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Deacon Kyle Eller: Trusting Jesus in the midst of suffering

It must have been February 2007 when I made my first formal silent retreat in a hermitage at Pacem in Terris in St. Francis. Looking out the window of my hermitage at the oak trees in the winter woods and praying, I found myself meditating, as I often do, on how God loves and holds in existence each of his creatures, every tree and plant and squirrel and bird, and me and you.

Deacon Kyle Eller
Mere Catholicism

And as I did so, my heart kept being drawn to the broken ones, and God’s love for and intimate knowledge of them.

During that same retreat, I felt inspired to take on an unusual Lenten penance — to give up worry, which for me is no easy feat. I had a particular little “arrow prayer” to pray whenever I caught myself worrying, taken from the Divine Mercy devotion: “Jesus, I trust in you.”

And my heart was moved by praying with what is still my favorite Psalm, Psalm 131, with these lines in the breviary: “O Lord, my heart is not proud / nor haughty my eyes. / I have not gone after things too great / nor marvels beyond me. / Truly I have set my soul / in silence and peace. / As a child has rest in its mothers arms, / even so my soul.”

Later that month, the reason for these inspirations became clear to me. My infant daughter Anna began having noticeable seizures, and when we took her to the doctor, we got the terrible news that it was something very serious, the mitochondrial disorder that would eventually take her life at the age of 14 months.

I don’t know where to begin to describe what happened from there. We spent the next weeks essentially living in a NICU room in Rochester after complications from anesthesia following a surgery for Anna’s feeding tube. My little girl was attached to so many monitors it looked like a spaceship cockpit.

I was, even then, a very knowledgeable pro-life Catholic, able to quote chapter and verse of Evangelium Vitae, and yet when the doctors came in and started talking about end-of-life issues, it was as if I suddenly had amnesia. Everything I knew vanished from my mind. I only regained my bearings after talking to my pastor at the time and to the National Catholic Bioethics Center.

I witnessed miracles there. My little girl fought to get off the ventilator and made it out of the hospital, made it home to spring and summer days and even another winter. So many people offered us so much support and love that I’m still grateful and a bit embarrassed by it.

Daily life caring for Anna involved endless syringes of unusual medicines and supplements pumped into her feeding tube, long nights listening for the pulse oximeter to go off letting us know Anna was having trouble breathing, and various appointments with different specialists and physical therapists, some of whom loved to just hold that beautiful girl with her peaceful blue eyes.

It was hard, and beautiful, and one of the best and worst times of my life as we helped Anna carry her cross. I learned so much from the privilege of loving her and caring for her.

I don’t know how many times I prayed, “Jesus, I trust in you.” With every insurance question or complex decision or foul-up at the pharmacy or sleepless night or scheduling hassle I entrusted myself to divine providence, believing that God’s plan is the best plan, praying for a miracle that would let my child have the earthly healing I longed for while also offering my acceptance of God’s will should he want to take her home to him, trusting that whatever happened would be for Anna’s good and for our good.

It turned out that by grace I had a comparatively easy time doing this, abandoning myself to God’s providence through Anna’s life and illness and all the trials that came with it — right up until the night she died, on the feast of the Epiphany.

That has been a much longer, much harder process. Sometimes when I go on retreat, even at my pre-ordination retreat at Pacem in Terris, or when I come to these January anniversaries, there are tears as I have to walk through it with God again and process it.

This year, as I come to that anniversary in the midst of different sufferings, I find myself seeing that struggle in a new light, as something again that God, in his loving providence, has allowed for my good. Maybe it’s not supposed to be easy, and it was easy while Anna was with me only because those were the only baby steps I could handle then.

And maybe it’s to remind myself and every other sufferer in the world — that’s all of us — that God remains faithful and present with us even in the midst of it, whether we find the going supernaturally easy and full of consolation or almost impossibly hard.

Because the truth remains the same. As St. Paul put it in his Letter to the Romans: “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.”

Jesus, I trust in you.

Deacon Kyle Eller is editor of The Northern Cross. Reach him at [email protected].