My father had been diagnosed with primary progressive aphasia, a neurological disease that attacks the brain’s language center, degrading its receptive and expressive communication skills and eventually erasing them altogether. Papa had worked with language all his adult life. But now the Lord, whom my father had dedicated his life to serving, was asking of him his most treasured faculty, the one by which he earned his daily bread and made his mark in the world and the Church.
But that was not all the Lord was asking. Even more was to be required: Over time my father would have to shed his mental acuity, his memories, his personality and sense of self, and his ability to relate to and even recognize the ones he loved. He would be made to suffer all manner of indignities.
Who Was He?
When he was still able to speak, we took a stroll around the neighborhood. He told me, in his now-halting voice, “I don’t ask, ‘Why me?’ I ask, ‘Why not me?’” Despite dedicating his life to serving the Church, he didn’t feel himself privileged. Who was he to negotiate with the Lord? If this is what God demanded of him, this is what he would give, though the price be steep.
I’ve puzzled over this: Whence came Papa’s abiding sense of joy in suffering? I found the answer recently while rereading his second book, From Berkeley to East Berlin and Back. In it my father recounts his journey from the Dutch Reformed religion of his childhood to his embrace of communism as a young adult, and the epiphany he experienced in East Berlin that converted him, heart, mind, and soul, to Christ.
Here is how he concluded this book: “Voluntary self-denial can be a profoundly and mysteriously Christian passage to greater Christian joy for us, but involuntary occasions of adversity can also provide such a passage for us,” he wrote.
St. Angela of Foligna, the thirteenth century mystic, is known for having taught that voluntary suffering is not half as spiritually efficacious as suffering imposed by circumstances and cheerfully endured. . . . Thomas à Kempis wrote: “Jesus has now many lovers of His heavenly kingdom, but few that are willing to bear His cross. . . . They that love Jesus for Jesus’ sake and not for any comfort of their own, bless Him no less in tribulation and anguish of heart than in the greatest consolation.” In spite of our weaknesses, let us not be too afraid to drink of the chalice of Christ’s suffering, so that one day we may be able to say to one another, with James, “Consider it all joy…when you encounter various trials; knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”
One of his oft-repeated phrases, when he could still utter words, was a quote from St. Paul: “When I am weak, then I am strong.” He believed — truly believed — that God’s grace was sufficient for him, that God would provide what he needed to persevere, that God’s power would be perfected in his weakness.
Reduced to Wordlessness
Eventually, this man of words was reduced to wordlessness, a completely noncommunicative state. If he experienced mental anguish, he endured it silently; if he underwent a dark night of the soul, it was also a silent night. It was as if Papa’s mind were locked somewhere inside his body. And then his body began breaking down. Even his physical discomfort became difficult to determine once he could no longer point to painful areas. I prayed that the Lord was communing with him in ways we couldn’t know. I prayed harder the further my father receded.
One of the most comforting of Catholic doctrines is that of Purgatory, the cleansing fire, the final purification after death that removes all human imperfection before one may enter the splendor of Heaven. Perhaps — just perhaps — the Lord permitted Papa to undergo purification during his final decade of life. There’s no doubt that my father underwent a severe trial. Is it not possible to say he was also the recipient of a severe mercy?