An Account of Fatherly Suffering
Today I am going to be very candid and share with you a couple of lessons that I have learned within the last several weeks regarding fatherly suffering. Before beginning, it may be beneficial to back up a bit and mention a couple of events that took place approximately two months ago. Toward the end of August, I had the honor and joy to meet with a very generous man, who offered to provide substantial financial provision to our apostolate, the Fathers of St. Joseph, for the purpose of aiding us in the great endeavor of fulfilling our visionary plans to provide fathers the formational tools to raise their families to holiness. Approximately a week later, I was a guest on two EWTN shows to promote the apostolate and the release of my new book Show Us the Father. But by the time I had returned to my family, all hell broke loose at home. My daughter, Anna Marie—who due to her physical and mental disability has an approximate first-grade cognitive level and is permanently confined to a wheelchair, and depends upon my wife and me to do everything for her, even the most basic functions of eating, bathing, changing clothes—began suffering from a rare condition defined as acute ketamine (menstrual) psychosis. Anna Marie, who loves the Lord intensely, who has nearly all of the Christian praise songs memorized, who loves to pray, who is a pure, innocent magnet for the Lord, because of her menstrual cycle, and the hormonal and chemical changes occurring in her body, literally began losing her mind. Due to the low estrogen levels and the high dopamine sensitivity during a woman’s cycle, the condition generally causes women ongoing sleep depravation, hallucinations, delusions, and intense psychotic behavior. (My wife assures me that she also suffers from this condition.) Anna Marie experienced six days of sleep depravation; she experienced hallucinations, (seeing people and devils and hearing strange voices) and would howl in terror, screaming during most of the night. Finally we admitted her to the University of Iowa emergency room. It was during the ten hours in the U of I ER that the situation shifted and became somewhat alarming. My sweet, angelic, God-loving, innocent daughter not only screamed and howled, but began to yell out sacrileges, blasphemes, cursing and swearing like a sailor, telling her mother and I to “go to hell,” and many other things that I won’t share here. The university doctors, psychiatric team, and nursing staff shared with us that they had never seen anything like this before.
Anna Marie was eventually admitted to the psychiatric unit, but due to her demanding physical needs, she was transferred to the pediatric hospital. Five psychiatrists, three staff doctors, and a substantial nursing staff rallied to help our daughter. Anna Marie remained in the hospital for nearly two weeks. Each day, Kim and I would spend hour upon hour with Anna Marie, who verbally continued to assault us with blaspheming, swearing, and hateful words. It was as though we were being accosted by a little demon. Due to the intensity of the situation, we had several priests anoint her. During the first anointing it appeared as if a battle between good and evil was raging within her. As the priest began to open the holy oil, she began to scream and howl, commanding the priest to go to hell, to get out, and to stop. After she was anointed, she let out a series of soft “yeses” and then began howling the same expletives. Finally we asked a priest who had experienced exorcisms and demonic possessions to evaluate her. He spent five minutes with her while she rattled off series upon series of swear words, then suddenly stopping cursing, and in a moment of clarity, she looked the priest in the eyes and said, “I wish they would cast the devil out so that I can sleep.” After he related this account to us, we wondered if she could be demonically possessed. However, the priest did not believe that she was possessed; she did not meet the criteria. When Kim and I returned to Anna’s room, she glared at me and said emphatically, “F— you,” and then turned to my wife and said, “F— you, you bitch.” At that point, feeling nearly hopeless, as though our daughter was lost, we left the hospital feeling quite defeated.
During this trial, I took a leave of absence from work for approximately a month. I canceled all upcoming speaking events at men’s conferences, all video podcasts and blog posts for men’s evangelization groups were postponed or canceled, and the second meeting with the potential donor who would fund the apostolate was canceled. It appeared as if everything was unraveling. During this time, a gentleman from out east sent a first-class St. John Neumann relic with a nine-day novena, asking me to pray over Anna with the relic and invoke the saint’s intercession. Anna Marie began recovering on day one of the novena and was eventually discharged from the hospital and returned home. Though she has a long road of recovery ahead, and still suffers from bouts of psychosis, she is returning to herself.
What Difference Does it Make?
After returning home, without the aid of the nurses, Kim and I came to grips with the reality that caring for Anna Marie would consume much of our time and energy. At one point, for the purpose of distracting Anna from the hallucinations and depression, I helped her read a book. The process was incredibly laborious and time consuming. Anna Marie would sound out each letter many times until she could finally say the word correctly. She repeatedly began again and again, losing her place, repeating sounds and words, not comprehending what she was reading. As this occurred, I could not help but think, “What difference does this make?” “This is a waste of my time.” “I have given up everything to help my daughter sound out words, while my wife, my job, the apostolate is falling apart. . . .What difference can this possibly make?” The next day, we took her to Holy Mass, and after we returned home and I was rolling her in her wheelchair off the chair lift connected to the back of our van, again, in a moment of clarity she said to me, “What is St. Joseph telling you about your fatherhood?” Speechless and shocked, my only response was, “I don’t know.” I took her words to heart, and sought out St. Joseph, attempting to make sense of all the events and trials. It was as if St. Joseph led me back to God the Father, who said, “My ways are not your ways. My ways are far above your ways. Who are you to know the mind of God? What you deem as success may not be divine success, and what you think will make a difference may not make a difference at all. But what I have ordained, as little as it is, to make a difference, makes the biggest difference of all. You may think that these things that you are doing for your daughter make little difference, but truly they make all the difference in the world.”
The Paradox of Fatherhood
The Christian life is a great paradox. Christ’s shame is His glory. Jesus’ death affords us life. Jesus’ ministry, which appeared to end in utter tragedy and ruin, eventually becomes the largest religious institution of all time. What is hidden will be revealed. We must lose our lives in order to save them. In addition to these paradoxes, the Christian father often believes that he must venture “out there” to change the world. He believes that the real battles, conquests, and adventures are in the world. However, God is not so much calling dads to go “out there,” but rather to go “in there”; we must return to our family, our vocation, our domestic church, and in doing so, God through us and our families will change the world. We think the battle is “out there” in the world, but rather, the biggest battle that is waged against our pride and our ego is in dedicating ourselves to our vocation of fatherhood “in there,” in the family. This is the strange paradox of fatherhood.
The Sufferings of St. Joseph
During this episode with Anna Marie, I stumbled across St. Paul’s words to the Philippians: “It is your favor to not only believe in Christ, but to also suffer with him.” Yippee—what an honor! Actually, it is an honor to suffer for Christ. One cannot know Christ without suffering with Christ. Suffering for Christ allows one to know Christ intimately. Only the man who suffers with Christ and for Christ can transmit the rich wisdom of the suffering Christ to his children. Here, I cannot help but to consider St. Joseph. St. Joseph is a man who suffered for Christ and therefore knew Christ better than anyone else, save Mother Mary. Consider for a moment St. Joseph’s sufferings. He was a most hidden father, and yet he has become the most revered and well-loved father in history. He did not accomplish anything, by human standards, that was considered extraordinary, and yet his ordinary life became compellingly extraordinary. The key to Joseph’s success is that he accomplished little, natural, common, apparently insignificant tasks and duties by embracing suffering for Christ His Son, and doing so, the little became large, the natural became supernatural, the common became uncommon, and what was insignificant to the world became truly significant to all. God took all of St. Joseph’s natural efforts and supernaturalized them. St. Joseph did not go into the world to build the world as much as he went into his domestic church to build the church of Jesus and Mary and give his life for them. Joseph suffered sexually, in offering his body as a holy and living sacrifice (Rom. 12:1) for Mary by remaining the most chaste spouse. Joseph suffered as a provider, attempting to provide for his family when all he could offer God was “two turtle doves.” I dare say that if Joseph did not assume his post as Custos, guardian, husband, and father, his family would not have become the Holy Family, the archetype of all families, who provides the template for every family to become icons of the Trinity and a living sign of God’s relentless self-giving love. By doing these things, Joseph fulfills the words of St. Paul: “Count others as better than yourselves.” And again, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, for they make up for what is lacking in Christ’s sufferings on behalf of his body.”
This is precisely what you and I and all fathers are called to do. We are called to be like St. Joseph, and count our family members as better than ourselves (see Phil. 2) and worthy of our sufferings and sacrificial love. We are called to rejoice in our sufferings and offer them on behalf of our body, that is, our domestic church (see Col. 1:24). We obediently accept the vocational role that God desires each of us to fulfill by offering our sufferings, by surrendering our pride and ego, by setting aside our selfish endeavors that compel us to pursue those things we deem as success. This is our sacrificial offering.
The Secret Power of Suffering
As children we loved the masked crusaders, the secret superheroes, who saved the day without anyone knowing who or what they really are. They carried out their heroic deeds in a secret, hidden, silent way. Consider Frodo Baggins. Frodo secretly carried the greatest power in all of Middle Earth, the ring of power, the only power that could destroy Sauron the dark lord. Why do we love the Lone Ranger, Batman, Spiderman, Frodo Baggins? Because they suffer silently, and win the day by means of those secret sufferings. We fathers are much like the masked crusaders or Frodo Baggins, in that we have the power to overcome evil, to defeat “Sauron” the evil one. The secret power is the human family. If the family, the fundamental cell of society, is revitalized, the Church will be renewed, and if the Church is renewed the world will be converted. However, all of this depends upon the human father taking up his post to be a humble, silent hidden father like St. Joseph.
Consider that Joseph’s fatherhood is a reflection of God’s fatherhood. And our Lord Jesus speaks of a key characteristic of God’s fatherhood in the sixth chapter of Matthew: “When you fast, pray or give alms, do it in secret and your Father, Who is in secret will repay you.” God the Father is in secret. He does not blow a trumpet and bring attention to Himself before accomplishing a mighty deed. No. He simply fulfills the task. We, being icons of God the Father, must be like St. Joseph, like God the Father; we are called to suffer on behalf of our body, our families, in secrecy, in hiddenness, without bringing attention to ourselves—and this is how we will obtain glory. What is hidden will one day be revealed.
A Way to the Way
As I endured this trial with Anna Marie, I began to consider my failings, my sin, which is this: I began to believe that Anna Marie was getting in the way. That Anna Marie was getting in the way of my dreams, my hopes, my aspirations, my plans for success. But God sent me a different message: “No, you have it wrong. Anna Marie is not in the way. Rather, she is a way, to the Way. Anna Marie is your way to the Way, the Truth and the Life.” I dare say that this applies to all fathers. Our wives, our children, and all the joys, sorrows, and sufferings that are a fruit of our relationship with them, is a way to the Way, to Jesus Christ and union with Him. Our families are far from being in the way, far from being an obstacle to success, but rather are the way for us to experience true glory, to become holy, to be sanctified and to sanctify this world. If we believe this, live this, and enter into our families, everything can change. Is it difficult, yes—but it is worth the struggle.
The other day, a friend mentioned that he is reading military manuals and books on war. I asked him why, and he responded, “Because life is a series of battles, and I am tired of being one of those who believe that the goal of life is to be comfortable.” Life indeed is a series of battles, and we must not fool ourselves into being numbed by the lie of comfortism. If we are courageous enough to enter the battle, the Lord will equip us to become victorious—if only we suffer with him (see Rom. 8:28). We fathers need to stop looking for comfort and rather strive to enter the battle for our families.
The Future of the Many Depends on the Few
What difference does this make? What difference do the little actions and sufferings of our fatherhood make? All the difference in the world. As Pius XII said, “The salvation of the many depends on the holiness of the few.” Let us be that few who offer their bodies as a holy and living sacrifice, rejoicing in their sufferings on behalf of their bodies, their domestic church.