Sweet mystery of life resonates in the spirit

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By Fran Salone-Pelletier, Religion Columnist

If you are my age, and I suspect many are, you are familiar with the poignant song, “Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life.”
I remember the first time I heard it. A blind man was bent over the piano pouring his heart into the keys, it seemed. Surely, he felt the mystery of being sightless in a sighted society. It was obvious that he knew well the longing, seeking, striving, waiting, yearning. He understood the burning hopes, the joy and idle tears that fall.
Life is a mystery. Hopefully, we see it as a sweet mystery, not a sour misery. However, there is no way around the fact that it is a mystery to be lived, not a problem to be solved.
Perhaps the greatest mystery of all evolves and emerges from two questions we ask ourselves. One is: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” The other is its counterpart: “Why do good things happen to bad people?”
We don’t often ask the second question, at least not out loud, for fear it may sound like a judgment on others. Yet, the question simmers inside us. It may even fester and ruin our lives.
The first question is asked aloud, and frequently. We chafe at the bit when we come across people we know are good, holy, wholesome individuals; yet are suffering with poor health, poverty, disabilities, and a myriad of ills that seem insurmountable.
Why, we want to know, is this happening to them? Perhaps we want to know because we fear that similar misfortune will befall us and we want to be prepared. Perhaps we sense that asking the question may prevent a festering wound that infects the whole of our life. Whatever the reason, the question haunts us. We don’t want to be “poor ole me” people. We fear God’s response if we ask, “Why me?” At the same time, we want to know. As Lil Abner said, “It’s confusin’ but amusin’!”
Most of you know I was at death’s door last year and am still in the process of recuperating from the long months of hospitalization and subsequent surgical procedures that evoked complications. Overnight stays became weeks, then months. I know more about ambulance transportation than I ever needed to know in a lifetime. There were indeed, episodes of longing, seeking, striving, waiting, yearning, intense hope, transient joy and idle tears that fell upon me.
I could not pray. I could scarcely think. I could not remember facts or dates, or names or events. I forgot how to start my computer, my lifeline to a normal existence and my distraction from the many painful tests and therapies I had to endure. I didn’t ask it, but I surely felt the burning desire to know where God was in all of this. Had I been abandoned? Why could I not feel God’s presence?
The questions remained unanswered. It was only with the passage of time and profound reflection that I could come to terms with the unwanted, unexplainable suffering.
I remember being told I was unresponsive in ICU for a month. Though I didn’t know it, this was a graced time. I was given weeks of healing semi-consciousness so I might better deal with the pain that would come with recovery. All the while, my husband, again unbeknownst to me, was praying at my bedside. Like the paralytic in Scripture whose friends opened a hole in the roof of the house where Jesus was so that he could come face-to-face with divinity, Hubby Dear, as he is affectionately known, opened the door to my spirit when I was unable to do so.
Recently, we talked about the experiences both of us shared during those times. He reminded me of the power of redemptive suffering. This, too, is mystery. How can suffering be redemptive? Isn’t it just bad news, a glimpse into darkness? Isn’t it being thrust into the wilderness we call a Lenten experience? How could my misery be mystery as well?
Both Paul, in Scripture, and the writer of “Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life” offer us an explanation. Paul reminds us in Romans 8:26 that God is for us, no matter how strangely that plays out. He also tells us that the “Spirit of God helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”
God’s spirit, in sighs too deep for words, resonates with my speechless spirit and allows me to live Paul’s message to the Colossians: “In my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.”
That message changes our perception of suffering as evil, horrible, and given to us by an absent or punishing God. Instead, it offers an alternate view, one shared by the song writer in the words, “For ’tis love and love alone, the world is seeking. And ’tis love and love alone that can repay. ’Tis the answer, ’tis the end and all of living.”
We cannot allow these words to become pious platitudes. We must not diminish the power of redemptive suffering by attempting to talk away its pain. Nor can we blame God for it. What we can do is claim God in it. We can do that with the help of faithful friends. We can do it by allowing God’s spirit to connect with our spirit in the deepest part of who we are. In our prayerlessness, we can permit God’s spirit to groan in us, with us, and through us as the sound of redemptive suffering.
It does not matter if we don’t understand the why’s and wherefore’s of our life. It doesn’t matter if we feel lost, lonely, empty, wandering in a desert that is not of our making. What matters is we trust in the mystery that is life. What matters is that we choose life, at all cost, every time and everywhere. What matters is that we honor the good that comes when we engage with longing, seeking, striving, waiting, yearning. What matters is that we believe that there is value and virtue in the burning hopes, the joy and idle tears that fall.
Why me? Why you? Could it be so that all of us might see and embrace the sweet mystery of life?

Fran Salone-Pelletier has a master’s degree in theology and is the author of Awakening to God: The Sunday Readings in Our Lives (a trilogy of Scriptural meditations), lead chaplain at Brunswick Novant Medical Center, religious educator, retreat leader, lecturer and grandmother of four. She can be reached at grammistfran@gmail.com.