This morning I was stressed and struggling with an upcoming deadline of my book and found myself being snippy with people and not as kind as I should have been. I thus decided to go down to the daily mass at St. Pat’s in Malvern to see if I could work things out, and as I mozied over I asked God if he wouldn’t mind offering a miracle, sending a sign, or lending a spiritual pick-me-up. Particularly I requested something nice, something cheerful, like the sighting of a dove. I told God that things were a little stressful right now, so if he could work such a miracle, well, that could be nice. And how did God respond to this? I’ll tell you: by putting a kid with cancer in the very front pew.
Now, before my (I guess you could call it) “re-conversion” to the Catholic faith, I often struggled as many do with the so-called problem of suffering. Why, I would continually wonder, if there is a loving God, would he allow such horrible things to happen in the world, particularly things as childhood cancer, which I think we might all agree is at the very top of the list of things that suck and make absolutely no sense. Eventually I concluded there is at least no logical contradiction between the two—that is, so long as God may have morally sufficient reasons beyond our knowing for allowing such atrocities to occur, then such atrocities are not at conflict with God’s existence. But solving a problem logically is not the same as solving a problem emotionally. Today I think I came a great deal closer to solving that problem emotionally.
So as I walked into Mass we were handed a copy of a song we would be singing to Charlie—“This Little Light of Mine.” And throughout the service various groups of people came to offer prayers and support for him and his family. The church was packed with people of all ages and kinds, each offering whatever they could—some gave flowers, others Legos, and all of us a lot of love. The priest eventually offered his homily. He told everybody in the congregation that Charlie’s presence was indeed a miracle in the sense of how one single, often catastrophic illness has given so many people the opportunity to show such profound kindness to a family most of us had never met. I just so happened to agree, and began to see a point in something I might otherwise have written off as utterly barbaric and gross. I began to see how suffering in some ways might very well be necessary for us to build certain character traits within ourselves that would be impossible in a world free of calamity and sin. This made sense to me. Because if heaven is real, and if we are free agents, then I would like to think certain incentives ought to be provided in this life for us to become the kinds of people others wouldn’t mind spending eternity with. Without sickness there can be no caring for the sick, no compassion. Without wrongdoing there can be no justice or toleration. But still, childhood cancer? Do we really need that? Maybe, in fact, we do. Maybe we get so darn lost in the noise, as Flannery O’Connor would say, that God needs to shout, because we’re so wrapped up in our egos—so wrapped up in what’s going on in our own little world—that we fail to see the point of the actual world, which, if we’re hearing Jesus correctly, seems to have something to do with bringing water to the thirsty and hope to the sick.
More personally, however, was the sense of perspective this experience had given me. Because who was I to complain about meeting a book deadline (God forbid!) while this family and their boy were struggling with arguably the most impossible struggle of all: the potential loss of a loved one? Immediately my ego was vanquished, my petty problems dissolved, and I began to pray. I walked out of church a delivered man and hope to remain delivered for at least the next several hours. But at this moment I am solidly convinced of one thing: God answers our prayers. He might not always give us what we ask for, but if you’re receptive to subtle—or in this case, sometimes not so subtle—hints, you’ll find he is always willing to give us what we need, and then some.