Many of us are suffering right now. It’s recent and sudden, and happening in ways we never anticipated or imagined. Steve Skojec has heroically shared with us his incomprehensible crosses. The family discord, this falling away between family members and among otherwise close friends, the many cancers, diseases, catastrophic accidents and job losses, the persecutions, both wet and dry, the malfeasance among many of our highest shepherds, all this and more is bewildering and overwhelming. Everyone who has a deep Faith and a spiritual awareness right now feels the palpable presence of evil unleashed.
This phenomenon must be analyzed more closely, because it seems to be telling us something vitally urgent.
The following was true in pagan, pre-Christian times:
And when he was come to the multitude, there came to him a man falling down on his knees before him, saying: Lord, have pity on my son, for he is a lunatic, and suffereth much: for he falleth often into the fire, and often into the water. And I brought him to thy disciples, and they could not cure him. Then Jesus answered and said: O unbelieving and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I suffer you? bring him hither to me. And Jesus rebuked him, and the devil went out of him, and the child was cured from that hour.
Then came the disciples to Jesus secretly, and said: Why could not we cast him out? Jesus said to them: Because of your unbelief. For, amen I say to you, if you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you shall say to this mountain, Remove from hence hither, and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible to you. But this kind is not cast out but by prayer and fasting
– Matthew 17: 14-21
But in this post-Christian age:
When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first. That is how it will be with this wicked generation.
– Matthew 12:43-45
Our times are post-Christian, and therefore many times as demonic as the pagan culture our ancestors defeated, with and through Christ and His Church and their personal sacrifice. Many have a quaint notion of what the “New Evangelization” entails, but it has become simply this: casting out the demons of this post-Christian age and its culture of death, and restoring and rebuilding the Church for the salvation of the many lost souls at this end of this era.
This present battle won’t be won now except by prayer and fasting – coupled with real and freely accepted redemptive suffering. Our culture is obsessed with sex, pleasures, comfort, leisure and satiety. We know this will end soon, and severe difficulties are directly ahead, along with real suffering and crosses. It’s unavoidable now, it’s palpable, and we all feel it.
Since we “know” these crosses lie directly ahead, due to our collective decadence and sin, we must tell God beforehand that we accept these coming crosses, and offer them up to the Father, for souls, the restoration of the Church, and the conversion or confounding of the men in Rome who are behind the “progressive” and heretical agenda that has turned our beloved Church from a place of refuge into a cause of sorrow.
I’d like to share our recent life to show that I don’t take this concept lightly.
Joy Amidst Crosses – Accepting and Offering Up
I told God a while back that if I were able, and it wouldn’t be too much for me to handle or place my soul at risk, and I could still support my family, and I wasn’t saying it out of personal pride, I’d be willing to carry more of a cross than my daily sacrifices, in reparation for my own sins and if it would help souls that might otherwise be lost. I guess there were a lot of strings attached on my part in those days, a lot of “conditional” surrender.
The last few years were very difficult, but I’ve been able to work through it all. Then late last year I told my spiritual director about this, because I was frustrated that I didn’t always bear these crosses magnanimously, and the burden was often shared unbeknownst by my wife and children, which just didn’t seem “fair.” He simply looked at me, asked me why I had not told him before (because I never should have done anything so terribly naïve without his advice, and it would have made events in my life over the last couple years far more comprehensible to him) and simply said to expect something very serious, and very soon.
I had excruciating shingles in my right sciatic nerve in December 2015 and January 2016 that prevented sleep, then developed pneumonia two weeks before we were scheduled to fly out to California to visit my son in the Norbertines in early February. Missing that trip would have been soul-crushing, because we miss him so dearly since he left, but the pneumonia resolved and we were able to go. It was an awesome and flawless trip, our first time on the West Coast, and we had a wonderful visit with our son. The rest of February was uneventful. I thanked God I had survived the “something very serious, very soon” that my spiritual director seemingly foresaw.
But I spoke too soon. I was about to endure something so much more profound, something that would change my life forever.
I had experienced a right cerebellar stroke on July 28, 2015, that caused deafness in my left ear, severe balance trouble and nasty vertigo. I was fortunate in that I recovered my hearing in a couple weeks, and the vertigo resolved and my balance recovered about 90 to 95% shortly thereafter, so I was able to return to work full time after several weeks.
But in early March of 2016, I had two more strokes — smaller ones, but not without effect. One was, again, in the right cerebellum; the other was a cerebral stroke at the very top of my head, which caused a return of the vertigo and loss of balance.
Around March 20 I started slurring my speech and had severe trouble with my balance. I went to the ER and was diagnosed with another right cerebellar stroke that also affected the pons — a part of the brain that connects the upper and lower portions and relays messages from both the cerebellum and cortex.
And then, on March 22, I had the most serious stroke, one that affected my basal brain stem area and the right cerebellum. My left arm and leg and the right side of my face were paralyzed, I had seriously slowed and slurred speech, difficulty swallowing, no balance, and I became deaf in the right ear.
I received two stents on March 24, one in the left vertebral artery and one in the basilar artery. If one knows anything about the arterial supply to the brain and the use of stents there, they know just how serious the blockages were; I had a 1 in 5 chance of not waking up from the procedure.
My recovery since then could be said to represent a small series of miracles. I recovered the use of my left arm and leg, the right facial paralysis resolved, I still talk a little bit slower and a little bit slurred compared to before the strokes, but I’m finally walking with just a cane and am permitted to drive again. Nonetheless, I’m still deaf in my right ear with numbness on the right side of my face.
If my recovery was miraculous, there was another change that is likely even moreso: I’ve never been happier or more joyful in my 50 years. I don’t know if the strokes destroyed the part of my brain responsible for being cranky — parts of it do look like Swiss cheese on the scans — or if my life has just been changed so much that I’m different. Or, it might simply be a free gift from God.
In the hospital after the strokes, and during inpatient rehab, the staff would often check on my wife Sue and me, puzzled looks on their faces, because we were laughing and joking so much. A couple months ago my wife, youngest son Tim, and I were sitting around the dining room table, discussing the fact I’ve been so happy, joyful, and silly since the strokes started early this year. I hypothesized that maybe the strokes took out the crabbier parts of my brain, but I also offered philosophical and faith-based explanations – reliance on God’s Providence, offering up the crosses for the Church, the world, and the pope, and so on. Sue and Tim, however, had their own theory: it’s probably because I haven’t been to work since March! Of course, much laughter ensued, and this episode has been added to a growing list of joyful memories that have made up our lives during this time.
Friends have said that we must be a really strong family to experience such mirth in the face of what we’ve been through; I don’t know about strength, but God has given us ample opportunities to know joy and experience simple fun in this ongoing adventure.
Sue knows now when I need a good laugh. If I’m standing by my bed or sitting on its side, or in front of a recliner, and I’m being impatient or otherwise annoying, she just pushes me over or knocks me down. The first time she did it, I couldn’t believe it. I started laughing so much I couldn’t breathe. I’m a big guy, and I used to be pretty strong at six foot two and over 300 pounds. My poor wife, at only five foot five, was always frustrated that she couldn’t “beat” me at anything physical, and while she and our children are very ticklish, I am not at all.
Now she finally has me “beat,” both physically and in the ability to reduce me to tears of uncontrollable laughter. My balance is still pretty bad, so I’m not hard get off kilter, and if she just gives me a bit of a shove — at the right time and in the right place — there’s just nothing I can do but collapse in laughter, no matter how bad a mood I’ve been in.
We have other inside jokes that we share that become running gags, and if they come up when I’m already standing, laughing uncontrollably tends to take away all my strength and balance. In those moments, I have no choice but to hold onto her more tightly than ever.
Little Crosses Persist
They started me on Adderall two weeks after I was at the inpatient rehab hospital; strokes hitting the areas affected in my case are notorious for causing fatigue and sleepiness. Adderall is prescribed for ADHD but is also used off-label for fatigue following stroke. Interestingly I found evidence in the literature that it can increase speed of recovery in some stroke patients because it increases the “elasticity” of the brain tissue. After 6 weeks on it, I had my first follow up visit with the stroke clinic. They discontinued the Adderall because it can complicate cardiac troubles (I had triple bypass at age 42) and possibly elevate my blood pressure, a real concern with stroke patients.
So they started me on Provigil, a drug used for Narcolepsy. It’s safe, it keeps me awake, and actually improves concentration and the ability to stay on task for longer periods of time. For these reasons, it’s prescribed much more often for ADHD than it is for Narcolepsy. It’s also commonly abused in college and work environments for the competitive edge it provides. It can, however, cause Stevens-Johnson Syndrome — a dangerous complication of the skin. I recently developed a widespread rash, so the medication had to be stopped immediately.
A friend of ours suffers from Multiple Sclerosis (MS). He says the fatigue gets so bad it’s actually painful. They’re using the Provigil now for his MS related fatigue, and it’s been the best medication he ever tried for his MS. But I know what he means about being so fatigued it hurts; I either sleep 14 hours a day now and have no energy, or try the Adderall again. Neither are optimal.
I’m finally able to be independent and drive, but our finances hit bottom this week. We’re broke. God already knew our need, and by a rapid series of “coincidences” my wife learned of an opportunity to teach in a local Catholic elementary school. We homeschooled for 17 years, and Sue has not been in a classroom for 25 years. In all that time, her dream and prayer, if she ever returned to teaching, was that she’d be able to teach the early grades; she starts as a 3rd & 4th grade teacher in a week. It doesn’t pay much, but I can no longer be a Podiatrist and provide for my family. Instead, God fulfilled her dream in a way we never imagined.
During the recovery, I wasn’t to be left alone at all, so my wife and I had a five month “vacation” where we were together all the time. Despite the crosses and the work to recover, it’s been an incredible chance to spend time together, experience true joy and grow closer than ever before. As I said, we’ve experienced many blessings in the midst of tears and fears and pain. As my oldest son in the Norbertines said, it’s been like a big cross, but perfectly and delicately wrapped in the softest way. God’s Providence has been so incredibly perfect and tender through all of this that it is breathtaking.
A friend recently asked, “Did you ever pray to God to explain why these crosses are placed on your shoulder?”
No, honestly. Everything I have been permitted to endure since March, I’ve accepted and offered up freely, with ardent prayers, specifically for Pope Francis. A lot of us wonder what we laity can do in the face of the sorrowful events we are witnessing, and this was something concrete I could “do.”
That is why accusations of “not praying for the pope,” or “attacking” him or “hating” him are such a cross, in some ways harder to bear than the strokes and the long and difficult recovery. Do many of the critics of those defending the Faith in this context love the pope enough to pray ardently for him and be willing to fast and suffer for him? These crosses have been real. I’ve lost fifty pounds because of my health, but also at least in part because of fasting and abstaining for Francis. I didn’t know whether the left sided paralysis would resolve or whether I would be able to walk again. It’s been a long and arduous recovery. I can no longer practice my profession because I’ve lost the fine motor skills in my right hand necessary for Podiatry, and I’ve developed a bit of a tremor with fine movements and effort on that side too.
I think things in the world are worse than we could possibly grasp, and God needs those willing to carry crosses more than I have a need to be “the provider.” I got to the point that, as each cross was accepted and the fear of the next one faded, I would simply say to Him, “Ok, I’m ready now, Your will be done.” And honestly it’s been a sweet, joyous journey. Each stage has been accompanied by small miracles and major blessings, and frankly my wife and I have never laughed so much together as we have since the strokes.
It’s the first time I really feel I’ve given anything or “done” anything for God. All the writings, forum and blog posts, talks and radio shows, even those (sometimes half empty) prayers aren’t as much of a gift to Him as much as telling Him you’re willing to carry a cross for His Church and souls – even with “conditions” – and then actually being permitted to do it.
Joy Amidst Crosses
The acceptance of these events, and offering them up for the Church, the world, and our pope, has obviously been the source of great joy in our lives, and the occasion of God’s sweet and undeniable Providence for us.
Our Lady of Fatima came to tell us that the Message of Fatima is not complicated. Its requests are simply for prayer, reparation, repentance, and sacrifice, and the abandonment of sin. In 1943, Sister Lucia said,
…for many, thinking that the word penance means great austerities and not feeling in themselves the strength or the generosity for these, lose heart and rest in a life of lukewarmness and sin. Our Lord said to me: “The sacrifice required of every person is the fulfillment of his duties in life and the observance of My Law. This is the penance that I now seek and require.”
This is a level of sacrifice that, considering our world and our Church’s current events, is no longer optional, and must be joined to our prayers and fasting.
Some may be called to accept crosses over and above the sacrifice of the fulfillment of the duties of one’s state in life. Be generous in considering if God if calling you to this, but don’t be immature or naïve. Seek the guidance of a competent spiritual director first.
More than likely, these crosses would have been part of our life regardless. However, if they can be a source of our participation in salvific suffering, if they are something we may offer up for those doing the “heavy lifting” in this historic battle, if they may be the only way we can “do something” concrete in the face of the seeming eclipse of our beloved Church and this heterodox agenda, and they may often be accompanied by incredible joy and God’s tender Providence, we should seriously consider the words of St. Paul,
“Who now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ, in my flesh, for his body, which is the church.’
– Colossians 1:24