“Amen, Amen, I say to you, that you shall lament and weep, but the world shall rejoice; and you shall be made sorrowful, but your sorrow shall be turned into joy. A woman, when she is in labour, hath sorrow, because her hour is come; but when she hath brought forth the child, she remembereth no more the anguish, for joy that a man is born into the world. So also you now indeed have sorrow; but I will see you again and your heart shall rejoice; and your joy no man will take from you.” (John 16:20-21)
When I look at photographs of our wedding, my eye is always drawn to the poinsettias in the background, right next to the cross. We were married shortly after Christmas, 2007. My thrifty future wife, Kristin, wanting to save on the expense of wedding flowers, asked her pastor to leave the Church’s Christmas floral display out an extra week for us. He kindly obliged. The poinsettia’s red color is said to represent Christ’s blood sacrifice, and its shape recalls the Star of Bethlehem. Though we didn’t know it at the time, there was a deep symbolism in the fact that we were married amidst these symbols of pain — and of hope in new life — as the crucifix hung prominently behind us.
In the fall of 2012, following a miscarriage and several gloomy months mourning our loss, Kristin became pregnant with our third child. Our elation, however, was quickly tinged with fear, as she was diagnosed with advanced-stage breast cancer just six weeks into her pregnancy.
We were not prepared for this cross.
We had expected a happy pregnancy like the others had been, spent amidst room-decorating, choosing baby names, and the inevitable jokes about Kristin’s late-night Chinese food cravings. Faced instead with this devastating revelation, everything was different. Our faith — though it had been growing through unexpected means — did not seem adequate to sustain us.
You see, both Kristin and I came from lukewarm, culturally Catholic upbringings. We had gotten married in the Church almost as a matter of course for an Irish-Italian couple. My parents are fairly typical boomer Catholics. My father was in a minor seminary in the seventies and wanted no part of joining the priesthood after being there. My mom and dad got my middle sister and I to our first communions, and things dropped off almost entirely after that. We went to Mass sporadically on holidays, and when I was in trouble for something. But though I had almost no religious upbringing and only a sub-par 1980s parish catechesis, I had this feeling, deep down, that the teachings of the Catholic Church were true.
There was something else at work. Something that was drawing me deeper into the mystery of the Church. During my teenage years, I played a lot of guitar. My teacher — an agnostic — was a great jazz guitarist who also made it a point to introduce me to classical music — an appreciation for which would become instrumental in the deepening of my faith. When it came time to choose a college, I opted for Fordham — surely one of the worst examples of Catholic-in-name-only educational institutions, and a Jesuit one at that. Nevertheless, I felt drawn there. I loved the Gothic revival architecture of the campus, and its beautiful University Church, which I thought of as “the Cathedral”. During my years at Fordham, I continued attending Mass, but only when it was convenient. Sometimes I’d go to the Mass offered in a residence by Fr. William O’Malley (the priest who played Fr. Dyer in The Exorcist). Other times I’d go to Mass in the Cathedral. Usually, the folk choir sang, and I was afflicted by the incongruity of it, this collision of seventies mawkishness and Gothic beauty. But on occasion, the master choir would sing, and my senses were struck by the sort of supernatural harmony of everything I heard and saw. As Martin Mosebach explains in The Heresy of Formlessness, “People of aesthetic sensibility, much scorned and suspect, are the recipients of a terrible gift: they can infallibly discern the inner truth of what they see, of some process, of an idea, on the basis of its external form.” And the external form of the liturgy and the music used therein was — slowly but surely — having an effect on me.
After I graduated, I continued to live a very worldly life. I joined the New York Police Department, and became a fixture at the bar my coworkers frequented. Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was being drawn to the Faith. I read books by my old acquaintance Fr. O’Malley. They were totally unorthodox — and probably could have gotten him excommunicated if anyone paid attention to them — but the seeds were planted, and they led me to greater things. I began searching for “authentic” Catholicism the same way a Williamsburg Hipster might seek out authentic Thai food. Eventually, I found my way to Dietrich von Hildebrand’s The Devastated Vineyard, and I became interested in the Traditional Latin Mass. This was after the promulgation of Summorum Pontificum, but I was only vaguely aware that it existed.
Then one night, I finally decided to satisfy my curiosity. I googled “Latin Mass”, and an announcement on Fordham’s (of all schools!) webpage popped up in the search. A TLM would be held at their Cathedral the following week. (Humorously, the announcement made it clear that the Mass was being supported by “some” members of the Jesuit community there.) I decided to go and check it out. The choir sang a Mozart Mass, and, for me, it was love at first sight — and sound. I remember feeling overawed by the sense of truth and beauty it conveyed. When I got home, I located the Latin Mass parish nearest to me — the one my family and I still attend to this day. It took a while for my wife to come with me, and to tell you the truth, she really couldn’t stand it at first. I think that to her, it seemed like I was joining a cult. Eventually, she got the hang of the liturgy, but it took the two of us a while before we were ready to accept and live all of the Church’s teachings. Still, beauty has a way of conveying truth, and eventually things fell into place. I was drawn not just back to the Catholic Church, but deep into her tradition, all through my search for beauty. In no small part, I have my guitar teacher to thank for introducing me to Classical music in the eighth grade. God knows how to reach us.
As an amateur music aficionado, I continued to relish the beauty of the liturgical music I found at the TLM: the sacred polyphony, the Byrd Masses, the Palestrina motets, the Baroque organ works. Not long after we began attending, we gave eager financial support to the construction of a new high altar, with Leonard Porter’s depiction of the Assumption installed in the twenty-seven foot reredos. We gave rapturous attention to the academic homilies, and, with the converts’ zeal, clung to the community of like minds we found there, this oasis of faithful Catholicism amidst the Postmodern, East Coast ruin around us. We embraced all of these things, but we did not consider The Cross. We had been drawn to the Church’s beauty, but we had not yet fully accepted the painful truth it conveys.
When the cancer diagnosis came, we had been attending the Traditional Latin Mass for about a year.
A few days before Christmas I drove Kristin in for surgery through a cold downpour. The Christmas lights we passed were shrouded in gray mist. A church we drove by had a nativity scene out in front. Police personnel stood around the lawn next to it, preparing for the funeral for the Sandy Hook victims that would take place there later that day. We took in the juxtaposition — these scenes of the anticipated joy of the coming Christ child tempered by the harsh reality of suffering and death — as we made our way to the hospital. I squinted hard at the Christmas lights, trying to blot out the mist around them.
In her discussion of the link between love and suffering, Alice Von Hildebrand explains that
….the moment we love, we discover a facet of suffering totally unknown to us until then. For falling in love reveals to us in a flash the fragility of man’s metaphysical situation. We have been given the grace of perceiving the beauty of one of God’s creatures – each one of them a pale reflection of his intimate beauty – and suddenly we realize that, hard as we try, we ‘creatures of a day’ (Plato, Laws XI 923) cannot protect the loved one…..this is inevitably a source of profound suffering.
Beauty, then, carries with it the unpleasant sting of truth.
At the hospital, even as a new life grows within her, the doctors scourge my wife’s body. Afterwards, they meet with us to talk about our “choices”, our course of action. Her cancer, they explain, is hormone positive, and the hormones from the fetus will fuel the cancer that is also growing inside her. And since the cancer is aggressive, they need to begin chemotherapy while she is pregnant if she decides to “keep it”. There will be risks to “the fetus”, and there isn’t much research on the effects, because, you know…
This is not like our previous pregnancies. The doctors then had shown us cheerful images of babies kicking and thumb sucking as we talked of happy possibilities. These doctors instead speak of cutting, of eliminating, of the poison they will put into my wife’s body. We do not want to hear this. We want to rejoice without anguishing. God has put a cross in our path. Surely there must be a way around it.
Happy are those, the Psalmist tells us, who take not the counsel of the wicked, who are driven like chaff by the wind. (Ps. 1) People close to us counsel expedience. You already have two sons to care for, they reason. God would surely not demand that your wife risk her health for another. In our hearts, though, we know we are called to prudence, a Christian moral virtue whereby we recognize, in any matter at hand, what is good and what is evil. Suffering is an evil, yes, as our priest had reminded the parish before, but sin is worse, and there are those who would avoid suffering at any possible cost. We pray, and talk, and read, and google…incessantly. We imagine we are the living subjects of an ethics dissertation. At Mass every week we worship amongst the wafting incense and strains of Josquin; our eyes falling upon the army of altar boys, the beauty of traditional vestments. But what we do at our parish, our pastor reminds the congregation frequently, can’t only be about aesthetics.
We read of St. Gianna Beretta Molla, diagnosed with a uterine tumor shortly after becoming pregnant with her fourth child. Advised to undergo an operation that would have killed her unborn baby, she spurned the counsel of her doctors, and refused any treatment that would harm the baby, despite the risks this course would pose to her health. “I have entrusted myself to the Lord in faith and hope,” she told her priest, “against the terrible advice of medical science, ‘Either me or the child’…..I renew the offer of my life to the Lord, I am ready for everything provided the life of the child is saved.”
We read of this witness, and those of others, and we know that there is no choice but The Cross. In the face of skeptical doctors and incredulous relatives, Kristin begins her treatments, and her trial touches bone and flesh. Her curly hair begins to fall out. I learn of the cancer patient’s rite of passage — as routine as it is cruel — when she at last makes an appointment to have the rest of it cut off. She is allergic to one of her chemo courses, it turns out, and for weeks her entire body is covered in prickling sores. She scalds her skin in the shower without relief. For a while it seems as if Job himself could not have suffered much worse. When she receives her treatments in the chemo ward, other patients look on aghast at the port in her chest, as her expectant mother’s stomach protrudes.
It is awful to behold, this mingling of maternity with such potent tribulation.
The months of her pregnancy pass as we visit an unending parade of medical professionals – obstetricians, high-risk obstetricians, oncologists, dermatologists, cancer surgeons, breast surgeons, plastic surgeons. We are having a girl, we learn, and she will be healthy, albeit quite small. The beauty of our faith is made manifest. Masses are offered, novenas are said, meals are cooked for us. Mothers of eight children (it’s a Latin Mass parish, after all) offer to babysit our two.
In August, the month of the Immaculate Heart, our daughter is born. She is small, indeed, but beautiful. We name her Hannah Gianna. Hannah, to whose prayers of lament God answered with the granting of new life, and Gianna, who in granting new life, had given her own. Our daughter’s hair is flaming red, reminding us that she was borne of suffering, and seeming to taunt those who gave counsel that beauty would not come from anguish. She is a living red head cliché, with the temperament to match. In the morning, she orders her older brothers off her favorite spot on the couch, and they scatter like pigeons. She paints our walls with yogurt, and disrupts our homeschooling. She exudes life, and brings so much joy, and we cannot imagine our family without her.
We later learn that Kristin’s cancer has metastasized into her bones. Her cancer is stage 4, but slow-growing, and not yet in soft tissue organs. Eventually, we know it will be. Her doctors are either reluctant, or unable, to give us a more accurate prognosis, but we are hoping it will be treatable for a decade or more. We know that waiting is going to be part of the cross that we have to bear. She was only thirty when she was diagnosed, and because of her treatments, we will not be having any more children. So we weep for this loss, but we rejoice in the new life we were granted.
This certainly isn’t what we envisioned for our lives when we were married. But as I said, amidst the poinsettias, the cross hung prominently behind us on that day.
At Mass on Sundays, little Hannah is often in my charge. I attempt to sit with her in my pew through the Kyrie, but she is inevitably too noisy, and will not let me kneel, or pray, or hear the polyphony, so we retreat to the vestibule with the other rowdy children. She makes me pick her up and we stand behind the partition. My wife remains in the pew with our boys, her blue mantilla covering newly re-grown curls. The Blessed Virgin looks back at us from the reredos – Mary, who had consented to grant new life, and in so doing, to anguish. I hold Hannah in my arms.
She looks out into the church, eyes falling upon her mother.