Sister Bernard is making her vows on 23rd January 1938. Thanks be to God now again everything is all right--Jesus has surely chosen her for something special, since He has given her so much suffering. And she is a real hero, bearing up everyting courageously with a smile. . .Not long ago, in a little privately-printed history of a small town church, I ran through the list of servicemen and discovered the stories of two men, same last name, both pilots, both killed, one in World War II, the other in the Korean War. I mentioned that in a speech I gave in that very small-town church.
Afterward a man came up to me to tell me there was more.
"They were brothers," he said.
The history had not mentioned that.
"And you want to know what else?--their mother lost a husband in the First War."
It's the kind of story that has to be told to be believed. A woman marries, sometime before 1917. Her husband goes off to "the war to end all wars" and, along with thousands of others doughboys, doesn't return. I can only imagine the heartbreak.
Someone else comes along--some local farmer maybe--and marries this young widow. With this man she has children, including two boys. In 1942, one of them goes off to military service, becomes a pilot, then is killed, shot down over Europe. I can only imagine the heartbreak.
Another son enlists when America goes to war in Korea. He too becomes a pilot--what an honor. But he too gets shot down and doesn't return.
Who, really, can imagine the heartbreak?
There's a syllogism at work here in Mother Teresa's assessment that's worth examining, and it goes like this: major premise: to be blessed means to suffer; minor premise: Sister Bernard suffers greatly; conclusion: Sister Bernard is blessed.
I have no idea who Sister Bernard is, but neither do I doubt that Sister Bernard--or Mother Teresa for that matter--suffered greatly in their heartbreaking work among the world's most impoverished. Still, I simply don't know what to make of the logic--"you're blessed if you suffer."
Perhaps I'm skeptical because the logic gets used--Sarah Palin curries great favor with her loyal followers because the lame-stream media goes out of the way to poke a sharp stick in her eyes. She suffers greatly. Does that make her righteous? She's not alone, of course.
Maybe I'm just too full of guilt. For the last week it's been high-nineties here, a heat wave unlike any I remember, a swampish gooey heat that rolls sweat down into my neck when I do nothing more than turn brats on the grill. But we've got an air-conditioned house. We eat like kings and queens. Right now, in our fridge, there's sun tea, lemonade, some exotic beer from a Minnesota micro-brewery, two gallons of cold milk, and ice cubes that'll spew forever from the freezer's front door. We're not suffering.
I'm not at all sure I have ever suffered, at least not like that woman who once upon a time lost a husband and then, in two subsequent wars, two sons. Last week's toll in our church's "joys and concerns" was staggering. People are suffering--people I know. All kinds of cancers seem to be everywhere. This vale of tears is not without its great and heavy sadnesses.
But are those who suffer somehow blessed for their suffering?
Here's the only truth I think I know. God almighty wants us, always, on our knees, and somehow--I wish it weren't true--it's just plain easier to be on your knees when you're suffering. Sometimes he puts us there--me too--because maybe it's easier to see him when, like a penitent, the only thing before our eyes is the basement floor.
Wish it weren't so, but pride, after all, is the worsts of the seven deadlies, and suffering surely slays pride. There's nowhere else to turn.