancies or teaching women about their cycles with the Creighton Model System, Sarah is passionate about the gift of what it truly means to be a woman and about how a woman’s awareness of this can positively influence our culture. Seeing the world through the lens of John Paul II’s authentic feminism, Sarah enjoys speaking on various topics related to bioethics, sexual ethics, Theology of the Body, and the gift of woman’s fertility from both a biological and theological standpoint. She currently works as a FertilityCare Practitioner with Hope Woman’s Clinic and hopes to focus her dissertation in the area of authentic women’s healthcare.