This article was originally published in Sword & Spade Magazine.
Peter Gagnon, Fraternus Captain and father of 7, learned new lessons in leading while bound to a bed with cancer.
I have always taught my children to meet challenges head on, but “teaching” took on a whole new look when I entered the darkest and most painful part of my life while battling cancer several years ago. Not only was I teaching during this time, I was learning.
One Friday in 2011 after a routine doctor’s visit, I received a not-so-routine phone call: my bloodwork had very troubling results. I had Leukemia and needed to go to the emergency room immediately. My first thought was that I might die and I would leave my wife and six children behind. This was “The Moment,” that moment I had heard about in other people’s lives. In that moment God handed me my heaviest cross to carry. How could I shoulder it? I doubted that I had strength enough to endure. But the answer was clear; I had to accept it. Carrying that cross became a journey of suffering and sacrifice that tested and formed me in ways I had previously never imagined.
I was admitted to the hospital that same day and spent the next 31 there. That time was filled with tests, chemotherapy treatments, infusions, side effects and prayer—deep prayer! Over the next 9 months I spent more than 90 days in the hospital either receiving more rounds of chemo or being admitted to treat infections. In between my scheduled chemotherapy treatments my wife and I would spend three days a week at the outpatient oncology clinic for blood and platelet transfusions. Meanwhile our children were at home being cared for by family and friends. That phone call about my blood work truly changed everything.
I grew up hearing about living a virtuous and heroic life. We upheld the ideal in my home, especially seen in the lives of the saints who so often suffered greatly. But this encounter with cancer forced a moment-by-moment, focused effort to embrace and endure suffering. It was not a distant ideal but a fully-present character in the room.
Along with enduring the suffering, I was keenly aware of the example I was called to be to my children, and in that time I recalled how often I preached to my children about “offering up our suffering” or “choosing to be joyful even though you don’t feel like it.” I knew that I must live through this crisis with the intention of showing, in word and deed, how to put absolute trust in God and suffer as Jesus suffered—with strength, truth and love.
If the suffering in our lives isn’t changing us for the better then we are rejecting this gift from God—the gift of the Cross. Suffering is not a meaningless mystery to be endured, but, after Christ, it becomes a means of fruitfulness. Jesus transformed the effects of sin (death and suffering) into the means to overcome it. It no longer just happens to us, but does something to us, often something beautiful. St. Paul tells us “we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint” (Rom. 5:3, RSV).
Fighting cancer was truly a time of grace, and in that time I could not help but ask God what needed to change in my life, should I live. In what ways was He going to use this suffering to forge me into the Catholic man I was supposed to be?
What Suffering Reveals
In that time I experienced the specific ways in which suffering, when united with Christ and His cross, can be an instructor in virtue.
Holy suffering increases humility; an understanding of the beautiful truth that all that is good and holy in us comes as an undeserved gift from God. True humility puts our thoughts in the right order, always looking at God in deep love and appreciation for all He has granted us the ability to accomplish.
Believe me, the devil doesn’t leave you alone during these trials. Scripture says he is like a lion prowling for the kill, and a weak and wounded prey probably looks easier to pounce upon. Without humbly accepting my limitations I think the lion’s attack could have been deadly
It can be difficult, especially as a man, when you must rely on others to care for you. I laid in bed looking at my wife, who was incredible through the whole experience, knowing that she had to run our home alone. I am the husband. I am the father. It just didn’t feel right that she had to be the one to get the oil changed in the car, to hang pictures, and even to mow the lawn. I had to allow other men to come to my house and fix sink drains and torn screen doors. This reality pained me. But it reminded me of something that was true even before I had cancer: I am only a man and not a god.
In a related way, holy suffering shows us we need God and others. During this time I was blessed to have the example of several holy men in my life. They spent several nights at the hospital with me, helping me get to the bathroom at night
“It can be difficult, especially as a man, when you must rely on others to care for you.”
when I was too weak to do that on my own. They prayed with me. Priests brought me communion almost daily. If I had let pride get in the way, I would have prevented these men from exercising the virtue of charity in caring for me and my family. Seeing their holy witness reminded me that without God I truly am nothing. I could not just present myself as trusting God as a good example to my kids—I actually had to learn to trust Him.
Holy suffering increased my compassion. When we suffer, particularly as men, we can turn our focus inward. If we can overcome this self-centeredness we quickly realize how many around us are also suffering. There were many occasions when I did not want to consider what others were going through. I would hear others complain and would think “man, you just need to suck it up” rather than having compassion for the person. God often uses our struggles and sufferings to teach us how we should treat those around us. When I experienced the love and compassion that family, friends, and even strangers showed me, I couldn’t help but reflect on the compassion Jesus showed to those he healed. If I was called to imitate Christ in all things, I also had to be compassionate to others.
Holy suffering also helps with patience and self-control. When suffering hits and we realize there is not a lot we can do, we become impatient. If we can’t fix the problem we get frustrated, and this often leads to anger. By being patient and trusting in God’s divine plan, we will learn self-control—because that’s all we can control! I had to rethink the “doing” I did as a father, especially in focusing my prayer and suffering for my family’s salvation. I would have willingly given my life protecting my family from physical danger, but was I willing to give my life by this suffering to protect them from spiritual harm? My anger needed to be transformed into trust and had to be lived by practicing self-control and patience.
More Than We Know
While in the hospital a well-intentioned person gave me a book on suffering written by a non-Christian theist. The basic premise was that we don’t know why God allows suffering but He still loves us. How sad and empty this message was! As Catholics we have a God who suffered, and if we are to truly unite with Him, we also must suffer. St. Faustina said “If the angels were capable of envy, they would envy us for two things: one is the receiving of Holy Communion, and the other is suffering.” The angels realize the power of suffering and how intimately united we are with Jesus when we accept it.
We know that we are not made for this world, and suffering not only reminds us of that, but prepares us for the next world. I believe St. Paul fully when he says, “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18, RSV).