Today I presided the funeral of the woman I visited in hospital last December 15. She hung on for 6 more weeks, in terrible pain, but now she is at peace.
Her illness, and the way she lived it, is a textbook case of finding meaning in suffering. Her cancer was long-running *and* excruciating. I knew I had to address the issue of her suffering in my homily.
First of all, I pointed out that while suffering *can* be a punishment from God, it isn’t always. Take, for example, the sufferings innocent children are sometimes forced to endure. That can’t be a punishment from God.
Next, we need to remember that suffering is meant to be our friend. Why? Because suffering always reveals something, and in that revelation we come to a greater truth. This woman’s illness, for example, began in a very subtle manner, without suffering. It would have been better if she had experience sharp pain *at the beginning*, so that her cancer could have been caught before it spread. She died, not just of cancer, but of the insidious nature of that cancer. Suffering, in such a case, would have been a partner in life, not in death.
Of course, once the suffering *did* finally come and force the doctors to review their original (mis)diagnosis, what use was it then? It is here we see the suffering taking on a special spiritual dimension. The simple fact is that this woman, during the course of her illness, became something of a mystic. The prayer life multiplied, priests started visiting her not just to offer comfort but be edified by her courage, lay people found themselves brought closer to God by her witness. She even had some visions, particularly of heaven, and by the manner in which they came (as well as her description of their content) I am convinced it wasn’t just the medication. There was a great joy and simplicity in what she was living, that went beyond morphine.
The funeral, in the end, was very hard to live, but it was also full of hope. The prolonged illness, accompanied by so many “little deaths” along the way, was a gradual letting go of her life — but at the same time, an opening up to eternal life of which she began to have a foretaste. One thing I learned from all this was the nature of our final surrender. It isn’t that we surrender our life to God — that is the second-to-last surrender. This woman did that at one point, and she continued to live nonetheless. What else could she have been called to surrender, if not life? In a word, death. Her final surrender was to surrender to God not just her life, but her death — to abandon to His providence even the choice of when she was to depart. To desire neither life nor death, but to surrender all.
A friend and fellow blogger posted the eulogy she delivered on her blog In the Heart of God. Check it out.