By Sister Honora Nicholson
Someone recently wrote in a blog, “It is hard to suffer with others.” The writer was referring to the challenging nature of accompanying migrants while they navigate the treacherous waters of the asylum system. She spoke of this role as providing an empathetic presence to the migrant person, who most often is feeling a sense of helplessness, powerlessness, sadness and fear. It’s a role, she says, that is never about taking away the pain or solving the problem, but rather of “being with,” of holding the pain with the person.
This exchange caught my attention as I ruminated over what I would write about Jesus’ encounter with his mother and the other women on his path to Calvary. When I was asked to write on this topic, of course I was tempted to focus on the fact that it was women who stayed with Jesus through his final ordeal. I was tempted to draw a comparison with the many incredible women I’ve come to know through my work with RENEW International, women who, against great odds and with little or no pay, continue to minister to the suffering Body of Christ in their tireless efforts to build community and hold the Church together in priest-less parishes around the country. But the blog about empathetic accompaniment of migrants set me in a different direction. It brought to mind a young man I once knew who encountered his own mother as he walked the path to his Calvary.
When I first met Dan, he was in his late 30s and had recently been diagnosed with full-blown AIDS. He was a beautiful young man, highly successful on Wall Street, well liked by everyone he met, and actively engaged in his parish community in spite of the church’s official teaching on being gay. Dan was deeply troubled, however, by the fact that not only did his mother not know he was dying of AIDS, but he had never been able to tell her that he was gay. His fear of hurting her, of embarrassing her, of disappointing her prevented him from revealing who he truly was.
I had the great privilege of accompanying Dan on a directed retreat where he prayed for the grace to reveal the truths of both his sexual orientation and his terminal illness to his mother before it was too late. In the course of the retreat, as he contemplated his suffering and the suffering he anticipated imposing on his mother, Dan felt a strong desire to pray the Stations of the Cross. After talking extensively about this in our session together, Dan left confident and enthusiastic that he would “find an answer” in the Stations.
In our session the next day, Dan talked about everything EXCEPT the Stations of the Cross. After he shared several other prayer experiences with me, I asked him if he had remembered to pray with the Stations. “Oh yes,” he said, “but it was a bust!” “It was a bust?” I asked. “Say more.” “Well,” Dan said, “it all started out fine. I was deeply moved and able to get into the first three stations, but then things just went flat somewhere around the fourth station and I sort of lost interest. I kept going but I wasn’t really into it.” “Very interesting.” I said. “Do you remember what the fourth station is?” After thinking a bit, Dan replied that he had no idea and so I shared that it is where Jesus meets his mother.
After a period of stunned silence, Dan wept and together we gently probed what it was that prevented him from entering into that station. He was eventually able to identify the terrible sadness and shame of feeling like a disappointment to his mother, of not wanting to cause her any suffering or embarrassment. He was able to name the fear of being rejected for who he was and of the vulnerability and exposure that comes with that. Dan spent most of the rest of that retreat sitting at the fourth station allowing Jesus and Mary to accompany him in his suffering, to gaze on him with unconditional love, and to support and strengthen him for what would prove to be a mutually healing meeting with his mother.
Yes, it is hard to suffer with others, but perhaps it’s even harder to allow others to suffer with us. Perhaps during this sacred season, as we pause at the fourth station, we might ask ourselves:
- How am I being invited to receive and hold another’s vulnerability? What might prevent me from doing so?
- How am I being asked to receive/accept my own vulnerability? How do I allow others to know or receive my vulnerability?
- How do I receive another’s empathy or compassion?