February 15, 2008

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Grace-ful living when times are hard

Cynthia DewesA friend with whom I’d reconnected after a few years told me when we’d spent an afternoon together, “This is the first time in ages I haven’t had a conversation without discussing all our ailments.” It was surprisingly true.

It seems we’ve reached a time when ailments, funerals and retirements are more frequent events. They tend to occupy our thoughts and even depress us despite our belief in redemption and eternal life with Christ. They’re “downers.”

Even when we’re young, many of us experience other unpleasant events in life: chronic illness, early deaths of people we love, poverty or physical handicaps. And sometimes it’s really hard to see their positive sides, the actual graces which often accompany them.

The January 2008 issue of St. Anthony Messenger magazine contains a story which points out the graces bestowed upon a family with a handicapped child, a situation most of us would consider a test of faith.

Appropriately titled “Pure Grace,” the article by Mary Kay Kusner describes her “extraordinary daughter” named Anna Katherine, which means “Pure Grace.”

Following her husband’s traumatic but successful battle with cancer, Kusner had thought her family was necessarily complete with the three sons that they already had. But she felt a longing which she recognized through prayer as the desire for another child. When she became pregnant with a girl, she and her husband were thrilled.

There were warning signs of trouble during the pregnancy, but only when the baby was born did they realize how serious it was. Anna had a chromosome abnormality which included a low IQ and a different appearance. Her forehead was flat and her eyes bulged.

After months of tests, surgeries and anxieties over stabilizing their baby’s health, the real test of faith began for Kusner. But while she responded with apprehension, her sons loved their sister unconditionally from the start.

The boys loved to make Anna laugh, they wrestled and played with her, and became annoyed when strangers stared at her unusual looks. They never saw her differences, and were never embarrassed to be with her.

Once, when Kusner wondered aloud why Anna was born the way she was, her 11-year-old son said, “Well, Mom, if God didn’t make her the way she is, then she wouldn’t be Anna.”

His remark gave her pause, Kusner says, because Anna is the exact opposite of what she thought she needed.

“She has taught me that faith is not being in control. Faith is not perfection. … Faith is also not being closed to what can be. … Anna has taught me to be more open, to allow life to become what it can be, not to force it to be what I think it should be.”

Kusner’s experiences confirmed my own, making this story especially meaningful to me. Like her, I am a control freak who felt surprised and frightened by the challenge of having handicapped children. Only as time went on did I, like her, understand them as precious gifts from a good God.

We never know where God’s grace will come from, and we soon learn that it isn’t something we can mandate.

Grace came to the Kusner family in the form of Anna, and grace came to our family with the births of Pete and Andy.

I’ve often thought when Christ said to the Apostles Peter and Andrew, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Mt 4:19), he might well have been sending them to us.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.) †

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