Several years ago, our family moved to Stuttgart, Germany after having lived in Little Rock, Arkansas for four years. The physical transition coincided with a huge spiritual transition for me. My prayer life deepened and I began to sense a call, at first quiet and then quite persistent. I felt I was being asked to transfer into action for the Kingdom of God my life’s experience. Although my vocation was and is wife and mother, for a long time the deepest moments of encounter with Christ were journeying through the loss of my mother and sister to suicide. As I prayed, God seemed to invite me to explore more deeply the trauma I experienced as a survivor of suicide loss and to consider how these experiences might be used for his glory. Naturally, I resisted, tried to fight, and eventually fled.
Like a desert wanderer, I became lost in my flight from God’s invitation. As a way to seek direction, I started to pray for God to reveal his will for my life. On All Saints’ Day of our first year in Germany, I was out on a walk praying for God to clue me in to what he wanted me to do. It was, of course, the day after Halloween. As I walked through one of the neighborhoods on post, I noticed candy wrappers strewn all over the place. I kept interrupting my walk to pick up the wrappers littering the street, sidewalks, and front yards. Finally, I realized that if I kept stopping and wandering off the path to pick up all the trash, I would never make it to my destination. So, I decided the best option was to quit trying to tidy up everything and just pick up the trash along my way. As I stayed on route picking up only what was on my path, I felt God answer my prayer. In effect, God was saying, “my will is for you to do what is right in front of you.”
Several years later, I came across the work of St. Francis de Sales on the will of God. This very practical saint said that God’s will for us is always tied up in everyday matters. This sentiment is echoed in the work of Blessed John Henry Newman, Lumen Gentium, Pope Francis’s Amoris Laetitia, and probably any spiritual thinker with an ounce of common sense. In short, the will of God is what is right in front of you. Why was I making it so complicated?
Grief can be complicated. That year I continued in prayer and began to dig deeper into what God was showing me to be “right in front of me.” The humbling and scary truth was that although I looked and acted fine on the outside, my grief over my mom and sister’s death was taking an invisible toll on me. I only marginally kept depression and anxiety at bay, and almost one year after moving to Germany, I suffered a serious depressive episode. What’s more, this episode occurred shortly after I had given a talk on the value of prayer, telling the audience that because of my prayer life I no longer needed medication. If we can’t be humbled naturally, God seems to find more direct ways. I went back on antidepressants, swallowing humble pie with each dose.
On a walk on All Saints’ Day exactly one year from my Halloween-candy-wrapper-God’s-will-in-front-of-you experience, praying along the exact same route, God’s desire seemed to be more evident. God wanted me to write about suicide and mental illness. God wanted my wounded truth to reveal his healing Truth. I decided to begin a campaign to raise money for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). As this thought came to my mind, I looked down and found lying in front of me, not the candy wrappers from the year prior, but a $20 bill. I went home, opened the AFSP webpage, set up a fundraiser, and was prompted to make an initial donation of…. $20. No lie.
Today is exactly four years from the first All Saints’ Day when I began to consider how my experience could reveal God’s glory. The time between then and now has been a slow, awkward, humbling, heart-lifting and heart-wrenching, continual process of personal integration. Integration is a buzz word not only in spirituality, but in secular psychology and sociology as well. Moving toward wholeness and authenticity is a natural part of our life’s journey, but we can easily reject it by espousing the lies of a culture mesmerized by instant gratification, fame, success, delusory security, and fabricated beauty. Additionally, we can reject this second half of life journey out of fear of self-knowledge. I have danced with this fear for many years.
St. John Paul II said that if all of sacred scripture were to be obliterated from the world, the one passage most in need of saving would be John 8:32, “you will know the truth and the truth will make you free.” With all that has been said about integration, it seems to boil down to the fact that we must know the truth about ourselves. St. Catherine of Siena says that this truth is two-fold: we are sinners, broken, wounded, finite, and imperfect and we are infinitely loved by God.
In my life, knowing the truth about myself has not only been accepting the loss of my mother and sister to suicide, but the loss of the imaginary image of the perfect person I thought I was supposed to be. This imaginary image hid the truth of my woundedness, a woundedness which carries an ugly stigma. It was one thing to write about being a survivor of suicide loss, it was completely another to write about personal struggles with depression and anxiety. But this is what God wanted. He has been waiting for me to embrace the stigma. It is there in the deepest truth that He has been waiting to heal me. The poet Rumi said, “the wound is the place where the light enters you.” Because admitting the painful truth of both suicide loss and mental illness has lead me further down the path of integration and closer to Christ in countless ways, I would say that the stigma has become my stigmata.
What is the stigma that God is calling you to embrace? Take it to Christ and allow him to transform your stigma into your stigmata.