By Thomas L. McDonald
I have a hole in my head — an extra one, that is. It’s in the temporal bone, where a useful skull covers the superior semicircular canals, maintaining an even pressure around the delicate parts of the inner ear involved in hearing and balance.
My skull is not up to this relatively simple task. Coupled with vestibular migraines, I am left with headaches, imbalance, vision issues, anxiety, fatigue, brain fog and a rare hearing problem called autophony. I hear — and quite loudly — my pulse, my creaking joints, my footsteps, my distorted voice and other bodily sounds best left unheard. I can actually hear myself blink.
I was in the fifth year of formation for the permanent diaconate when this cluster of problems became something I could no longer ignore. Because the eyes, brain and inner ear are all heavily stressed trying to piece together positional information from my broken internal gyroscope, I’d begun to have the peculiar feeling of being in a malfunctioning virtual reality headset. It’s hard to do graduate-level theology while your brain also is trying to navigate a world that seems oddly surreal.
Anyone preparing for ministry can tell you stories about the trials they endured on the road to ordination, and the men in my class were no exception. These trials can take on a spiritual dimension, and the suffocating darkness sometimes has a quality — a suddenness, a strength, a particularity — that feels supernatural. In any life a little rain is bound to fall over six years, but there’s rain and then there are hurricanes.
It’s hard not to wonder: Why me? I think of St. Teresa of Avila, lying in the mud, and saying to God “if this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few of them.”
Of course, the answer is “Why not me?” Or, in the words of Charlie Brown, “Why me, Lord? Don’t answer that!”
I already knew why: because it was suffering that brought me back to the church 20 years ago. Our challenges bring us closer to Christ, closer to the shadow of the cross which falls upon every soul and is the only thing that has ever made sense of the world. There is a radical solidarity of God with humanity in suffering.
What makes sense of pain? It’s often pointless and miserable. God can bring good out of evil, but it’s not automatic. We need to cooperate with him. I’ve seen suffering just create more suffering, but I’ve also seen horrifying things lead to immense graces.
We can’t possibly understand why it all has to be so hard and when I stand before God for my judgment, I’m going to have some questions. Perhaps I’ve always known the answer, if only dimly. Through pain, the God who is always calling can reach a stubborn humanity. It’s the way he breaks through our besetting sins of hubris and pride and idolatry.
The cross is the meaning, but it’s not the end: The end is resurrection. Renewal. Rising again. We fall, and we rise to greater glory with each fall. The rising and the falling, like the swells of the sea, bring us down to bear us up.
I’m fortunate: Diagnosis led to treatment and rapid improvement for everything except my hearing. It’s possible to fix that, too, but it involves cutting another hole in my skull, and that seems like entirely too many holes.
As I began to heal, I recalled that with every trial I draw closer and closer to the cross, which is the nexus of our existence, the intersection of our life and God’s life. It’s a profound mystery: Why does comfort draw us away from God and suffering draw us closer? If God is love, shouldn’t puppies and chocolate draw us closer and pain, and disease push us away?
Somehow, our comforts muffle the sound of God’s voice in our lives while our pains can make it clear and comforting. That’s the story of the Psalms, which daily draw me into their world of lamentation where God is nearby. Pascal never actually said the thing about the God-shaped hole in our hearts, but in the “Pensées” he describes an infinite abyss within us that can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object.
Instead, we try stuffing it full of things and pleasures and ideas that never fully satisfy, and God must unpack it to make room for himself. And that unpacking hurts. I’ve stuffed my mind full of so much that’s not God for so long that I shouldn’t wonder if God needed to put a hole in my head to let it out and make room.
I just didn’t expect him to be so literal about it.
Thomas L. McDonald is a diaconal candidate for the Diocese of Trenton, N.J., and a Benedictine Oblate.