When I was a kid, we always got the Readers Digest. It was a magazine that had a smattering of everything — human interest stories, self-help information, funny anecdotes, and often, a condensed book. My favorite was always the series called, “My Most Unforgettable Character.” I think we all have unforgettable people who come into our lives — people who are funny, or kind, or somehow make a deep and abiding impression on us. Margie was one of those people for me. I suspect she was in her early 70s when I met her. She was the very definition of a “church lady.” She was a daily Mass communicant and an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion. She lived just up the hill from the church and she walked to and from church each day in spike high heels! She was very proud of her Italian heritage and prepared meals for the priests frequently — the traditional seven-fish dinner on Christmas Eve and pizza rustica for Easter morning breakfast. And she made the best Italian cookies I’ve ever had!
Margie hadn’t had an easy life. She was widowed at an early age and raised her two children on her own. I never heard her complain. Despite difficult times in her life, nothing could have prepared Margie for what happened on a perfect spring day. Her only grandson was tragically killed in an automobile accident just a mile down the road from where she lived. Her grief was palpable and Margie was inconsolable. She immediately went to the parish rectory to talk to the pastor and what she told him, and then many others including me, was shocking. These were her exact words: “We need a new god. The one we have is too old, and he doesn’t know what he’s doing anymore.” What? I absolutely could not wrap my head around what she had said and how she felt. How could a person of faith, someone so devout and devoted suddenly turn their back on God? I was shocked because I thought Margie was denying the very existence of God. But the thing is, she wasn’t. She didn’t say that God didn’t exist — in fact, she affirmed God’s existence. What she did was question how God could have allowed this tragedy to happen.
I suspect many of us at some point in time have asked the same question — how a tender, loving, and caring God allows suffering to happen. We need only turn on our TVs or read a newspaper to know that we are surrounded by tragedy and violence. We are overcome daily with news of war and bloodshed, hate and brutality. We are sickened by shootings in schools, stores, and on our streets. Some of us even question our own safety when attending church or any public gathering like a concert or a movie. Like Margie, we question how and why bad things happen in our world and in our lives.
There are questions that we will have during the course of our lives that may and can never be answered. But there are things that I believe beyond believing. God does not cause suffering. God does not delight in our distress. When we weep, God weeps with us. God sent his only Son who suffered and died for us and our salvation; when we are in pain, through our faith and our prayer, we can unite our pain and suffering to Christ’s death and passion. And when we suffer, Christ walks with us in our suffering and never leaves us alone. He is with us the whole time.
Margie died a few years ago at the age of 98. She lived through many difficult times — the Great Depression, a world war, nuclear proliferation, and the struggle for civil rights. Like many of us, she endured tremendous personal loss. And like many of us, she looked to the heavens and searched for an answer to a question that has no answer. Why? The loss of a child, the loss of a spouse, the loss of a parent, the loss of a friend — all of these may cause us to question our faith and the goodness of God. I lost touch with Margie over the last few years of her life, but here’s what I know. She questioned God, but she never turned her back on God or her faith. She remained the same “church lady” she’d always been and I believe I know why — because she trusted in the power of God’s unconditional love and Christ’s resurrection and promise of eternal life.
And that, my friends, is the Good News.
“I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in Me, even if he dies, will live and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die”(Jn 11:25).
Anchor columnist Ada Simpson is former editor of Ministry & Liturgy magazine, holds an M.A. in Pastoral Ministry, and is the director of Music Ministry at St. Francis and St. Dominic parishes in Swansea.