Ask Fr. Tom

I’ve always been a religious person. I attend church and pray often. But since my diagnosis I feel abandoned by God. I pray but nothing changes. Why is God silent when I need Him the most? 

FR. TOM:This is such a common feeling, particularly when we petition God for a cure or some other specific outcome. When my co-author, Barbara, was going through a divorce she often asked, “Where is God in this and why can’t this painful situation be resolved? In fact, she used to say, “God made the world in 7 days and he can’t/won’t save this marriage?” But, God doesn’t answer some prayers and deny others – otherwise wouldn’t there be world peace, only healthy babies, and perfect marriages? When we’re suffering, the voices of our own pain and anxiety are often all we can hear. These bullying voices become so loud and incessant that they block out our experience of God, leaving us alone in our pain. However, when we can’t experience the presence of God, I always say, look to see where God (love) is working in your life. Family, friends, and caregivers become God’s hands, their care and concern carry God’s love to us in concrete ways, if only we see it. Look around you with a gracious heart and take note of the way others are there with and for you – that IS the working of God. God is using them to minister to you. Whenever you see selfless love, given freely – thank the person and thank God for using them to enflesh and administer his love. To God, love is a verb. (See chapters 7, 14, and Richard’s story in chapter 23.)       

Since my husband has been homebound he wants me to be with him every minute. I’ve been running the house, working part time, handling the insurance claims and medication, driving him to appointments. Sometimes I need a break – otherwise I feel as though I might explode from the burden of it. How can I get a little space without my husband feeling that I’m abandoning him? 

FR.TOM: So often, both patients and caregivers fail to realize that the caregiver is also on the Path of Suffering right alongside the patient.(Chapter 2) In order to be able to persevere as a caregiver some down time to recharge is an absolute necessity. When the patient demands constant company it is an indication that they have not developed the practice of solitude – instead what they feel is aloneness (which often points to a fear of what they see as the ultimate separation – death.) It’s important to engage in open, honest, and loving conversations about these fears (chapters 24, 26). Together you might begin to discuss and engage in the four “S” practices – silence, solitude, surrender, and simplification (chapter 16) which will allow both of you to begin to better tap into God’s strength to uphold you.

Despite the fact that I spend almost every waking minute caring for my wife who has a chronic illness, it seems like no matter what I do, it’s never enough. She’s become so critical that I almost can’t stand to be around her. Most days I don’t know how I’ll ever get through this – and I feel so guilty about it. Do you have any advice? 

FR.TOM: My guess is that your wife feels trapped in her illness – and being trapped always results in anger – or if anger is capped it can become depression. (See the 6th Signpost along the Path of Suffering, Chapter 2, and Chapter 8 The Prison of Self) Her anger is being displaced onto the one person she trusts the most – you. Most likely she is still in a stance of control – trying to control a situation that is uncontrollable, rather than moving toward acceptance. But anger is an empowerment energy – eventually it can move you toward conversion – from acceptance to transformation. I’d suggest reading the book with your wife – each with your own copy, highlighting the words, phrases, or images that resonate, and then share these together. (The “Reflections on the Journey” Journal can really facilitate this process.) You also might read together Chapter 17- Spiritual Practices and engage in fasting from negativity.

My husband has advanced COPD and due to breathing difficulties, tires quickly. He’s a popular man and his friends and family visit often, sometimes 4 or 5 at a time. They end up chatting with one another, cracking jokes, trying to cheer him up, but my husband becomes exhausted and frustrated. How can I politely end a visit without hurting their feelings? 

FR.TOM: There are 2 things going on here – most likely, being a social kind of guy with many friends there’s an underlying fear of being alone. This is why he finds it difficult to set a boundary – to say, “It was great seeing you, but I need a nap.” He also probably brought a lot of energy to social interactions, and now he no longer has that energy – and this might represent a blow to his ego – he is no longer the man he was. Likewise, his friends find it easier to engage in meaningless small talk than to address their friend’s “new normal” in a forthright way. So, even in their company your husband feels alone. In addition, the energy your husband used relationally is now being spent coping with his disease. This leaves him relationally depleted. What’s needed is an open, honest, and loving conversation between you and your husband about this. Read chapter 6 together (Let the Games Begin) to inform your conversation about open and closed systems. Practice some kind but firm responses with your husband that he can use with his friends to set a boundary – and if he still feels uncomfortable, you can always step in and help. 

Since my cancer diagnosis I’ve tried very hard to remain upbeat and optimistic, but I feel like it’s a losing battle. With each bump in the road I’m thrown back into fear and anxiety. Sometimes I get angry and I when I do I know I’m letting my family down. How can I remain in a positive place while facing all of this?

Fr. Tom: I always say, there’s a big difference between optimism and hope. Optimism is usually situational – if  things are going well we feel optimistic, but when we hit a setback we’re plunged into fear, anxiety, even anger and despair. Hope, on the other hand, is rooted in faith and is more of a way of being than it is an attitude. Hope sustains us despite external circumstances because we believe in a merciful God who never stops loving us. We realize that it’s God’s strength that allows us to face whatever is before us. I’m not suggesting that it’s easy to remain even keel through the ups and downs of a disease, but  maturing your faith through spiritual practices, learning to let go of the ego and focus on who you are in God will empower you to persist in hope, through God’s strength. “After the Diagnosis…A Guide for Living” will help you to do that.