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Come, Holy Spirit and Give Us Forbearance

This is the next in a 12-part, once-a-month series on the Fruits of the Holy Spirit. This month’s fruit is FORBEARANCE or “long-suffering.” Be sure to see previous posts on CHARITY, GOODNESS, and KINDNESS, among others. Check back next month when we explore the fruit of HUMILITY.

Our first wonderful priest once told me that the most spiritually dangerous kind of suffering is that which is chronic and non-terminal. In other words, the suffering that hangs around forever just to beat you up, refusing to even put you out of your misery. Like mental illness. Or a troubled marriage. Caring for disabled loved ones. Infertility.

Sometimes, the suffering doesn’t even have a name, but is more like the death of a thousand cuts…like those couple of years when your family was struggling financially, you lost a child, your husband got laid off, your relationships with family became strained, and you developed health problems. All of us have times in our lives, whether the source of suffering is a monster like cancer or simply a long period of unrelenting problems, when we feel like throwing up our arms to heaven and screaming, “Really, God? Again? CAN’T I JUST GET A BREAK FOR A WHILE?”

Long-term suffering that doesn’t kill you is most spiritually dangerous because it tempts us to doubt the goodness of God and his love for us. It also tempts us to become bitter; worn out by suffering (and often, as mad as hell about it, too) we can become angry, cold people who shut off their hearts just to avoid more pain. The only antidote to this kind of suffering is the Holy Spirit’s gift of forbearance, or long-suffering. Defined as the ability to patiently endure lasting offenses or hardships, forbearance is one of the hardest virtues to practice because it requires you to respond with patience and love, over and over, to the same situation over a long period of time. When we’re tired, beaten down, and just plain tired of hurting and struggling, we have to somehow find the strength to face the pain with graciousness and faith once again.

The good news is, we have plenty of people to help us along the way. People who were just like you and me, who (at least initially) struggled with despair and anger and frustration about their long-term suffering. In her excellent book, The Kiss from the Cross: Saints for Every Kind of Suffering, author Ronda DeSola Chervin offers us saintly role models for virtually every kind of suffering: doubt, frustration, fear, physical pain and fatigue, temptation, interior trials, loneliness, failure, exploitation, persecution, and marital discord. What struck me about each saint she mentions is that long before the person experienced spiritual peace about their suffering, she endured a long period of intense emotional anguish. Many of these people, whom we now remember only for the good they did during their lifetime, struggled with all the same emotions we do when we suffer: they were angry with God, they felt abandoned, they sometimes even lost their way for a while. Their initial reactions were in no way “holy,” even if they eventually learned to live with their struggles, grow from them, and even thank God for them.

As someone who is on the path myself, I treasure knowing that my older brothers and sisters struggled with much of the same doubts, frustrations, and anxieties that I do when faced with long periods of suffering. When my back is screaming in pain (again) during a fibromyalgia flare, it helps me to know that St. Lydwine, a Dutch saint who suffered for nearly 40 years with the most excruciating physical suffering imaginable, spent her first four years of sickness consumed with anger, bitterness, and despair. She was constantly reminded that she was a burden on the family by her mother, and the saint became convinced her sufferings were the result of being rejected by God. She would hear other young people playing outside her window and weep with frustration and sorrow because she was too sick to even get out of bed. More than once Lydwine has gone to the Holy Spirit for me, obtaining for me the graces I’ve needed to be patient and to trust in God while chronically ill, instead of lashing out at my loved ones and getting angry with God for allowing me to suffer for so long.

The beautiful thing about our saints is that there is one for every imaginable situation, especially situations that require forbearance. It’s easy to forget that St. Damien of Molokai had a bad temper and experienced decades of frustration while dealing with Church and government officials (annoying bosses, anyone?). Or that St. Cornelia Connelly’s husband, who had Cornelia charged with abandonment after he left her, tried to have her declared insane so he could get her family’s money. Or that St. John of the Cross was imprisoned by members of his own order. Or that Blessed Francis Libermann was wracked with anxiety from childhood, to the point he suffered migraines, stomach ulcers, and panic attacks. Too often we forget that saints are not born, they are made. And they are made through suffering.

Other than praying to the saints, there are some practical things we can do to help us embrace the Holy Spirit’s gift of forbearance:

  • Keep a spiritual journal, noting especially the times when God has shown his love for you clearly. These records of who God is can stave off the doubts that can creep in when you’ve prayed for deliverance that doesn’t come soon enough. Many times when I’m struggling to reconcile a God who loves me personally with the fact that I’m suffering so terribly, I go and look at a pair of old Crocs I once received as an immediate response to prayer. Those shoes, along with all the journal entries about the good God has done in my life over the years, keep me from succumbing to the doubts. They remind me who God is and I cling to that “record” when the pain is whispering that He can’t be trusted after all.

 

  • Reflect on the spiritual gains/lessons/benefits that you’ve received from your suffering. For many years, I just hung on white-knuckled when the suffering came, even when it came for long periods of time. I wasn’t interested in whether I was growing spiritually (or how), but just in whether I could endure until it was over. Now, though, I try to be open to whatever God is trying to do in my soul. Is he trying to teach me to be more patient? Or to love others more than myself? Is he trying to help me grow in trust? I will sometimes pray, “God, please give me the grace to see what you’re trying to do in my soul.” Sometimes, I don’t have the ability to ask these questions until the suffering has passed, but the difference is, I’m asking them now. Being able to see that God is trying to effect some good in my soul has helped me to truly embrace my suffering and retain my faith in his goodness even when the world, the flesh, and the devil are telling me I should hate him for it. 

And finally…

  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help–and do it OFTEN. Sometimes God allows us to suffer so that others will be drawn out of their self-love and into self-sacrifice. For many years, I suffered with my fibromyalgia in silence, hating even to ask my husband for help when I was especially sick. Now, I see my suffering as a spiritual opportunity for those around me and I don’t work so hard to deny them the chance to give of themselves. How often do we hide our need from others, lest they think we’re weak? Instead, when the rough times show up, recognize that your circumstances provide the vitally important opportunity for you to humble yourself and ask for help, as well as the chance for others to learn to sacrifice out of love. Once I stopped being afraid to ask for help and stopped worrying about whether others would see me as weak if I did, I was better able to appreciate how God uses my illness to make my children, husband, and friends more compassionate and loving people through me. 

I like to refer to life’s long periods of suffering as “love on trial.” It’s one thing to endure a sudden crisis that’s over quickly; it’s another to endure days, weeks, or years of abuse, fear, anxiety, illness, or disappointment, and still become a holy, loving person. God permits our suffering, even the long bouts, but he also knows we need his help not only to endure it, but to use it to our spiritual advantage. Let’s not forget that we have our beloved saints and the Holy Spirit to help us: “With all lowliness and meekness, with long-suffering, forbearing one another in love.” (Eph. 4:2).

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Conversion Current Events Faith Formation Fruits of the Holy Spirit Ink Slingers Misty Year of Faith

Come, Holy Spirit, and Give Us Charity

This is the first of a 12-part, once-a-month series on the Fruits of the Holy Spirit. This month’s fruit is CHARITY. Check back next month as another contributor explores the fruit of JOY.

One of the most amazing attributes of God is His generosity: He gives spiritual blessings to us freely, gratuitously, simply because he loves us. When Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to us at Pentecost, we could never have anticipated the Advocate’s overwhelming outpouring of spiritual gifts, which according to the Church are wisdom, understanding, good judgment, courage, knowledge, reverence, and wonder of the Lord.

These seven gifts are infused into our soul by sanctifying grace and if we cooperate with that grace, they will bear beautiful spiritual fruit that will help us move closer to the perfection God desires for us. In this article, we’ll focus on just one of those fruits: charity. Or in layman’s terms, love.

 

I’ve struggled with being charitable, or truly loving, all my life. I grew up with highly critical parents, who assumed the worst about each other, their children, and their neighbors and consequently, taught me to do the same. And because others were assumed to be inherently selfish, they didn’t deserve to have love extended to them. Certainly not self-sacrificial love, which is the highest kind, as taught to us by Christ.

In time, by meditating on Christ’s own sacrifice, I realized that whether or not a person deserves charity is entirely irrelevant to our call to live it out. It goes back to the truth about ourselves, really: Christ laid down his life while we were still sinners and there’s no question of whether we deserve the redemption and salvation he offers–we don’t. I shudder to imagine the hell, both of this life and of the next, should Christ have decided to give us only what we deserve.

It’s because of the Lord’s love, offered to us as a free and completely undeserved gift, that we’re called to offer that same love to others. Jesus emphasized this again and again in the Gospels…particularly in the parable about the servant, who was forgiven a great debt but who then refused to forgive a much smaller debt another owed him. We’re told that the measure we measure out to others will be measured out to us. So if we measure out judgment, we’ll get judgment…if we offer love, we’ll get love.

But what is charity? It’s many things, but at its core, it’s treating others as we would want to be treated. That means assuming the best of them, as I would want others to assume the best of me. When we act or say something hurtful to another, it’s usually unintentional and we appreciate it when the person doesn’t take it personally and still assumes we’re a kind and good person who just thoughtlessly and temporarily screwed up. Yet how many times do we feel wounded and instantly assume the person was malicious and the blow intentional? We assume the worst about their motives toward us, when in fact people are rarely intentionally cruel. Thoughtless, careless…yes. But cruel? More likely, they were just being human.

What about those times when a person does say or do something to deliberately wound you? We’ve all been on the receiving end of those kinds of actions, but if we’re honest, we’ll admit we’ve also been the perpetrator at times, too.  Haven’t we all said something we knew was going to hurt someone, because we wanted to hurt them? I’ve done it too many times to count, I’m ashamed to say.

Admittedly, it’s much harder to be charitable to others when they intentionally hurt you. Yet we do this to God all the time. We offend him intentionally with sin a hundred times a day and he still chooses to forgive our offense. The advantage we have with God is that when we offend him, he knows why. He knows that usually, our offenses have little to do with him and everything to do with our own brokenness. He knows that the man who fails to speak out against evil was criticized constantly as a child, making him fearful. He knows that the woman who commits adultery is starved for affection from her workaholic husband. He knows that when we sin, we usually do so from a place of pain. Because he knows all this about us, he doesn’t turn his back on us in indignation, but loves us even as we commit the most heinous offenses against him. And works tirelessly not to punish us, but to effect reconciliation so that we can remain in friendship with him.

Yet human beings take every offense personally even when it’s personal. But it never really is. When someone lashes out at me, when the person does or says something hurtful, my first and selfish instinct is to focus on my own wounded dignity. But if I want to be like Jesus, then I need to see them as Jesus does, and that means recognizing that their actions are about their own souls, not about mine.

I remember distinctly the first time I was even able to practice this change in perspective. It was a few years ago, when I was home alone with four children while my husband was in another state working. I was trying to hold down the fort while preparing our family to move to Alaska. I’d made tentative plans with a friend to get together over the weekend, but ended up having a nervous breakdown that weekend instead and didn’t follow up with her until the following Monday. I explained to her that I’d just been overwhelmed and apologized I hadn’t called or firmed up our plans.

Her response shocked me. She haughtily said it was a good thing I’d apologized, because she had decided to scrap the friendship entirely and never talk to me again. But she was willing to give me another chance, assuming I was genuinely sorry I hadn’t called.

Her response seemed so over the top that it gave me pause. Normally, I’d have been so irritated by what I perceived to be her disregard for MY feelings and difficult situation that I would have responded with, “Good riddance, then!” But then I realized this woman’s reaction revealed not that she was self-absorbed, but that she was terribly damaged. I knew she had few friends and struggled to trust people due to past betrayals. So why was she so willing to toss a supportive friendship aside so quickly? Of course…she’d been so hurt in the past that she was willing to end a friendship over a minor slight rather than risk a more devastating betrayal in the future. Her actions weren’t vindictive, they were protective. It was about protecting her own heart, not about wounding mine.

Being charitable toward other people, in both thought and in deed, is the hardest battle I’ve faced as a Catholic. For years, I dragged this sin into confession, almost despairing of ever being able to assume the best of people and act in their interest over my own. It’s only been recently that I’ve made real progress in my quest to offer real love to others and the first step was making a conscious choice to replace those negative thoughts about them with positive ones. If my husband goes to work without doing a chore I asked him to do, I remind myself of all that he does do for our family and tell myself that he must just be overwhelmed. If someone says something unkind, I tell myself they must be having a bad day (which we all have). If my priest doesn’t preach as forcefully as I’d like, I remind myself that as a priest, he faces spiritual attacks I can’t imagine so I need to pray for him instead. Being uncharitable, particularly in my thoughts, was a bad habit that I allowed to run unchecked for more than 30 years. It’s going to take time, probably a LOT of time, to correct the habit of assuming the worst about people to offering them the same tolerance and unconditional love that Christ offers to me despite my own sins.

The second thing I did was to accept that being truly charitable means acting lovingly regardless of whether I get anything back from the recipient. And that includes good feelings. If I spend two hours making dinner for an overburdened mother who fails thank me for it or even mention it, then I need to be happy with the fact that I performed a loving act. It’s helped enormously to choose to do a loving act for Jesus first, for the person second. Jesus always sees and appreciates it when I choose to love and I earn merit in heaven regardless of whether I get any earthly reward for it.

Charity puts the other person’s needs first, even at great cost to yourself. This change in perspective has enabled me to eradicate much of the self-interest I’m prone to wrap up into the kindnesses I choose to do for others. It feels good to do good, but I need to do good even if I don’t get those warm fuzzies back. This also has enabled me to avoid the painful disappointment and emotional withdrawal I would easily fall prey to in the past when others didn’t reciprocate or seem to appreciate my loving kindness toward them. Making my actions a gift first to Jesus means the gift is always accepted and appreciated in love…regardless of how the human recipient reacts to it.

Being charitable, or loving, to others is a work in progress for me and for most of us. It takes a continuous infusion of divine grace for us to cultivate this fruit of the Holy Spirit, because we have to work against our own selfishness and egotism to live it out. I look forward to the day when being charitable toward my fellow man is no longer a struggle, but effortless because I’ve embraced true humility and holiness. Until then:

Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and enkindle in them the fire of your love.