“Everything happens for a reason. God never gives you more than you can handle.”
There it was again, yesterday and then again this morning, those trite phrases that feel like a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. I’ve heard it trotted out at hospital bedsides, at funerals, by well-meaning people, who awkwardly fumble for the two-tap pat on the hand as they address a person who is suffering, and as they try to make meaning of their suffering. Even though well-meaning, does this really help us understand and come to grips with what happens to us?
When my late mother-in-law was nearing her transition, the only thing that seemed to comfort her when they refused to increase the morphine was the “Hail, Mary.” As we waited for the ambulance to take her to the hospital, we sat with her in our laps, and kept repeating that prayer, over and over and over. When the ambulance came, I rode in the back with her and kept praying with her—and she was praying it, too-- because if we stopped, she was in agony again. Regardless of her pain, though, that lovely old prayer was steeped into her very bones, and she would turn to me and wait to see if I would start again, and then she would pray it with me:
Hail Mary, full of grace: the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
For hours we prayed that prayer, in the living room and in the back of the ambulance, and in the ER and in the hospital room to which she was admitted.
As a kid, I certainly never said such a prayer in any of the Protestant churches we attended as I grew up. It was only when I took my first teaching job in a parochial school in St. Louis that I learned that prayer, as hopeful person after hopeful person at that school pressed rosaries and scapulars into my hand in the hopes of my conversion. That never happened, but I did come away from those years with a love of the rosary, and of Mary, and of the prayer reminding us of the bold, audacious young girl who said “Yes!” to the impossible.
Years later, someone told me that I had spent two often-difficult years at that school just so I could learn that prayer just for that moment. “THAT was the reason you had to be at that school,” they told me.
I don’t know. Maybe. I know in that situation, it’s a rather innocuous comment. But it does make me wince when people suggest that God had a hand in some tragic situation for a “higher purpose.” I don’t think God arranges for people to have cancer, or experience the death of a loved one, just so they can learn something. Bad things don’t happen to us to test us. Frankly, sometimes the reason why something happens is based on human choices, which is a gift and a burden I believe that is inherent in our very natures, part of what makes us creatures in the image and likeness of God.
I think perhaps it’s more that we are meaning-makers as people. That’s one of the things that all the stories in scripture are really about: trying to make sense of why we are here, what our purpose is, and offering hypotheses for why things happen. Our freedom to act and create can lead to wondrous things—sonnets to sonatas, novels to Nobel prizes—but it can also lead to decisions to treat others as mere objects for our convenience, to cruelty, fear-mongering, and derision. Eventually, at the right time whenever that is, we can choose the path of healing, knowing that the pain like a scar will never completely fade, but can hopefully be borne. I know that, through grace and hope, often we are healed and led to new life after trauma. But I don't think that's the reason why these things happen, because I have also seen times when trauma has never revealed “a good side,” which reminds us that we shouldn’t be so sanguine in believing that terrible human choices don’t really matter. Some traumas leave scars upon us that never fade—a friend of mine told me tonight that with these kinds of experiences, “we can either transform them or we can transmit them onto someone else.” It may be that, down the road, the new person we have become after sorrow or loss will be able to use that time of trial to make sense of some new situation. I think it's a way we heal and grow differently than we might get have, especially in compassion. But always, we carry these pains and sorrows with us, knowing the best we can do is be transformed by them. We can try to find the path toward light in the midst of darkness.
When we are honest with ourselves, we know that sometimes bad things happen, and there is no reason. We live in the midst of uncertainty at times. It can be hard. Nonetheless, we get through it knowing that we are never alone. Through the darkest valley, we hold the hand of a Savior who walks alongside me in times of joy as well as times of sorrow. A Good Shepherd who, in times of darkness, encourages us to dare to hope, and we are inspired by knowing that the Son of God, God Incarnate, Light from Light, himself has walked in our footsteps and has literally shared in all the joys and pain that comes with the beauty and the trials of being human. When bad things happen, we do have that assurance- that God is with us, even to the end of what we think we can bear and beyond. That’s the most comforting reason in the world.