August 18, 2006

The binding power of words:
Readers’ faith strengthened by favorite books

By John Shaughnessy

After Laura Emrick had been beaten, stabbed, strangled and left to die, she felt so much anger toward her attackers that she wanted them to suffer for what they had done to her.

Instead, through the power of a book, she found forgiveness.

When Dr. John J. Schutzman has cared for innocent children and adults who have been stricken with terminal illnesses, he has often struggled to understand how a loving God could permit so much pain, suffering and loss in the world.

He finally found his answer through a book that changed his perspective.

When Bonnie Schott’s oldest daughter was accepted into her dream college, the mother of nine children fretted about how her one-income, blue-collar family could meet its bills, pay for the Catholic education of her other children and still make her oldest daughter’s dream come true.

She found the comfort and the faith she needed through a book that a friend shared with her.

Schott, Emrick and Schutzman are among the people who responded to this question from The Criterion: “Besides the Bible, is there a book that has had a significant impact on your faith life?”

Their answers show there are often interesting stories about the ways that books make a difference in our lives and our faith. (See more books that influenced our readers)

A haunting question

Laura Emrick will never forget the day she was attacked and nearly died in a jail riot.

On July 7, 2003, Emrick was working as a correctional officer at the Indianapolis Juvenile Correctional Facility when she was stabbed, strangled and severely beaten by several inmates.

“One of the juveniles had been misinformed that her parental rights had been terminated,” Emrick said. “She was mad, and she wanted to kill people. She believed I was the officer responsible for influencing the counselor who supposedly terminated her rights, which wasn’t true. She convinced three other inmates to start the riot to kill me and the counselor. After they started the riot, they kicked me, beat me, strangled me and stabbed me. They thought they had killed me.”

As the inmates started to beat and strangle another officer, Emrick pulled herself to her feet. She then managed to pull the inmates off the other officer. They both called for help and other officers responded to end the riot.

“I had several broken bones—ribs, cheekbone, nose—plus a stab wound to my back and lacerations from being kicked and beaten,” recalled Emrick, a member of St. Gabriel the Archangel Parish in Indianapolis. “I was in the hospital for a week, and went through six months of physical therapy. As I was recuperating, I was reading a lot.”

One of the books she read was The Sunflower by Simon Wiesenthal, a book about the Holocaust of the Jews during World War II.

“It was the most thought-provoking book I had ever read, as it challenges the reader to consider this question: ‘If you were asked to forgive someone who had committed horrible acts against your community, could you—or do you even have the right to—forgive them?’

“Although I began to question everything, in the end, this story brought me closer to God and his great forgiveness and love. I thought I could be angry the rest of my life, or I could let it go and try to forgive them and understand they were hurting, too. They had been abused as children.

“I understood that God had already forgiven them, and he expected me to forgive them, too. Ever since, whenever something has happened to me where I have been emotionally or physically injured, I return to the book and remember that God forgives and so should I.”

Lessons in suffering

In 20 years in health care, Dr. John Schutzman has often been touched and impressed by the courage and strength he has seen in his patients and the people who care for them. The Indianapolis heart physician has also been deeply affected by watching patients struggle and suffer.

“I have always been troubled and perplexed with the problem of pain and suffering in the world,” noted Schutzman, a member of St. Luke Parish in Indianapolis. “We are often told that pain and suffering are part of our reality because of original sin and our freedom to make choices. This is hardly comforting to the many innocent people who suffer due to war, poverty and disease.

“As health care professionals, we see people who live with chronic debilitating diseases, such as heart disease and diabetes. We see people who live with chronic pain due to severe arthritis, injuries or cancer. We see people who have a sudden loss of a loved one or now have to provide care for an invalid family member. We see people who have lost jobs because of their illness or the illness of a loved one.”

A father of six, Schutzman said he has felt guilty being blessed with good health while others suffer. He also has searched for understanding about suffering through the Book of Job and the works of many authors. Yet his search didn’t offer any answers until he read Lessons from the School of Suffering, a book co-authored by Father Jim Willig, a priest in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati who had incurable cancer.

“Father Willig was 48 when he discovered he had

kidney cancer,” noted Schutzman, who is 49. “He was a vibrant preacher of the Word. What could God possibly be thinking by robbing his people of this holy priest? Though not immediately apparent, God had a greater plan for Father Willig. Father Willig was to write and proclaim his greatest sermon by living the final two years of his life.

“The reader is struck by Father Willig’s complete and total trust of his suffering savior, Jesus Christ. In many ways, Father Willig was an ordinary man. He knew doubt and fear. He was often overwhelmed by tremendous pain from his cancer and the numerous unsuccessful cancer therapies, but he always looked to his crucified Savior to help him carry his cross.”

The priest especially noticed how God used others to speak to him, Schutzman said.

“There was one particular story in the book that really touched me. When Father Willig was experiencing some of his greatest suffering, [U.S. Navy] Retired Admiral Jeremiah Denton spoke to him about his own suffering while he was a prisoner of war in Vietnam. Admiral Denton spent seven years in solitary confinement and was often tortured. One day, a young soldier was ordered to torture Admiral Denton and break him.

“When Admiral Denton had finally reached that point when he felt he could take it no longer, a beautiful prayer suddenly came into his mind. ‘Sacred heart of Jesus, I give my life to you.’ Such a peace came over the admiral, and it became evident to his captors that they could no longer continue to torture him. Father Willig knew that Christ had used Admiral Denton to give him a gem that he would use the rest of his life.”

The book is about 100 pages long and contains 10 life lessons, Schutzman said. Its impact has been lasting on him.

“It is a living sermon which I believe will touch many who are suffering and those who care for them. Father Willig died on June 24, 2001. Has Father Willig’s suffering and holy death had meaning for those he has left behind? I can only tell you that it has given my vocation as a Catholic physician a new meaning.”

The bond of two moms

When Bonnie Schott and Kay Beeson go to lunch at a new restaurant, they always ask their server an unusual question: “How many children do you think we have between us?”

After guessing unsuccessfully, the waiter or waitress is usually stunned when the two mothers say “24.”

Beeson is the mother of 15 children, and Schott is the mother of nine. The two women have become close friends during the past 25 years while sharing the joys and challenges of leading large Catholic families. So it seems fitting that when Schott worried about one of those daunting challenges, Beeson was there to share a book that gave her friend a sense of comfort and faith.

The year was 1992 and Schott’s oldest daughter, Maria, had just been accepted to the University of Notre Dame. She and her husband, Joe, also had children at Roncalli High School and St. Roch School, both in Indianapolis.

“I confided in her once that I was so worried about keeping up with all our bills” recalled Schott, 55, a member of St. Roch Parish. “And I didn’t know how I was going to pay for Notre Dame, Roncalli and St. Roch tuition all at once, and still stay home and take care of all of the kids on one income. My husband is a union plumber [retired now] and his income was reasonable, but I felt I was already stretched to my limits.”

Beeson came to Schott’s house with a copy of the book Divine Mercy in My Soul, the diary of St. Faustina Kowalska. Inside the front cover, Beeson wrote, “Bonnie, read and memorize the passage I marked on page 232. KB” When Schott turned to page 232, she saw another note from Beeson at the top of the page, “Bonnie, read this whenever you worry about money.”

Schott read the words that Jesus spoke to St. Faustina, “Your duty will be to trust me completely in my goodness, and my duty will be to give you all you need. I am making myself dependent upon your trust. If your trust is great, then my generosity will be without limit.”

Fourteen years have passed since Schott received the book from Beeson, a member of Holy Trinity Parish in Edinburgh.

Schott recently noted, “We now have five children married, 15 grandchildren, one single son living down the street in his own home, one son in college, a daughter at Roncalli and a daughter at St. Roch’s. I am still pinching every penny that comes into the house, but whenever I get really worried, I take down my special book that is now in a zip-lock bag because it is so worn, and I re-read that passage.

“I think of all the times that God has helped our family through 33 years of marriage, and I say, ‘Thank you, God,’ and trust that he will help me once again. As my friend, Kay Beeson, always tells me, ‘God has lots of money! Don’t worry.’ ” †


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