A story about spiritual advice, therapy, and two priests who knew when I needed what.
When I had made my first confession after losing Rosie, the first priest, a young, eloquent, and holy man, told me this:
"Be at peace. God loves you very much, and he allows this to happen to you because he loves you. In your sorrow, turn to Mary. She wants to be everything to you: not only a mother, but a model of motherhood and of being a wife. It may be that nobody knows what this is like; but she does. She knows what it's like to lose a Son.
"Love cannot exist without suffering. Do you want to know why you look around and see such a lack of love, of charity, in the world? It is because the world has tried to do away with suffering.
"It may well be that your marriage will be one of extraordinary suffering, silent suffering, misunderstood by most. But it will also be one of extraordinary love. Embrace this cross, which God asks of so few. If you continue to carry it, and to offer it to the Lord, it will be your salvation and your husband's. And not only this, but it will be the salvation of many. And we can strongly hope and pray that God will extend this mercy to your children, as well."
The second priest is also a holy and eloquent man, some decades older than the first. He is staunchly traditional. He has a permanent glare, and little round glasses. His voice is the voice of a mountain, and when he performs the Asperges at the Easter Vigil, he moves like a bloodhound on the scent.
I pulled back the purple curtain and knelt down behind the screen. "Father, forgive me, for I have sinned. It's been one week since my last confession. I lost my baby about halfway through pregnancy about a month ago, and I have been really struggling with anger at my husband."
I peeked around the screen. He glared at me, in a friendly sort of way, and I took a seat on the bench next to the kneeler.
"You don't need a priest," he said. "You need a therapist."
"Uh, well, I actually already am seeing a therapist. But I wanted to ask you something."
"Okay, talk." I talked. He listened, nodded, and never once looked surprised. He gave me his two cents when I asked, and asked me simple questions.
"Most of what you're feeling is entirely justified," he said when we had finished. "Another part is hormones. Of course you feel angry. God made you to have babies, and to get mad at your husband when he doesn't listen to you."
I love telling the stories of both these confessions because, through each of the priests I spoke with, God gave me something I desperately needed. I left the confessional both times feeling unburdened, not only because of the grace of the sacrament, but because of the words I heard.
The first priest helped me to be armed with courage, and even with joy. Some of what he said can be hard for a grieving person to hear, but it is overwhelmingly beautiful, necessary, and true. Our suffering truly is powerful. It transforms us. It ravages us, but the gaping canyon it leaves behind is a that-much-deeper longing for God's presence. What is longing, if not a kind of emptiness, and a kind of love?
Grief is a school of love, because suffering changes simple, easy things into acts of tremendous strength. After loss, suddenly, fulfilling your Sunday Mass obligation no longer means just sitting in the pew and doing your best to pay attention. It means showing up with your postpartum bleeding and still bigger belly, crying through Communion, responding coherently to your congratulatory neighbors who have only heard one part of your news, hearing the silence of your baby's voice among the crying that fills the church. Smiling through a friend's baby shower becomes an act of self-sacrifice (and not something you are obligated to do if you don't feel up to it!). Making dinner for your spouse is a huge accomplishment. Even showering is a big deal! Everything that you do for other people, dutifully and painfully and dragging your feet, is teaching you to love them more. Everything you do for God, angrily and out of obligation, every time you go to Mass or Confession, every time you scream and cry and demand answers from him, every time you decide to trust him for one more minute despite it all: all of this increases your love for him, even when it doesn't feel like it.
On my best days, when I think of all of this and remember that I also believe in redemptive suffering, I am overwhelmed by the goodness of God. Don't misunderstand me: I have postpartum depression and no baby. I have plenty of days when I don't care, and I don't want my pain to help other people, and I'm sick of the unfairness, and I just want my babies back. I spend plenty of time inside in my husband's chair, watching Downton Abbey and eating Cheez-Its and ignoring everyone around me, feeling like it's the dead of winter. But on days like today, I am in awe of the beauty of the Passion, and astonished at the gift of my participation in it.
The day I made my second confession was not one of these days. I was anxious, afraid, and ashamed of my own thoughts. I was unable to distinguish sin from intense negative emotions. I was falling temporarily back into the scrupulosity I struggled with so intensely as a teenager, as I often do when I am grieving or going through a difficult transition. I was using Confession primarily to escape the anxiety I felt over my potential sins.
The second priest, without really knowing me, knew enough to see that my pain was because of trauma and grief, and not necessarily sin. Then he did something not every priest does: he broke into my cycle of avoidance. He offered me the chance to experience my negative emotions without running away screaming or confessing them as though they were sins, and reassured me that they were normal, and even appropriate.
He also recognized that I needed help with my trauma and grief that went beyond what he could give me in ten minutes in the confessional. He checked to see that I was getting the care that I needed, encouraged me to keep it up, and, again, reassured me that needing that kind of care after a traumatic event was normal and reasonable.
This second conversation worked with the first, not against it, because taking good psychological care of oneself is fundamental to a healthy spiritual life. Certainly this does not always mean seeking therapy or medication, as I have; for many centuries before ours, of course, this has been impossible. But one thing it does mean is allowing ourselves to feel negative emotions, name them, describe them, and tell God about them candidly.
When we try to escape negative emotions without addressing them, we are really trying to do away with our suffering. We miss the opportunity to learn to love, and to participate in the Passion. And what's more, we don't actually get rid of our suffering by avoidance; in fact, we increase it. Really embracing the cross means experiencing and wrestling with feelings of abandonment, anger, and fear, and not running from them. There are no shortcuts to the Resurrection.