Life & Soul

Faith can’t just ward off suffering. The truth is more complex

It was only this week that I learnt that Mary Craig had died in December, at the age of 91. She was a sometime Tablet journalist and author of several biographies, including those of John Paul II and Lech Wałęsa. I suspect others may experience an almost personal sense of loss on hearing the news because of her bestselling book, Blessings, which is profoundly moving.

The book is a searingly honest description of coming to terms with the birth of her son Paul, who had Hurler’s syndrome (formerly known as gargoylism). Craig describes the gamut of complicated emotions of love and revulsion that any parent will understand. She also explores the conflict this brings, as what she actually feels is haunted by spectres of what previous experience and formation – including her “conventional” Catholic faith – tell her is an “appropriate” reaction.

“I cherished the belief that abnormality was something that happened to others,” she writes, explaining how initially she lived in denial about the extent of Paul’s disability. Even when she finally had a prognosis, she says: “I was not, as some people believed, ‘being wonderfully brave’. I was merely in an extended state of shock, with all my capacity for feeling paralysed. Perhaps it was nature’s own kind of anaesthetic.”

As reality begins to dawn, so does a kind of nightmare fuelled by the dreadful word “gargoyle”. It projects a future so bad it causes “blinding, asphyxiating terror in a foretaste of hell. Despair rolled through me in waves.” At this point, she recalls, a friend came out with “one of those pious clichés which at certain moments have tremendous force”. “God makes the back for the burden,” she offered by way of consolation. Only in retrospect did this emerge as true; at the time it “seemed so unlikely. God had picked a loser this time, one whose back was near to breaking.”

When the strain of caring constantly for Paul’s needs brings her to the point of despair, she goes to stay at the Sue Ryder home in Cavendish, Suffolk, and has her first contact with Lady Ryder and survivors of Ravensbrück concentration camp. The contact is transformative. Involvement with them paradoxically gives her a kind of context for her grief about and for Paul.

It ends the “why is this happening to me?” quality of her suffering, which she recognises as having turned her inward, isolating her. If people could survive the horrors of the Holocaust with their humanity intact, then surely there was meaning beyond suffering? The focus on one’s own pain can become the emotional equivalent of hyperventilating: an understandable, instinctual reaction which is the opposite of the required solution.

As a teenager I found the book opened me to new ways of thinking. I too held the “conventional” view which believed that faith should ward off suffering. If suffering comes it is only temporary, by way of inoculation. It may test me, but my strength will soon see normality restored. Blessings shows that none of us knows how we will cope with suffering this real and inescapable. In the face of profound suffering all bets are off as to how resilient I am.

One must hope for the grace to do as Mary Craig does and honestly admit one’s powerlessness. At the point where one embraces the wound rather than flees it, there are huge resources to be discovered; sometimes the power to bear huge loads, but always the courage not to fear responsibility for bending beneath them.