Coming to Peace with the Big Questions

May Christ bring us all together to everlasting life.  Rule of Benedict

Our hearts are restless, Oh Lord, until they rest in thee. St. Augustine

When Noreen Haiston, 74, was diagnosed two years ago with leukemia, she prayed for strength, worried about her family and wrestled with the question of whether to undergo chemotherapy (she didn’t want to, but acceded to her family’s wishes). In the end, she lost her health, her hair, and nine precious months with her young grandchildren as she underwent a brutal treatment regime that nearly killed her.

Looking back on the experience, Noreen says – incredibly – that she is grateful it happened, grateful to have had the opportunity to grow closer to God. She can help others now as they face similar, life-challenging moments. She is more aware of God’s presence in her.

But, Why did it happen? Why do we suffer? Why must we watch helplessly while those we love suffer? And, finally: Why did God make us in the first place?

Sr. Mary Core, OSB, says that, while the big Why questions have no absolute answers, they are worth asking. Such questions call us to wonder more deeply about life; they call us to explore the wonder. Sometimes, they lead us to moments of knowing. Sr. Mary had an experience like that.

“I was at Mount St. Helens a few years after it erupted,” Sr. Mary says. “All you could see was mile after mile of ash and devastation. It was incredible. You couldn’t help but think, Why? Then I saw a tiny little flower sticking up through the ash. Everyone had believed that nothing would ever grow there again, and yet here was this delicate little flower. I had a momentary sense of the absolute presence of God. It was the most important moment of knowing in my life. The memory of that moment still gives me peace.”

The impetus for our questioning varies, of course. Experiencing a tragedy will have most of us asking why, as will the loss of a loved one, one’s own health, or a cherished dream. For Sr. Beatrice Flauhaven, OSB, a big why occurred 70 years ago, when a car accident nearly took her life. Since then, she has spoken haltingly, used a walker and strained to remember things that happened five minutes ago.

“I was thrown from the car,” she says. “I was unconscious for a long time, and had amnesia after that. My first memory is of waking up in the hospital and seeing all these people that I didn’t recognize. They were my Sisters and family and friends. I couldn’t communicate to them. I had double vision.

“I asked the Lord why. I was frustrated and very, very down. With the help of my Sisters and friends, I got through it. And I kept trusting in God. I’ve never felt like I could answer the big question, but trust has led me to peace.”

And maybe peace is good enough. For Sr. Marlene Miller, OSB, peace comes courtesy of a willingness to coexist with Why. “Why did God send his only son to suffer and die?” she asks. “That won’t be answered until we’re on the other side. I can live with that.”

For those who can’t, who struggle with not understanding, Sr. Mary suggests approaching the big questions with reverence.

“We will never have all the answers,” she says. “Live in the questions. Jump in and swim in them. Be aware, though, that you might be given answers that you don’t expect or want. When they aren’t enough, remember that your dissatisfaction and your discomfort represents your longing for God. Wanting answers is really a longing for God.”

As for the biggest question - Why are we here? - Noreen’s had plenty of time to ponder it, and she has an answer ready.

“God didn’t need us,” she says. “God was perfectly happy without us. But the happiest thing in life is being with family and friends. There’s nothing else like it. I love being surrounded by my loved ones. And I think God needed that, too. God wanted to be happier, so we were invented.”

Sr. Mary agrees. “I believe God wants to share,” Sr. Mary says. “But life will never feel completely comfortable to us, because we long constantly for union with God. Although union won’t be complete until the next life, we come close in this life when we are at peace. We come close when we love or experience a moment of oneness with God like I did on Mount St. Helens. The sudden absence of that peace – someone through whom we sensed the presence of God dies or betrays us, for example – leaves a painful gap.  

“God created every one of us to be free to ask the questions. Free to slow down enough to sense the answers. I think God did that so we are able to stay interested, to wonder, to ask Why. It’s a gift of wonder.”

So keep asking, keep listening. And be grateful for the moments of knowing – of peace - when they arrive.