Monday, July 13, 2009

The Mystery of Suffering

It was Thanksgiving Day. But nobody knew that there. We'd gone to visit my father-in-law because he was gravely ill. He had already gathered his children (all grown) and tearfully asked for their forgiveness - for any wrong he had done them. That was before our trip could be made. I'm sorry we missed it.

My mother-in-law was a saint. And I'm not kidding you when I say that. When she died, some years after her husband, the whole village turned out. The priest spoke of how he had learned so much from her. She was a benefactor and a friend to many. Always quietly, discreetly.

I had asked her for prayers many times. Especially for my work with victims of abuse. I had asked many people actually. Even strangers. Leaving little notes on bulletin boards (the kind where you could leave such a message): "Please pray for victims of abuse and for their therapists." I'm not kidding you.

Was I the one who wanted to ask the Carmelites to pray too? The tiny convent of aging nuns in this obscure village in Andalusia? Friends and recipients of my mother-in-law's kindness and financial assistance. I can't recall who proposed it.

But on that Thanksgiving morning we walked through the narrow streets to the Carmelite convent. My husband. His mother. And I. Through the closed gate. Under the stone arch. Through the wooden doors. Down a short hallway. Into a tiny room with a grille, which looked into another tiny room. Where, after a short wait, two nuns appeared. Women who had been here for decades, I'm sure. Women with little more than a grammar school education, who'd been in this enclosed environment, gradually turning into saints.

I expected my husband or his mother to do the talking. But no.... They turned to me. Everyone was waiting. The two nuns behind the grille. The three of us, on tiny chairs, crowded together on our side of that little grilled window. And in my broken Spanish I briefly told them of my work. Asked them to pray especially for one person. Made up words to convey that she'd been abused, even tortured as a child. That her own mother had participated in this, earning money from her daughter's suffering. That, for her, this defined her worth. At which point I burst into tears and could say no more.

The one nun began speaking. In Spanish. An elderly woman hidden except for her kind face poking through her veil and plain brown robe. I could hardly understand a word. It seemed she spoke at length. And I tried to be polite and pay attention to the stream of words, picking out phrases like " the Big Teresa" and "the Little Teresa" (the foundress of the order and someone also known as "the little flower"). Both had suffered in different ways - and I presume the old nun might have referred to that - but honestly her words were not making much headway. Until she said: "Pedir a Dios para la fe de aceptar el misterio del sufrimiento." She might have repeated them. She must have seen from my expression that they went straight to my heart. That she'd given me what I needed: "Pray to God - for the faith - to accept the mystery of suffering."

Maybe it was something she had learned from the "Big Teresa" and the "Little Teresa". Maybe it was something she had gathered on her own. I will never know. She also gave me some momentoes of these saints - a keychain, a little triptiche. But mostly she gave me those words. I repeat them sometimes. I love the sound of them in Spanish. I can feel her presence, almost, as I say them.

I've followe
d her advice. I have to say I think it's helped.

When someone s
uffers, it is their suffering. It belongs to them. No one can take it from them. If they let you in, together you can sit before it - or with it - patient, reverent, accepting, caring, letting it seep into your heart and soul.

There are words you can say. But mostly I think it all comes down to presence.

Suffering is a mystery. And so is presence. I think they complement each other - in some way that is also a mystery.


Rowan said...

You use the word presence, but a different word resonates more for me - witness. Maybe we are saying the same thing in different ways. You state:
"When someone suffers, it is their suffering. It belongs to them. No one can take it from them. If they let you in, together you can sit before it - or with it - patient, reverent, accepting, caring, letting it seep into your heart and soul."

Being a witness, for me, means sometimes giving voice to that which cannot be said. Or even singing with the one suffering.

TheraP said...

Yes. Witness works. Presence is crucial though - as some might think of a court of law or a bystander. But absolutely! I'm not meaning that no words are said. And certainly one can beat drums or sing or do many, many actions. I've done those too. Yes, sometimes movement or music. Drawing. Writing. I have "magnetic" words and one person has used to them for sentences but also constructed "pictures" from them.

Thank you for your comment, Rowan. I was thinking of you when I wrote this. Not that it all pertains. But I was hoping to hear from you. Again, I can only speak to my side of it. You might want to look on the other blog for a poem that is almost a companion piece to this - though it was written long before this even occurred or was written down:

It's so easy to make mistakes in this work. So hard to do "the right thing" - and many times what's needed more than anything is an apology - if only from the therapist for the heedless word or action.

There've been times when we've put on sad music and simply cried together.

I appreciate your careful reading of everything. It's so hard to find the right words sometimes. And, as you say, sometimes the experience goes beyond what words could ever express. I think that's why I ended up in tears at that convent. How I felt. But also how trapped I was in my inability to express myself in Spanish. How much I wanted them to see the need I was bringing to them. Not just for me, but of course for so many people. But probably the tears said far more than words could have ever expressed.

Rowan said...

I wasn't using "sing" literally (though it could be), more the analogy of singing - a process done together - the person no longer stands alone.

The Other Shoe said...

It is wonderful that those who led you to the convent, who placed you into the presence of the nuns, had the wisdom to let you present (with difficulty) the pain of your patients and the pain you felt through them. Waited for you to provide the tears. Waited for you to hear words that would renew your soul.

Wonderful photos, too, and the light with its shadow on the wall spoke instantly: lux umbra.

TheraP said...

Yes, Rowan. The person no longer stands alone. Yes, like a duet. Or it could be like a ballet. And how important it is that the therapist is as completely grounded as one can be - in order to be present from the depths of one's soul.

And yes, dear Other Shoe, you are so right. No one could possibly have conveyed to them what I was really asking for - and maybe I myself didn't know what I was in need of, until it was given to me.

I can feel the tears just below the surface right now - having two commenters of such depth themselves - offering insight and companionship.

I am deeply, deeply touched.

TheraP said...

I honor the wishes of one - who felt moved by the post - but asked for privacy.