One of the most confounding elements of Christianity is its take on suffering. Why would an all-loving God allow us to hurt? But those who have experienced suffering, who have come out the other side, have a better understanding of what it all means. Father Damian Ference is one such person. Read on to find out what a recent surgery taught him about the Father, his father and grace.
I knew there was something wrong with my knee when it hurt to genuflect. I waited a week to see if it would get better. It didn’t. I made an appointment with a knee specialist who, in the good spirit of Flannery O’Connor, I call “the scientist.” He took one look at my x-ray and told me that I had something called osteochondritis dissecans, which means that part of my knee bone had dried up and died.
The scientist said that when I was going through puberty, I would have banged my knee really hard on something and traumatized one of the growth plates in my knee bone in such a way that it never developed properly. He said I probably wouldn’t ever remember the injury. This sounded right, as I was a very active boy, playing baseball, football, basketball, riding bikes and skateboards, and doing all the things that teenage boys do—and I remember banging my knees on a variety of surfaces.
As time passed, the knee got worse. Long bike rides through the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, 5Ks, 10Ks, half-marathons, a full-marathon, an olympic triathalon, tennis, snowboarding, and the Insanity workout became too much for my knee to bear. It was Palm Sunday when I started replacing my genuflections at mass with profound bows.
The scientist said that I needed major surgery. He would have to make a c-shaped incision in my left knee, cut into my quadriceps muscle in order to flip my kneecap upside down so that he could perform microfracture surgery on it. Then he would have to remove the dead growth plate on my knee and replace it with cadaver bone, which he would attach with three dissolvable screws. At least I was able to pick the date of the surgery, so I chose May 30th—the Visitation of Our Lady.
The morning of the surgery, they put me in a hospital gown, shaved my leg and wheeled me up to the pre-op room. They put some sedatives in my IV and gave me a nice blue shower cap—I told the nurse it matched my eyes. A minute later the scientist stopped in and asked me to point to the leg on which he was going to operate. I thought he was kidding. He wasn’t. I pointed to the left one, and he signed his initials mid-thigh with a purple marker. Then someone wheeled me into the operating room.
The drugs were already at work as they moved me from the gurney to the operating table—I know this because I didn’t resist while the nurses strapped my arms down. I asked them where the scientist was. One nurse pointed across the room. I lifted my head and saw him. Then the anesthesiologist asked me if I had even been put under before. I said, “Once, when I was 7, I had my tonsils out. I didn’t talk to my dad for three days.” Then my eyes closed.
The story about my dad was true, but I hadn’t thought about it for almost 30 years. When I was a kid I had strep throat—a lot. My pediatrician told my folks that I should have my tonsils removed. I remember my mom explaining the purpose of the surgery. I remember telling her that it was a bad idea and that I didn’t want to do it. I remember my dad telling me that it was not a bad idea and that I was going to do it. I remember being very upset with my dad.
After I had my tonsils out, I had to stay in the hospital for three days. I threw up blood—I remember this distinctly. The nurses said this was normal. I didn’t think it was. What 7-year-old would? I blamed it all on my dad. For three days after the surgery I refused to talk to him—I would talk to my mom, I would talk to my brother, but I wouldn’t say a word to my dad. I thought he was responsible for my misery. What kind of father would make his son go through this kind of pain and suffering? He had hurt me, so now I was going to hurt him—with the silent treatment. When he tried to talk to me, I looked the other way.
My dad had to get creative. The next day he bought a Fozzie Bear puppet at Parma Hospital’s gift shop, brought it up to my room, put it on his hand, and starting talking to me through the puppet. I liked the puppet so I talked back to it, but not to him. It took a couple days of this before I would talk directly to my dad again, but eventually I did. I think I waited until I was back home in my own bed.
I was thinking back to all of this the first few days after my knee surgery. I was thinking about how stubborn I was at such a young age. I was thinking about how my dad wanted what was best for me and how I wasn’t able to see it, let alone understand it. I was also thinking about how I rarely had any throat issues after my tonsils were removed and how my dad’s insistence upon the surgery was a good one. I was thinking that not having my tonsils removed would have been a mistake.
Then I started thinking about how often it happens that when we go through suffering and pain—especially if there seems to be no good reason for it – even some of the most faithful Christians can be tempted to question God’s love and goodness. We wonder what kind of Father would leave his children hurting. We ask, “How could an all-knowing, all-good, all-loving God allow his children to experience such pain, suffering and heartache?” And sometimes our questions do not get answered. And if they do get answered, it’s usually not right away—so we feel confused, betrayed and forsaken. We echo the Psalmist as we cry, “My God, My God, why have your abandoned me?”
The truth is that the Father never abandons us, even though it may feel like it from time to time, and sometimes for a long period of time. Even Jesus felt abandoned—he tells us as much as he cries it from his cross. Yet the mystery of the Father’s love is just that—it’s a mystery. The Father loves his children even when it seems like he’s hung them out to dry.
Mystery isn’t like a math problem that we can figure out—mystery is the sort of thing that figures us out. Mystery is the sort of thing that we allow to work on us, to make us who we are supposed to be. We receive it, we participate it in, we allow it to form us and form the way we see the world.
Suffering is a mystery too. And somehow the mystery of the Father’s love and the mystery of suffering only really make sense through the mystery of the Cross and Resurrection. In other words, Jesus doesn’t explain suffering away, but he does enter into it and gives it meaning—he allows suffering to be redemptive. He turns death into life.
Jesus trusts that although it may feel like his Father has abandoned him, in reality the Father is forever intimately close to him, just as he is with us. The Father always wants what is best for his Son, just as the Father always wants what it best for us. Sometimes though, when our suffering seems to be too much, rather than entering into the mystery of it, we pull back right at the moment when we are about to be transformed by it. The mystery of faith, then, is what allows us to trust and wait for our redemption, which is always close at hand—even it feels miles away.
My dad is 87 now, and he’s legally blind. After my knee surgery my brother drove me to a family’s house where I would spend my first two weeks of recovery. My dad came along for the ride. As I carefully made my way up two stairs and into the house on my newly acquired aluminum crutches, I heard my dad say, “Good job, son,” as he shuffled slowly behind me.
I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately—how I gained some understanding into the mystery of the Father’s love, the mystery of suffering, and Christ’s Paschal Mystery through my relationship with my own dad and two surgeries that took place over a span of almost three decades. St. Paul and St. Augustine say it’s all grace. They are right, of course. But I must add that even grace is mystery. And I think that sounds right too.
Rev. Damian J. Ference is a priest of the diocese of Cleveland. He is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy and a member of the formation faculty at Borromeo Seminary in Wickliffe, Ohio. He is currently dazzling medical professionals with his progress in physical therapy.