Why, in the middle of working a crossword or putting mustard on a hotdog, did I suddenly find tears welling up? This had been happening for over a week now, and I finally realized I’d better pay attention.
The tears had started in the days after a retreat with homeless women. It had been inspiring to see women who were struggling with so many issues but had made the commitment for this weekend to focus on their relationships with God, both in one-on-one and in group sessions. It was not as though I had never heard individual stories of the kinds of hardships they had endured. But I had not realized that many of these horrors are often wrapped up in one life. As I shared my own story with my retreat partner, heard her story, and then heard more stories in the group sessions, I began to feel very heavy. At the Sunday closing I was baffled as women talked about how consoling the retreat had been and about how light they felt. I did not feel that way at all. On Monday morning I was back to normal life and concerns, putting aside the weekend so I could focus on my work. Except for those surges of tears.
It was Marian Cowan, CSJ, a member of the retreat team, who helped me process what I was experiencing by guiding me through a weekend of reflection. Gently, she probed my own life, suggested scripture passages for prayer, and encouraged me to ask Jesus for tips on handling the stress of hearing so much tragedy. It became a time of learning about Jesus’ suffering when he sees someone being raped or rejected by a parent or hurt in any other number of ways. “How do you stand it?” I asked. “How do you handle it?” Because I was so full of my own “stuff,” it took some time to tune in to his answer. “You see what I go through when someone is being hurt,” he seemed to be saying. But the response I remember most is “Remember, you are seeing only part of the story. I have something to do with this story.” In other words, the pain I saw in these women was something like a movie trailer; it was an indication of a whole story that I had not yet heard. Maybe that was why the women felt serene at the end of the retreat. They had come to see their suffering in a wider context of someone caring about them, even though they knew that the next day they would be back to dealing with all the difficulties they had talked about. The thought sustains me whenever I begin to feel discouraged about what seems like a hopeless situation.
Recently, I learned that my sharing partner in that retreat had died—peacefully— and I wept again. But this time, I knew that the tears came from gratitude that I had known her, even if I didn’t yet know her full story.
Rosemary Jermann is a Spiritual Reflector for IVC St. Louis. She is an adjunct faculty member at Saint Louis University and previously servesd as an editor for and contributor to Theology Digest and Review for Religious.