Le blog de la Bergerie
For the last couple of months, I have had this recurring personal statement going through my head and it has to do with enjoying life, appreciating every little thing that comes my way. It goes like this in French “Ma vie est magnifique!” which I would rather translate as “my life is terrific” than my life is magnificent because “terrific” sounds less pompous to me. This short and private hymn was first born during daily walks in nature. It is an affirmation wrapped in gratitude and I am addressing it to myself (for positive feedback) and I am addressing it to God (because beauty in nature always stirs up gratefulness in me for the world, for the creation).
Those wonderful moments occurred on my daily walk up and down the forest and the fields above my chalet, where the scenery is absolutely gorgeous (I am in the French Alps!). I am very thankful that I can walk fast for an hour every day as the doctor has asked me to do for my diabetes. In my routine walk, I can see the sunlight through the trees, the sheep or the cows grazing along the way, sometimes a fox or a deer crossing furtively the trail, numerous plants and flowers blooming along the way and changing colors depending on the seasons, and a multitude of cloud formations, always changing, transforming itself in something new, depending on the weather or the time of day – and if you have already seen some of my photos, you know I’m a big fan of the beautiful ballet of clouds in the sky...
This statement on my terrific life opens up every time in my heart an open path filled with an appreciative sense of the beauty I see and the freedom I experience. But I did meet stumbling blocks on this open trail … and they had to do with pain and suffering, illness or death. What worked as a cold shower on my enthusiasm is the idea of suffering, especially the suffering of others. I often would get quiet and ponder it, following a distressing update from a friend or family member.
A few years ago, in Northern California, having our monthly dinner with my group of wonderfully funny and filled-with-faith friends, we discussed this very subject on more than one occasion and I had come to the conclusion that suffering can be divided in two groups: our own suffering and the suffering of others, and that the response is quite different depending on which type of suffering we are talking about:
1 - Let's start with our own suffering, it certainly matters a lot to each one of us and we must be the best person to talk about it since it is about us, right? Well, actually here is the first caveat: defining first the "suffering" we are talking about because there are many types: is it a physical suffering, such as an injury or an illness? Is it an emotional suffering such as a divorce or not getting hired when we knew we had all the qualifications needed...Besides these exemples of dramatic sufferings, we can certainly experience some milder ones but nevertheless very upsetting, at least in that particular moment, such as having a terrible migraine or getting yourself locked out of your own appartment...
So I realised I was coming up right away with some sort of personal markers on a general suffering scale, going from light to the heaviest ones. But in that process, I also starting thinking that what looks like suffering to me was certainly not universally accepted as "suffering". Let's take sports as an exemple, you hear about athletes training hours every day to reach their goals and it always seemed kind of an extreme and special life choice, which can be understood at the olympic level. But the truth is that nowadays, whenever I walk by a gym where I can see inside dozens of people running on machines and lifting this and that, I always feel so privileged to enjoy walking in the forest (or when in the City, walking on the beach by the Pacific or climbing up hundreds of stairs in the Sunset District)... So I realised that some amount of suffering can be a personal choice. Not only in sports but here is another exemple: cosmetic suregery! I am talking about the kind requested for personal improvements to better fit in the culture, not the kind imposed by disfigurement. To willingly go have it done, multiple times since it is said to be addictive, seems quite extreme to me. Other types of embracing suffering can be related to the profession we choose, such as working more than 24 hours in a row for medical students, or the readyness to do it for students at crunch times before exams, staying up for days with very little sleep. So I started making a difference between the sufferings we impose on ourselves (for whatever reasons we choose) or the other ones...And I was realizing that suffering can be subdivided into many categories: physical, emotional, mental or moral; big or small ones; imposed on us or chosen freely by us. By that time, I just wanted to address it as a believer, to face it as a Christian, to deal with it as I am supposed to and the answer was very simple:
WE SHOULD BEAR IT GRACEFULLY,
enduring it as much as possible and offering it to Christ, trusting and loving Him through it. I know this is the right answer. I am not saying I can always do it, for that matter, I am surprised how easily I lose sight of that goal and get confused and discouraged by difficulties, ready to resent the situation and turn to bitterness… Where is the graceful attitude in that? And I want to precise one more piece of this difficult puzzle of suffering: we can and we should ask for help in bearing it when it is appropriate or when we have reached the end of our own endurance, there is quite a difference in offering sacrifices here and there to participate in the life of our Lord versus attempting stoicism beyond our own reach - which can become self-destructive (and there is nothing Christian about that). So when you break your leg, please go see a doctor! If you feel yourself diving unwittingly in the pit of despair, please turn and talk to someone! So discernment is always needed. But there is a part of suffering which, when bearable, is here for us to accept and in that process, to discover more than we thought, because it is very formative, it will deepen our trust in Christ and it will open us more to charity towards others. These two specific reactions (openness to a new understanding and increased love towards others) are two very good reasons for personal growth. And there is no better way to understand the suffering of others, whether it be physical or emotional or moral, than having gone through a similar situation ourselves…
2 - So let's talk about the suffering of others and the answer here is even clearer and much shorter:
WE ARE SUPPOSED TO DO ANYTHING WE CAN TO RELIEVE THEIR SUFFERING,
anything to help them out, to soften the blow, surrounding them with love and support. Even if sometimes the only thing we can do is to hold their hand so they don’t go through suffering alone. Do I know people who are suffering? Yes, and I am not talking about the avalanche of bad news that the media throw daily at us. No, I am referring to friends or family going through aggressive cancers, terrible stress, deep depression, or the very common isolation, feebleness and vulnerability brought by aging which I am confronted in others more and more as I get older myself.
My ponderings about suffering, right after experiencing such joy in walking in nature, actually changed many things on a very subtle level. On one hand, it confirmed the value of being aware of the blessed moments, of “Ma vie est magnifique!”. and on the other hand, it reinforced this idea of "connectedness" between us and the ones we love especially, and between us and eveyone else too, and it reinforced it on a prayer level, on a spiritual level. Two specific moments concurred recently to bring me to this new awareness::
The first one happened during a lovely afternoon. It was a good moment, a simple one, little stuff, but all good. I was sitting at a table with my friend, an elderly friend of my family, we were in the lounge room of her retirement home, having fruit juice and cake, or in my case a glass of cold water. Then another lady with hair as white as snow and with a big smile on her face, joined us. She said that my friend and I “were so nice”, we looked like such nice people it was heartwarming to her. Of course, it made us smile. Actually, it made us laugh out loud. The lady with a big smile herself went on, saying we looked like sisters, which made us laugh even more. My friend (96 years old) tried to explain that we were not of the same generation, that her and her husband (now deceased) were friends with my parents (now deceased) and that I am of the generation of her own daughter. All this took a while to explain because my friend has had a stroke a while back and her speech is not perfect. But it is good, you just need to be patient.
This friend of mine is always very graceful, with an inborn elegance, ready to talk and laugh and she has such a gusto for life that it amazes me every time I see her. Oh Yes, she is getting more frail. But she has had a very full and fascinating life, which I hope her daughter will write about one day… In the meantime, our own convoluted conversation, infused with laughs and smiles, was quite a laidback moment. I sat there, calm and contented, thinking that this different pace was in no way going to bother me, I liked it, I enjoyed it. You have to recognize peace when you see it and this was a pleasant and peaceful moment. And a funny one too!
On my way back home, while driving through the mountain pass, I was thinking about it and how much more patient I strive to be since facing my own mother’s illness and how much I still need to expend it. In the very beginning, it shocked me that she could repeat things without seeming to be aware of it. But I slowly got used to it. And by the way, the two ladies I sat with earlier that day displayed just regular aging forgetfulness, nothing more, and they certainly showed a lot of kindness and a certain playfulness. Nowadays, especially in the West, I think we invest too much in efficiency and control. Fatigue and stress can definitively affect each one of us, any accident or illness can impact our minds. A good working memory is so useful. A good working brain is such a gift! But why not be more accepting of the little connections up there getting messed up? Plus, if you made a list of all the terrible stuff going on in the world right now, it seems to me that repeating a casual statement in a conversation should not be at the top, right?
Then the second moment of the goodness of life happened just a few days ago, helping me to articulate even more abundantly “Ma vie est magnifique”! I went to a one-day retreat in a Carmelite Monastery in Haute-Savoie: Le Reposoir. Nestled in between large mountains, it is a very impressive and peaceful place. The conference was led by a young Indian priest and it was very well attended. The theme was “Seeking happiness by living out the Beatitudes". What an appropriate subject! Fr. Scaria was a very good speaker. Because he came from such a different culture (born and raised in India but having lived in Africa too and now assigned to a parish in the French Alps…) he kept surprising me. The talk was in French but he gave us examples in Sanskrit or in English and translated them, he mentioned the Buddha a few times. He said Jesus was very clear about the way to happiness and the Beatitudes were our road map. I found the day extremely encouraging and stimulating and I will share here two of his many stories:
- The first one has to do with one bee from a beehive. After the owner has taken all the honey away, someone asks this little bee if it is not sad that the honey is all gone and the bee answers”: “Oh No, I am not sad. What has NOT been taken away from me is my capacity to make honey”… Indian bees are very wise, if you ask me.
- The second story is about an elderly French priest who used to greet him by saying “Alors, malgré tout, ça va”? Which means: “After all (despite it all) how is it going”? And he said he liked this greeting. And it makes sense, if the person saying Hello to you is truly ready to listen to you, to your problems and empathize with your life, it will make a better encounter for both of you. Fr. Scaria spoke to great length about this unusual “malgré tout” greeting. Later on, in the afternoon, the lady on my left said loudly a couple of times “We can’t hear, please repeat” and I turned to her and said “But, after all, we are happy, right?” and we both smiled. Since that day, I just need to think of “Malgré tout, ça va?” and it brings a smile to my face just to evoke it!
My first interesting moment was about a shared one with my elderly friend (and was not related to faith directly except in the Loving-your-neighbor-way - which is essential) and the second one was a good lesson in life and faith on what is happiness exactly, how do we cultivate it and make it blossom wherever we are planted. Both moments helped me refine my own ponderings of this summer and confirmed “ma vie est magnifique!” and think of a few solutions:
1- BE JOYFUL. True happiness, a deep interior joy, is in our own capacity "to be joyful". Whether it is associated with laughter or not the real treasure is the awareness that we can practice it and go on, more serenely than before. Especially when challenges and sufferings come our way, He gave us a road map, He gave us lots of food for thoughts besides the one true food to sustain us for the road. We have access to His Word, the sacraments, prayers, the liturgy, the communion of saints and loving God in our neighbor.
Solutions 1: assess what you can possibly do right now to help your situation.
2- PRAY FOR AND HELP OTHERS. A very old Christian tradition is related to "interceding for others". Sometimes in between my two interesting moments, I started saying intercessory prayers as I walked, naming the ones I know who are suffering, because if they could, they would be right here walking with me. Holding them up to God is the least I can do when I am not next to them.
Solution 2 is to think of others, to help others, in prayers and/or in actions.
3- OFFER IT ALL. And this brings me to using our own life moments as “offerings”, any of them can be food for prayers, our trials as well as our good times. It creates a “shift” within ourself, we go from “us” being the center of our life to “God” being the center of the universe. This shift allows us to take a certain distance. When we are in pain or in trouble, to be able to establish a distance, even the smallest one, will help us.
Solution 3 is to turn to God!
4- BUT WATCH OUT FOR FEAR. Anguish and fear are very common stumbling blocks, they will get us stuck in a tiny cramped space every time; recognize if this is an habitual pattern in you. I have to admit that faced with a difficult situation such as taking care of my aging parents, I would, sometimes, feel overwhelmed and say in my head "I can't do it anymore, this is too much, I can't do it" and repeat it dozens of times, when one day, I finally realised and wondered how could I change my defeated mood if I keep repeating this in my head, letting it run in circles in my brain? So I decided to allow myself to say it 3 times, then to force myself to think of 3 positive things happening right now, and it did help. But fear is one of my own recurring stumbling block.
Solution 4 is to assess what is your greatest impediment to hapiness right now, and to ask God and others humbly for help.
Work on these 4 possible solutions every day, tackle them all ! Recognizing our own weakness and shifting it all to God allows us to make an opening; to experience a sense of relief (it is not all in our own hands anymore); a sense of hope (no matter how bad it may look now, it can change); a sense of freedom (in my heart and soul, I can rise above this dismal reality because I believe in the reality of the invisible world, the communion of saints, the Risen Christ!). God performs mini-miracles all the times and this shift I am talking about is a gift, it is opening the door to His grace.
Growing older, I am convinced how essential it is to be aware of goodness, beauty and truth and it is just as indispensable to say it and to share it. It is a good practice to help us withstand the daily onslaught of bad news. Therefore, I was right to enjoy so much my walks and my afternoon of laughing and chatting with my old friend and I am right to affirm how good it is all, after all! And I hope that I can do it as long as possible, and for this I ask your prayers, dear reader.
Copyright ©2017-2021 Michele Szekely
A shorter version was first published on Catholic365.com, on August 22 2017 here with one photo of my favorite trail in the forest, then later I added other photos of special moments. Updated in 2020 during the confinement, then again in 2021 when I changed the format of this site, my own site: Le blog de la Bergerie.com where I post my musings and ponderings. I decided to simplify it and focus more on only two things: faith and photography.
- The book of Job! All of it. At one time, I tried to memorize the beginning and the end, and I certainly go back to it again and again, whenever I need a spiritual reboot.
- Most of the Letters of Saint Paul work the same for me. - The article on "Saint Paul explains the meaning of suffering" here
- Psalms 6, 32, 51, 143, 85
- Apostolic Letter of John Paul II on The Christian meaning of human suffering here
- The Catechism of the Catholic Church, §1499 to 1532 here
- The book "Amazing grace for those who suffer" by Jeff Cavins and Matthew Pinto here
- The article "Suffering is not a value in itself, love transforms everything" by La Stampa, on words of Pope Francis here
- CHOOSING JOY: 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 (NASB): Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus".
- Finish the race: 2 Timothy 4:7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.
- PURE JOY: James 1:2-4 says, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”
"Laudate Dominum", Laudate Dominum, Omnes, Gentes, Alleluia! the Emmanuel version
"Voici la nuit" « L'immense nuit des origines, Ou rien n'existe hormis l'amour, L'amour qui se dessine. En séparant le sable et l'eau, Dieu créa comme un berceau La terre où il viendrait au jour » From the movie "Of Gods and men" link to the song here to the trailer here
Later in 2020 during the confinement:
“L’Esprit de Dieu m’a consacré…”
Psalm 85 In the summer of 2021: “Mercy and faithfulness have met; Justice and peace have embraced"...
I just need one or two beautiful verses which will give me wings and enthusiasm, on top of the endorphins released during hiking uphill, and it will be upgrading my mood to a positive and a very thankful one. I will start flying, in my head, in my imagination, in my soul…! In reality, I walk carefully especially on my way down because I’m getting old, but I do see people really flying by me: les traileurs du coin, and I admire them. (See the local Ultra Trail race: UTHG (Ultra Trail du Haut Giffre): https://uthg-trail.com/)