Thursday, September 30, 2010

Joy Rising from Pain

When people ask how I am doing in the first few months of postulancy, it is hard to respond with a one-word answer. The way I feel is very confusing and discordant. I want to say to them, "I feel a deeper joy than I have ever felt and an excruciating pain at the same time."

In fact, I am beginning to wonder if the pain I feel is the source of my joy. The two emotions seem so closely connected that it is as if they are layered over each other, snuggling against the other for warmth and the assurance that yes, I am still alive and perhaps more alive than I ever have been.

Maybe this is not exactly a ringing endorsement of my beginning to religious life but I can only be honest.

So, the question is - Where does this pain come from?

The life of a Christian is nothing but a perpetual struggle against self; there is no flowering of the soul to the beauty of its perfection except at the price of pain - Padre Pio

I am experiencing the pain of separation from both the concrete and the possible, the good and the bad.

I feel a deep tear in my heart when I consider all of the different possibilities that I am leaving by the wayside to follow a definite path. Marriage and family being the highest good that religious life calls me to leave behind.

There is also a hole in me that is left from the physical absence of my dear family and the friends I can no longer see and talk to with the freedom of my previous life.

This pain is real and cannot be denied. It is visceral and at times I wince from the way it can wind its way through my body like a serpent and lashes out when something reminds me of my sacrifice.

But my pain does not just come from giving up good things.

We all search for happiness in different ways. It is a part of the human condition that we often search for it in the wrong places and in the wrong ways.

We find happiness in control, in food, in the misuse of sex, in drugs, in alcohol, in lording over others, in misusing power, in basically becoming our own little gods. Without God, we find our own happiness in making our own choices. Like addicts we experience a short flood of happiness from these things that feels real but we have to continually search for our next fix because the things of the world can never lead us to true and lasting happiness.

It may be obvious that I already left this life behind when I converted to Christianity but many of you know what I mean when I say that this way of life always haunts you, beckoning you into the darkness with the idea that you haven't exhausted all the possibilities of sin, that you still don't know all that you are missing.

I have found that the strength of this haunting has become stronger in religious life, not weaker - at least in these first few months. So the pain is multi-layered. It is a pain that comes from many directions. From leaving behind the good, from past sin, from human concupiscence, or as our Catechism calls it "the tinder for sin," and from temptations from the Devil himself.

But, where does the joy come from?

God cannot fill what is full; he can fill only emptiness... It is not how much we really "have" to give, but how empty we are--so that we can receive fully in our life and let him live his life in us.  - Blessed Mother Teresa

The answer to this question is not so ready on my tongue and I think the answer will come over years, not months.

But so far in my journey with God, I  have learned this: He hands us all crosses, but only as a Father. He teaches us how to grow and often the only way to grow is through pain. In my case now, it is necessary to grow through the pain of separation from myself, my friends and family, from sin and from my own desires - the good and the bad.

Right now, by the grace of God I have the strength to say yes to this cross. I do now know if I can hold it for long; I do not know if I can hold it my whole life. This is the pain of my discernment at the moment. I do not trust myself and I must not trust God because I do not trust He will continue to sustain me.

And yet, despite the halfhearted commitment that I am able to make to God today, He is showing me that the fruit of this sacrifice is true and deep joy.  I am emptying the cup of my soul for Him and He is rewarding me with a taste of a joy that lasts longer than the things of the world. It is a joy that points to an eternal joy that we will all experience in Heaven. It is the intense, heated joy that can only come from following God and discovering what He made you to be in the world.

As I continue in the way of the Cross, I thank Jesus for the grace to experience at the same time a little sliver of the joy of the Resurrection. Thank you Jesus!

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing with us. Your words are insightful and inspiring

... said...

Thanks, I am glad you are inspired. Is this someone I know? If so, let me know so I can say hello!

CJ said...

Dearest Theresa,
I feel pain when you talk about feeling pain. I wish I could soften it for you, but I know that the Lord is working in you in a deep way. I love you.

Dad

Chris said...

Theresa--again, thank you for sharing so much of your experience, and I have really enjoyed reading it and too have been inspired. I was talking with John Coatney the other day, we talked of just how radical your decision has been, especially in light of what our culture deems valuable. It seems that so many of the core tenants of our faith are in conflict with our base nature, and that we are forced to continually struggle with ourselves more than anything else. The struggles and pain you're experiencing, I can only imagine; they must be amplified in choosing religious life. I can imagine, too, how the joy and fulfillment will be exponential as well.

And hey, concupiscence--what a great word!

... said...

@Dad - Thanks for your prayers, I know you are praying!

@Chris - Say hello to John for me! I like that thought - exponential - one can only hope! Thanks for reading and commenting, I always love hearing from my dear friends... Oh and I just checked out your wife's blog, it's amazing!!!

Sr. Susan James said...

Hi Theresa,
It is a blessing to be able to articulate your spiritual struggle and experience! May many others benefit from such transparency!

I think wisdom comes from being able to hold both the joy and the pain lightly... and letting them be in tension for awhile. The Lord sees all and will grant you quiet moments of respite.

We are "in Him" and He in us (Jn)... so in fact, dwelling in His heart is where we find peace and rest.

with love and prayerful support,
Your Sister in Christ,
Sr. Susan James
Boston