Two years ago, Ricky’s mother died from cancer. In the weeks after, he wrote this piece about wrestling with anguish and loss, and how he struggled to relate to God through her sickness and death.
When you find out your mom has stage IV pancreatic cancer, your mind does a lot of things. You try to dismiss it. You deny it. You hate it. You get angry at people you have no business getting angry at. You yell. You cry. You stop giving a damn about how healthy your food is or if you’re sleeping enough or if you’ll get a promotion.
You get proactive. You buy her a juicer, make her a “get well” video, then another video. You write her inspirational emails. You pray. You ask others to pray. You go to the saints. You fast.
Then, at some point, after all these things appear to do absolutely f*cking nothing, and she withers to bones and loses her hair and doesn’t call you on your birthday and cries often and sleeps more and makes typos on simple text messages (she never made typos) — after all that bullsh*t, you start to feel like your options are dwindling.
You open up the Bible. You study stories about Jesus and people who are sick, particularly those passages where you can find people like your mom: the woman with the withered hand; the blind man; the leper. You start to see a pattern:
- They suffer massively.
- They go to great lengths to meet Jesus and plead their case.
- He marvels at their faith.
- He heals them.
- He tells them they’re healed because of their faith.
You find hope in this. You remind yourself, and your mom, and everyone else you can, that you have to believe. You have to come to Him, and knock, and come again, and persevere, and keep knocking, and never give up until the final breath.
You find particular strength from the passage about the paralytic. They bring this guy to Jesus but still have no feasible option to get an audience with Him. The Son of God is swarmed and they have no way to carry their friend through the crowd. It’s a mob scene. So instead of shrugging or weeping, they think: To hell with it, we’re cutting a hole in the roof.
And what does Jesus think of their insane quest for Him? Apparently He likes it — He heals the man.
Never once in the Bible do you find an account of someone who approached the Lord—“Jesus Christ, Son of God, have pity on me!”—and was denied. You cling to this.
You pull up healing verses on your iPhone:
“Heal me, O Lord, and I will be healed.” (Jeremiah 17:14)
“I will restore you to health and heal your wounds,” says the Lord. (Jeremiah 30:17)
“You restored me to health and let me live.” (Isaiah 38:16)
You vow that, even if things seem to get worse, you will not lose hope.
You keep coming back to another passage — the one where the Canaanite woman asks Christ to heal her daughter. He ignores her. She asks again. He says no, this time insinuating she’s a dog. But Miss Relentless keeps asking: “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
Then, the beautiful words from Christ: “Woman, great is your faith!” And from that moment her daughter was healed.
You say you’ll keep asking even when it seems He’s ignoring you.
Meanwhile, your mom has stopped walking. They’ve set up a hospital bed in her bedroom. Her only food now is milk, which she draws from a sponge on a stick. She has a vacant, glassy look in her eyes. The hospice nurses say she’s got less than a week. You wish they had greater faith. You whisper to her Christ’s words to the girl they all presumed dead: Talitha koum, “Little girl, I say to you, get up!”
Get up, Mom. Let Him pull you from that twin bed. Rise!
Then, one morning, your mom’s breathing gets more labored and shallow. You try to give her water or milk, but she won’t take it. She barely blinks now. The rest of the family is called into the room. There are eight of you surrounding her with Hail Marys and tears. Your hand is on her shoulder as she struggles more. You whisper to her, “Say but the word and your servant shall be healed.” God can do anything. He can heal her — even at the edge of death. Especially at the edge of death. Please, Lord, just say the word. You can do anything.
Then, she lets out a faint cry and stops breathing. She’s gone. Your mom is gone.
I don’t know if you’ve ever felt this way, but in the days and weeks after my mom’s passing, I could not bring myself to pray.
I was exhausted — not just physically and emotionally, but spiritually. Totally spent. I had prayed to God with a fervor and intensity I didn’t even know I had. Hail Marys, novenas, adoration, you name it — without ceasing. And in the end, what did I have to show for it?
Not only was Mom not spared, but I can’t say I felt God’s presence once through the ordeal. You hear stories about people in times of duress who have this overwhelming sense of a world beyond the physical. Some people get strong messages when they pray, or there are inexplicable coincidences in their life, or little hints that God is there beside the suffering. I’m not talking about divine apparitions or the parting of seas, but rather those subtle ways God gets through to us to remind us that He’s there, He’s presiding, He’s at your side.
I felt none of that. God had ample opportunity to give me one of those little consolations. Practically every second of the day I was focused either on Him or my dying mother. I had the time and silence and prayerful mindset that make communication with God easier. But I didn’t hear a damn thing — not before, during, or after Mom’s death.
So, after I’d seen the morticians in black suits wrap her in a cloth and wheel her out of the house on a rickety stretcher, I was exhausted, lifeless, and brokenhearted… and alone. I felt like He was nowhere to be found. What the f*ck, God? I felt like someone when they argue their case in front of a judge for months, but the judge ignores them the whole time before denying their petition.
Either my faith wasn’t great enough, or it never mattered in the first place. What the f*ck, God?
The night we buried my mom, I spoke to the priest who said her funeral Mass, asking him why — if Scripture is our guiding light, if it’s a key to understanding how to live and think and pray as God wants us to — then why does it give us the impression that God rewards all the faithful who come to Him for healing? Why don’t we hear stories about people of great faith who get their petitions rejected by Jesus? Why does He never say, “Great is your faith… but you’re still gonna be blind”?
I told Father Shawn I was numb, that I didn’t really feel like talking to God, or rattling off Hail Marys, or turning my eyes to heaven. It wasn’t that I’d lost my belief in God — it’s just that I couldn’t find the spiritual energy to even talk to Him. I didn’t want to talk to Him. And from everything that had happened, I didn’t feel like He much wanted to talk to me. He pissed me off.
Father Shawn’s response shook me: “Have you told Him that?”
What do you mean?
“Have you told Him what you just told me?”
Had I told God I didn’t like Him very much? Well, no I hadn’t. I hadn’t because I didn’t think He’d want to be bothered, and because my attempts at talking to God the previous five months had been fruitless. What the hell does God care what I think of Him? I just couldn’t muster the strength to go back to my knees. I was too angry and dead.
He reminded me that sometimes the best, holiest, truest way to pray is turning to God and telling Him we can’t pray — which, ironically, is a prayer in itself. Prayer is not a feeling; it’s a decision. It’s communicating with God, with or without words, with or without niceties, with or without enthusiasm. In fact, Father Shawn said, sometimes he’ll go to the church, sit in front of the tabernacle, and tell God, “I’m not here right now. My mind is elsewhere. I don’t even want to be here. I don’t know how to pray or what you want me to do, and frankly, I’m not sure I even like you right now. So… So, there.”
That, believe it or not, is a prayer. You could even argue it’s a beautiful one.
Christ knows something about these types of prayers. He uttered something similar on the cross, moments before He breathed his last: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”
This pitiful cry is sometimes greater in God’s eyes than a full rosary uttered in bliss because the very act of going to God and speaking to Him, even if you’re mad as hell, is an act of faith. It’s an act of love, because love is choosing to be with someone even when you don’t particularly like them. Love is taking the time and energy to tell your spouse you’re mad at them when it’s easier to ignore them. Love is staying with your spouse when it’s easier to leave them.
There’s a beautiful line in the movie Lady Bird in which a Catholic school principal tells the main character, Lady Bird, that an essay she wrote about her hometown, Sacramento, showed how much she loved the city. Lady Bird replies:
“I don’t know that I love it. I just pay attention, that’s all.”
To which Sister Sarah Joan replies, “But aren’t they the same thing, love and attention?”
God wants our attention more than anything else. Believe it or not, He wants us to turn to Him when we’re mad at Him, sad at things, hating life. Sometimes being faithful means praising Him or asking for forgiveness or asking for His intercession in our lives. But sometimes it looks pitiful and raw, like Jesus’ cry: My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?
In the weeks and months after my mom’s passing, I’d like to say that God has overwhelmed me with a sense of His presence. But that would be a lie. A lot of days, I feel nothing at all. On many days, I’m still sad, I’m still angry, and I’m still confused. And I still find it excruciating to pray. But at the very least, in the midst of this suffering, I am beginning to understand that God would rather me whine to Him every day than ignore Him until I’m feeling better.
The problem of inexplicable suffering is one of the greatest questions we face. How can a good, all-powerful God allow so much pain? Why does he let pancreatic cancer take so many good lives? Where is God in all of this suffering?
In times like these, it’s easier to cut our losses and run. If your bus driver is asleep at the wheel, shouldn’t you jump out the window and find another bus? It’s a question many of us are asking these days as we wallow through a world of such pain — disease, violence, sexual abuse, floods and droughts and starvation.
I know I’ve felt that temptation to ditch Him. But when I do, I find myself always coming back to the scene in the Gospels where Jesus has just lost a ton of disciples after telling them something difficult. In the moments after everybody has scattered, he turns to his apostles and asks them if they’ll leave, too. To which Peter replies:
“To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
Where else would I go? I have to ask myself if my belief hinges on whether or not things happen as I’d like them to. And if my faith is conditional on getting what I want, is that really faith in the first place? What good is trusting someone if there’s an asterisk? I trust you, God — as long as you don’t let X happen.
G.K. Chesterton once said that the only courage worth calling courage is when “the soul passes a breaking point — and does not break.”
In each of our lives, that breaking point is the moment when doubt and despair fall on us like a skyscraper. It’s the moment that we realize everything around us is crumbling and we’re being crushed by it. It’s that moment when you kiss your mom’s forehead and, for the first time in your life, it’s cold. It’s the moment on the cross when Christ himself felt forsaken, the moment “in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist,” as Chesterton put it.
But the moment right after that is the crucial one. In the rubble, in the misery, on the cross, do you run or fight? Do you divorce your spouse or stick with them? Do you flee from God, or do you whimper to Him in the darkness?