Joyful Witness

Mar. 10, 2021

Lucy Philbin

2020-2021 Missionary


As I write this, we are a few weeks into the season of Lent, and the penances and practices I have undertaken are making themselves felt. 

So I must ask myself: how are we as Christians called to respond to suffering? By embracing it, by gladly willing it because God has willed it. And yet, so often I have failed to do this. I desire God’s will for my life, and I know intellectually that this will make me the happiest; nevertheless I tend to complain rather than receive suffering with open arms. Giving up things we are attached to during Lent allows us to open our hearts more fully and more deeply to God, and I can already see the fruits of this Lenten season in my life. This year of mission work as a whole has contained both much joy and much suffering, with the result of increased trust in God and reliance on Him.

Last summer, about a week before starting my year as a missionary, I was diagnosed with celiac disease, 

which was a shock and a time of stress, especially since I would be living and eating communally. Being celiac means that I am extremely sensitive to gluten, and that even a small contaminant of gluten in my food will cause me to get sick. I had been gluten free before, but not in a strict way, and I was scared about checking food labels and asking people to accommodate me when cooking. 

Mostly, I was scared about being a burden 

on the other missionaries because of my dietary needs; asking others to make sacrifices for my sake was a terrifying thought.

Being forced to ask people for help and to admit that I can’t do everything on my own or ignore the reality of my diet has been eye-opening for me. I like to be in control of my life, to be independent and feel like I am handling things competently. And while it is good to be confident and capable, these feelings can become an idol in themselves that draw me away from total reliance on God. Whenever I am feeling highly successful, this often corresponds to a distance from God and a less fruitful prayer life. Relying more on myself means that I rely less on God to take care of me, and I even forget the smallness of my humanity and my need to rest fully on Him. Celiac disease has shaken up my comfortable life—I am frequently having to say no to things that are generously offered, or request someone cooking to go out of their way to ensure I can eat the food they make. Each time I am in this situation, it shows me how much I rely on them to help me, and reliance on other people in turn leads me back to reliance on God.

From the moment of my diagnosis, the biggest sacrifice for me has been that 

I can never again receive the Host at mass. 

Even typing that out, although I have been living with this reality with many months now, caused me to pause and take a deep breath. I desire the Lord so much and desire to be close to Him, and yet I am unable to receive His Body. Fortunately, I am able to receive the Blood when it is offered (although it must be in a separate chalice). While I have no idea right now where all of this will lead me, I know that it is for my good; 

it must be for my good because He has willed it.

Throughout the summer training, I was not able to receive the Eucharist at the churches we attended. These weeks of deprivation opened my eyes even more fully to the gift of the sacrament and the true joy of being able to receive Jesus Christ physically in the Eucharist. At the end of training, myself and two other missionaries moved from St. Paul to Virginia, MN to work at Marquette Catholic School. We met Fr. Brandon upon arriving, and since I knew we would be attending the parish here for the year, I asked him if I would be able to receive the Blood at mass and explained the situation. He responded so warmly and was happy to accommodate me—and so I have been able to receive at every mass, which has been a wonderful blessing. Instead of receiving passively, as I had often done before, now I must go out of my way to be able to receive, and this has cemented in my heart the true necessity of the sacrament and the immensity of graces that flow from it.

As Christians we are called to respond to suffering by joyfully willing the suffering as the means of growing closer to Christ in total abandonment to His will. While no means perfect, I have been given the graces this year to grow closer to this ideal, and in times of difficulty I often return to this quote from St. Francis de Sales:

“The everlasting God has in His wisdom foreseen from eternity the cross that He now presents to you as a gift from His inmost heart. This cross He now sends you He has considered with His all-knowing eyes, understood with His divine mind, tested with His wise justice, warmed with loving arms and weighed with His own hands to see that it be not one inch too large and not one ounce too heavy for you. He has blessed it with His holy Name, anointed it with His consolation, taken one last glance at you and your courage, and then sent it to you from heaven, a special greeting from God to you, an alms of the all-merciful love of God.”

May the Lord bless each of us this Lent through the crosses He wishes us to carry for His sake, and may we strive always to love Him more deeply through our suffering.