A brilliant mind, a generous loving heart, blazing zeal, and an utterly mischievous sense of humor are the marks of my brother. He also happens to have Duchene Muscular Dystrophy, a degenerative disease, which weakens all the muscles starting from childhood. I have witnessed his physical suffering, but amid bearing a heavy cross, the strength of his spirit and the joy he radiates would state otherwise.
While many experiences and moments of grace have paved the way for me to seek a deeper union with Christ, I know it is in large part my brother’s witness of faith, love and deep trust in his Creator that allowed me to open my heart to God’s call and continues to give me the strength and courage to persevere.
-Sr. Grace Dominic
What was life like for you growing up?
I was diagnosed with Muscular Dystrophy when I was five years old, but it wasn’t until I was 7 or 8 that I started to notice a difference between me and the other kids. I was slower and couldn’t run or jump. A lot of people would tease me and make fun of the way I would walk. School was horrible for me. I started to want to be separate from others because they didn’t understand me.
How did your disability affect you and the way you viewed yourself?
In high school I became depressed because I had difficulty dealing with my disability. It affected me emotionally, socially, and worst of all spiritually. I began to medicate my pain with sin. I thought no one, including God, wanted anything to do with me and had temptations to despair. During this period of darkness I cultivated habitual mortal sin. I would go to confession out of habit whenever my mother encouraged me to go but I didn’t go with contrition. I had the attittude that I would continue to sin and I could go back to confession. It frightens me now when I look back at this.
What shook you out of this darkness?
One day about ten years ago, Mom called a priest from our parish to talk to me and to hear my confession. I was totally blown away. After the priest heard my confession we talked about each sin and he addressed the root of the problem. This was the first
time anyone ever took the time to help me see what was habitually leading me to sin. I felt sincere contrition that I had not felt in a long time. After my confession, the priest gave me Holy Communion. He held up the Host before me and said, “Harold, behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” My jaw dropped because the priest said it with such conviction. Suddenly I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that this was God. I didn’t realize before that it was truly Jesus’ flesh. It is Him! When I said ‘Amen,’ I began to weep. Then the priest asked if he could give me a hug; I felt like God was embracing me. When he left, I just sat there weeping profusely. I didn’t want to sin again. I felt like I was clean, like someone who is off drugs.
How did this experience of God’s love for you change how you viewed yourself?
I had a friend who was Muslim with whom I would discuss the Faith. To him the Incarnation was blasphemy, that God would humiliate himself by becoming a human being. But I saw this as a sign of His love, that because He is almighty, and all love, He would become so little for us. People may say God doesn’t know what I am going through; without the Incarnation, they might be justified in saying so. God is all-powerful and yet He is willing to get his hands dirty. He proves His greatness by becoming weak and small. He chose to suffer with me: Emmanuel, God with us. He knows everything that I am going through. We are never alone. After I realized Jesus is in the Eucharist, my doubts and difficulties began to subside. I began to love myself.
When did you understand that suffering has meaning and can be redemptive?
In the year 2000, my family and I made a pilgrimage to Lourdes; it was the greatest experience of my life. In Lourdes, people with disabilities are like the VIPs. No one had ever shown me such dignity before. When we arrived, a young man with a disability walked over to me, smiled, and gave me a bottle of Lourdes water. I felt that it was Jesus Himself welcoming me to Lourdes. The Lord was shining through him to me. He seemed to say to me, “In spite of this, I can still be joyful…I can love. Go and do the same.” I was moved to tears.
While we were there, a priest gave a homily on redemptive suffering. He began by saying, “There are a lot of suffering faces here. I want to explain why God allows innocent people to suffer.” I was so happy; this was the question I needed an answer to! He said God only allows suffering in order that a greater good may come out of it. I was stunned. This became the key to my understanding.
How did you learn to accept your suffering?
I realized it can be profitable. I realized it has meaning. The priest spoke of Jesus on the cross, and it dawned on me that the worst thing that ever happened is depicted on the crucifix. God was murdered by His own creation. Why did God allow this, this most painful death? God wanted our redemption to happen in this way, through suffering. I learned in that hour, God allows suffering for a greater good to come from it.
I know that God reveals Himself to me in my sufferings. If I could walk, perhaps I would not be able to find God in the same way. I discovered God because of my disease, because of the struggles that I went through. Our suffering can make us holy. If the Eternal Father allowed Jesus to suffer on the cross, it was to bring about the greatest good that ever happened. God allowed the worst thing to happen so that the greatest good could come out of it. “If we suffer with Him we will rise with Him.” If we suffer we can be with Jesus on the cross, and if we are with Jesus on the cross, then our suffering also can be used to bring about the greatest good, saving souls.
So your suffering has drawn you closer to God?
I am in a wheelchair precisely because God loves me. In Lourdes I learned about identification with Christ, not just imitation. “I live no longer I, but Christ lives in me.” In my suffering Jesus allows me to be like Him on the cross. My disability is my cross. It is how I enter into the mystery of redemption. I realized our vocation, the mystery of human life, the reason for existence, is Jesus Christ. We live to be Jesus. God allowed me to suffer that I might become a saint. It is ultimately the love of God, what more could He do for me than make me a saint?
How do you live out this vision of redemptive suffering in your daily life?
St. Therese has helped me with that! This little girl, who was only 24 when she died, did little things with great love. Who would have thought, little things would be a way to holiness? When I drop my books for example, it’s difficult. But it’s not the worst thing that could happen to me. The worst thing that could happen to me is losing my soul.
When I am suffering I think of Our Lady…everyday I say to God, ‘I am all yours and everything that I have is yours.’ Christ gives value and meaning to everything. We can offer everything to Him. When I have nothing to offer Him, I offer Him that nothing. When I fail or do not suffer well, I offer Him that as well. I finally realized that this whole time I had something of tremendous value. It’s something amazing, something redemptive. My sufferings can be beneficial for someone else. At Mass, I consciously offer my sufferings with Jesus through the Holy Spirit to the Father.
Often people will pray for something and if it does not happen, they think God does not hear them.
I still pray for a physical healing if that is Gods will, but not my will but His be done. I have come to realize that Jesus always answers our prayers, just not the way we would always like. He sometimes says no, or not yet. When I went to Lourdes I prayed for a physical healing, but I was given something much greater, a spiritual healing. After confession I went to the baths; I prayed, ‘Thy will be done. Please give me whatever you want to give me.’ I felt interiorly healed and free. I felt completely transformed and at peace. I was still suffering, but I was healed spiritually because I could finally accept my suffering and see in it my path to holiness.
What has been the most difficult part of living with your disability?
The hardest part is letting others help me. Especially for me as a man I want to do things for other people; it is intrinsic to my nature. So when people do things for me, to some extent, it’s humiliating. I am weak, but being in Jesus, when I am weak, I am strong. Jesus shows me how to love. To love is not wimpy. By offering my sufferings I am loving. I am doing a very manly thing in Christ.
What would you say to someone else who is suffering?
I want other people who suffer to realize there is tremendous meaning and value to be found in it, and that they have great dignity and that God loves them. God wants them to identify themselves with Him. If you let Him enter in, He will make it light. We carry our yoke with Jesus, He takes one side and even when we don’t feel Him, He is there. I want others to know that there is hope. Your suffering is going to go away and we are going to have eternal happiness where there will be no more suffering. This life is like a race, and God wants us to become champions. But you can’t become a champion if the gold medal is just handed to you. What merit is that? Live Christ! If we live Christ, He will get us there. He is the victor over sin, suffering and death. If we are in Him we are also victors. He doesn’t want us to be sore losers. I want to run the race to win.
Visit Harold’s Blog at: chariotfire.com
Originally printed in IMPRINT Magazine Spring 2009.