Friday, January 25, 2013

In His Time

He who serves God willingly is heard; his petition reaches the heavens. The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds; it does not rest till it reaches its goal, nor will it withdraw till the Most High responds, judges justly and affirms the right.

-Sirach 35:16-18

Miracles do happen:

Sometimes God’s answers to prayer are immediate, leaving no doubt in the mind that favorable outcome we prayed for was inspired by Divine Providence. But there are other times when that same Divine Providence is painfully slow in answering prayer. To our chagrin, sometimes the answer is no. However, with every door that closes, God opens another one. Through the years, I have learned that whatever God’s manner of answering prayer happens to be, it is for our greater good.

For instance, in the late 1980’s, I was reading a book written by Sister Briege McKenna. She was a Catholic nun who claimed to have the gift of healing. In her book (the title escapes me at the moment) she recounted several stories in which her prayers were answered; some in miraculous fashion and yet others were less extraordinary. But as I was reading her book, God’s intervention in everyday life became more palpable to me. In other words, I came to believe that miracles and healings were not just reserved for the first century when Christ walked the earth. In fact, the belief that the divine work of Jesus Christ continues, even in our own day, was more credible to me than it had been in the past.

During the reading of Sister Briege’s book, this renewed faith I had in God’s divine intervention would be put to the test. One day my mother had a root canal performed. By the time she returned home from the dentist, her mouth was still numb. But when that numbness wore off, she experienced repeated jolts of pain. It was so bad she couldn’t talk or open her eyes. All she could do was lean back on the recliner, cry and moan. Being that my mother was not the crying type, my father became alarmed at the extent of her anguish and then rushed off to Walgreens to purchase some kind of pain reliever. My mom’s condition wasn’t quite at the point where we considered taking her to the emergency room.

Family room miracle:

And so there I was, standing there, the only other person in the house. Incidentally, I had just put down Sister Briege’s book. Then, with a great deal of reluctance, I asked my mother if she wanted me to prayer over her. Mind you, I was not accustomed to this kind of spiritual exercise at this point in my life. So, when I didn’t hear her say anything I was relieved. But after a minute or so, as I proceeded into the kitchen, I heard her say, “yes.”

Not knowing exactly what to do, I stood by my mother as she was holding the left side of her face with her hand, moaning, and with tears running down her cheek. I then put my hand where her hand was- where most of the pain seemed to be coming from –and prayed a simple prayer…out loud. As I was praying, my mom pressed my hand against her cheek as if it was a heating pad or something. At the same time, I felt as though the Lord heard my petition on behalf on mother. As such, I concluded the prayer, removed my hand and asked her how she felt. For the first time in several minutes, she spoke intelligible words. She said something like, “It feels better.” She immediately sat up, began rocking on her recliner and then proceeded to talk as if nothing happened. The pain was gone.

A few minutes later my father returned from Walgreens. It had been pouring rain outside. Frustrated and all wet from the rain, he said to my mother that he didn’t find what he was looking for. But she replied, “Don’t worry, Joe prayed over me.” My father, confused because my mom was inconsolable when he had left for the store but was perfectly fine when he returned, just shrugged his shoulders and walked away.

Although this experience left no doubt in my mind that the Lord still intervenes in our day and age, I can honestly say that he has only answered my prayers in this way a handful of times. As for the multiplicity of other times, his answers were more subtle and sometimes slow in coming. And I would even venture to say that when the Lord delays his answer, we profit all the more because of it.

When God delays:

Case and point: About a year before my mom’s healing, I had to take a sabbatical from college three weeks before the semester ended. For the first time in my life, I was burdened with a severe depression. Being that my family life and my social life was as good as it could be up to that point, I assumed this condition was the result of a chemical imbalance.

Regardless of the cause, I experienced all of the classic symptoms of depression: hopelessness, helplessness, despair, anxiety and wanting to die (Thankfully, I never considered suicide because of my faith). Due to my inability to concentrate, studying, listening to lectures and even thinking on my feet in social situations became exceedingly difficult. With this, I withdrew all together from college. In hindsight, this was a good thing because my social life was slowly verging from where God wanted me to be. In a word, I was having too much good for my own spiritual good.

Returning home, I had no idea what the future held for me. It was as if my personality had died, not knowing if it would ever return. As such, I had become a stranger to myself. Second to the depression itself, the greatest trial was the uncertainty of how long the crippling effects of my depression would last. The only relief I had from the monotony being housebound was going to sleep at night. But after a few months, I was encouraged to work- to get a job doing something. As painful as that was, it was something I needed to do.

During these dark and dreary winter months, I prayed and even pleaded with God to deliver me from this darkness. I thought to myself: “If I just pray a little more, God will heal me.” But as hard as I prayed, no relief was immediately forthcoming. In fact, the temptation of feeling abandoned by God was overwhelming. Worse than the depression itself was the feeling that God had just let go. The sense of having a safety net was completely gone.

New found empathy:

But in my day-to-day despondency, I started to notice something: I developed an empathy with the needy, the poor and the infirmed people I saw on television. In previous years, such images would inspire a passing sympathy. But in my suffering, I felt like their equal. No longer looking down to them with pity, I believed I was one of them; as if looking at them straight in the eye for the first time.

This new found empathy hit me so hard I pledged to God that if he were to ever heal me I would not forget those people who are in need. In fact, when my depression gave way to normalcy once again, I sponsored two children- a boy from India and a girl from Columbia –through an international charity for children. But I never would have done this if it weren’t for the pain and suffering I went through. Having a heart for these two children was truly an act of God’s mercy. This experience would also inspire me to work with the developmentally disabled, senior citizens and hospice patients.

Closer than before:

Still, as important as serving people in need is, the greatest blessing that resulted from my time of need was waiting on the Lord. That’s right! Waiting on the Lord! Scripture, especially the Psalms is replete with that theme. The servants of God knew it well. For Habakkuk, who had witness much suffering amongst his people, had to be trained to will what God willed. His timing had to conform to God’s timing: “Then the LORD answered me and said: ‘Write down the vision clearly upon the tablets, so that one can read it readily. For the vision still has its time, presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint; if it delays, wait for it, it will surely come, it will not be late.’” (Habakkuk 2:2-3)

During what seemed like eternity (i.e. five months), I had to totally rely on God’s help. After all, no one understood my affliction; not even those who were closest to me. It was then- even amid feeling abandoned –that I was given a kind of intimacy with Christ I never knew.

When I ventured out into the world again to work, I was still in the throes of my depression. The social anxiety was still very intense. As such, during work-breaks I would find a quiet corner in the building to pray the rosary just so I could get through the day. And as I drew closer to Christ- totally relying on him –he gave me a gift: His Mother. During those difficult days- as well as other times of crisis in my life –she was there pray with me and to strengthen me. Her maternal presence was palpable. As much as I wanted a quick fix- an immediate healing, if you will –the grace and power of God would instead come through painstaking perseverance.

An ounce of desolation:

C.S. Lewis once said, "God whispers in your pleasures, speaks through your conscience and shouts in your pain.” He certainly got my attention through my depression. For at least five months, I relied on Him in ways I never had before. But in a much deeper way, I have come to better understand words of St. Paul: “[I]f only we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.” That is to say, Jesus Christ is not just some indifferent onlooker from above who just answers prayers from time to time. No. In a mysterious way he suffers with us. On one occasion he identified himself with the needy and on another occasion, when St. Paul was persecuting Christians, he identified with his suffering Church. And it is through this joint suffering that God’s answer to prayer is experienced in the most powerful of ways.

Perhaps this is why St. Francis de Sales said, “An ounce of desolation is worth more than a pound of consolation.” In our desolation, we are given an opportunity to love God for who he is and not for what he can give us. We also learn to live in the moment, accepting all the circumstances of the day as God’s will. But too often, many of us live in the past or we become fearful of what the future might bring us. Waiting on the Lord, therefore, as painful as it can be, is the very thing that purges us from these defects. It enables our confidence and trust in his providence to take root and grow.

Quite often in one's life, bearing a heavy cross- feeling almost too heavy to carry -is not just a once in a lifetime event. As for me, trials of this nature when my faith was tested visited me at least a handful of times. Why does this happen? Well, contrary to what some Christians believe, conversion is not a singular event. Conversion is a series of beginnings. We're always starting over...going back to the drawing board...falling and getting back up again. And those invaluable lessons we learn through suffering need to be renewed again. Just as the penitent sinner returns to the confessional to have his sins forgiven yet again, so too does the Christian need reminding that this earth is not his home. It just so happens that this reminder is most deeply felt through suffering. Through the Cross we become strangers to this world and, at the same time, are more disposed to welcome a better world, namely heaven.

Strange nostalgia:

This is probably why I have nostalgia of that desolate period of time in my life. That may sound strange, but it is very common for those who experienced intense suffering. In hindsight, I know the beginning, middle and end of that depressive episode. And after five months or so, I resumed my college studies. But the reason behind my nostalgia- the core of it -also has something to do with how Christ was experienced. In times of suffering, very often, the layers of distractions that once existed between the soul and God are pealed back. It is then that the soul is open to his divine consolation and its consequent foretaste of heaven. Indeed, the greatest irony of this is that this bright ray of light shines through during the darkest periods.

God answers prayers in his own time and in his own way. He accommodates us by giving a prompt response to our prayers. For that, many are grateful. But he fulfills our deepest spiritual and moral needs by withholding his answer for a while and allowing us to wait on him. It is then that real spiritual progress is made.