Lessons of Suffering From a Young Priest
In March 2019, I lost a portion of my left leg. I am now known as a BKA — below the knee amputee. The following months were marked with different physical and occupational therapy work, coupled with long hours of prayer and reflection. My Carmelite charism and spirituality challenged me during that time to go to inner places of the heart that the darkness of suffering began to fill.
Why? Because like the prophet Elijah, who went to a cave on Mount Horeb to find God, it was in these places that God was waiting for me to find rest with him. Out of that journey, several thoughts came to me that impacted and shaped my return to active ministry and influenced my priesthood.
Suffering has a voice of its own. It is quite nefarious because it speaks in subtle ways. One of its whispers, I noticed, was its desire to push me into isolation. Suffering, like many other things in our lives, desires to become like a little god. It doesn’t gain this pseudo-divinity on its own. We yield to its demand — a demand for it to be the utter focus of our lives by placing it alone on a pedestal in our hearts. By that act, it is transformed into an idol, giving it an aura of divinity. Suffering impacts our life, this is true, but when it becomes an idol, it begins to steal our life from us. What are we to do?
In those moments when the suffering in my life tempted me into isolating myself from the world so that I remain with it alone, I turn to Colossians 1:24: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church.”
The isolation that our suffering entices us into is a lie. It is a lie that promises security, yet it can never deliver on its promise. As Christians, moments of suffering are no longer isolating, because, in suffering, we exist in solidarity with Jesus Christ upon the cross. Through Christ, when we rest in him through suffering, he gives us moments of solitude, solitude with another in love who is suffering with us. Also, these moments of solidarity and solitude are not exclusive but inclusive, because their fruit pours forth as a means of nourishing the Church.
Through my months of intense recovery, I knew Christ was with me. I learned every new step with my prosthetic was a step taken with Christ, which helped to aid his Church on earth. The fruit from these steps was not visible, but their treasures are kept in heaven on behalf of the Church and may be used by her when she needs them in her life on earth.
In Need of a Perspective
Learning that my amputation doesn’t have to isolate me from others, I found myself wrestling with different perspectives of myself in my mind. I wrestled with the truth that I am now a wounded servant. It is true that we all are wounded servants, but, during my recovery, my woundedness was thrust into my face.
Being freed from the temptation to isolate myself, a new question arose in me, “Who am I?” For me, that question invokes a sense of sight. How do I see myself now as a man with one leg? Oddly, and maybe a little on the nose, I found my mind turning to Matthew 18:8: “If your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.”
Whether with one leg or two, I can still sin, I thought to myself. I am still in need of a healer, redeemer and savior just like I was before my amputation.
Our suffering does not make us special. Somehow, it is just a part of our reality as fallen human beings. Whether healthy or sick in the body, we still need Christ. Whether able or disabled in my body, Christ still calls me to himself and makes the same demand of holiness.
The second half of Matthew 18:8 reads, “It is better for you to enter into life maimed or crippled than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into eternal fire.”
The life invoked by this verse is the eternal life promised to us in Jesus Christ. Christ still bears the marks of the crucifixion in his resurrected body for the glory of the Father, through which he makes known the life meant for us. Even in my wounded flesh, in and through Christ, I can make this eternal life known to all people. This call to holiness was the same before my amputation as it is after it.
This verse, even if it is a bit on the nose, still reminded me, as I hope it does for all of us, that we are called to life in Christ, no matter what happens on our earthly pilgrimage. As we journey through our earthly lives, we always have the choice to throw out things from our life that impedes our response to this call from Christ. If we fall short in our response, it will be we who find ourselves thrown out. In searching for a new perspective to see myself and my place in the world and the Church, Christ, through St. Matthew, brought me back to the perspective he offers us all through his call for holiness.
Part of the call to holiness is the need to cultivate a virtuous life. A key foundation for that life is the virtue of humility. One of the things that I was not prepared for in the recovery process from surgery was all the questions. For months, I was dealing with a barrage of questions. I dealt with questions from my medical team, physical recovery team, insurance personnel, parishioners, brothers, friends and family. So many questions from so many people cultivated a sense of anger in my heart that sought to reinforce the whispering desire for isolation that my suffering was trying to ensnare me for its own sake.
During those moments of frustration, my heart turned toward the action of St. Paul. In Galatians 6:11, he wrote, “See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand.”
St. Paul was making a point to his people in Galatia that he was writing specifically to them, thus showing he is still with them and present to them. Yet, why write in large letters? Earlier in his letter (cf. Gal 4), he refers to eyesight and the plucking out of eyes. These passages show Paul willing to be honest with his people about an issue he has with his sight.
Paul is being honest with himself and the community entrusted to him by God. He is not a perfect person; he is weak, and yet he is still with them and present for them even in his frustrations with them. His honesty with self and others creates a vulnerability that works like a door for the heart because through vulnerability love enters the heart. I know an important aspect of my recovery is the need for humble honesty and vulnerability. My anger was just a means of protecting myself from that vulnerability.
Being honest with my Carmelite brothers, along with my friends and family, required me to become vulnerable with them, an action that is not necessarily the easiest or natural for men to embrace. Yet, like Paul, I needed those things, along with the appropriate means, to convey them to others and myself.
It is in the light of honesty toward myself that I was challenged by the physical reality before me. For example, standing for a long period, like during a Mass, causes pain. What was I going to do? I needed to discover my limits and boundaries, while also understanding what limits might be merely temporary. For this, I entrusted myself again to St. Paul” “Test everything; retain what is good” (q Thes 5:21).
Limits and boundaries of my capabilities required honest testing. Being honest with my medical and physical therapy team made it possible for me to test my limits in ways that might not have occurred otherwise.
Also, this need for testing, to find what is good for me, aided me during my transition back to active ministry. Before a Mass, I would check in with myself to see how I was feeling. I would walk around the sanctuary to test my physical ability, finding areas that may cause me an issue, like a tripping hazard. From this testing, I would need to make choices, like asking someone to go to the tabernacle to retrieve the ciborium during Mass, because my balance was off and the path to the tabernacle had stairs with no handrail. On difficult days that meant, after testing myself, being honest and admitting that I couldn’t give out Communion because I would be too tired and may drop the ciborium during distribution.
The self-knowledge that arose from being willing to test me through moments of suffering, coupled with honesty, made it possible to have relationships of trust with the extraordinary ministers before, during and after Mass. As a young priest, I needed to learn that I am not the only ministry in, to and for the Body of Christ, the Church. My suffering allowed me to learn this truth earlier rather than later in my priestly life.
A Growth in Understanding
What kind of a Carmelite would I be if I didn’t find support within my community? Even before my amputation, my heart was growing close to St. John of the Cross. During recovery, these words from my brother became my maxim: “The purest suffering produces the purest understanding” (“Sayings of Light and Love,” No. 127).
It is the pure of heart that sees God (cf. Mt 5:8). It was through this wisdom from my brother Carmelite that the burden of my suffering was transformed into a fire. From St. John of the Cross I learned that the purity of suffering is not merely about detachment but a focus of the heart. Through his words, I began to see that my suffering was impacting my mind in a way that the gift of understanding, from the Holy Spirit, was being opened in ways not expected.
May we never forget that the Holy Spirit gives the gifts, but it is our choice whether to open, use and share them. It is from the wisdom of John of the Cross that I began to understand the giftedness in my suffering.
Again, being reminded of Colossians 1:24, the reality that Christ wants a relationship with me was visible to me. The beloved disciple tells us that he calls us his friend, and he calls us to be his friend (cf. Jn 15:15).
Thus he has made himself knowable and understandable to and for us. Yes, our minds could never exhaust the gift of his presence in our lives, but the reality is he still resides with us. A pure suffering in union with Christ reveals his presence in our lives, making it possible to continue that journey with him.
It is a journey in the Spirit, creating the life of holiness in us that he desires for each of us. Have I suffered a loss? Yes. But my soul is still in the hands of Christ. Even through my suffering, I still hear him calling me to care for those he entrusts to me as his priest. Suffering or not, I am still his priest serving his Church.
FATHER NICHOLAS BLACKWELL is a Carmelite friar serving in the Archdiocese of New York via the St. Elias Province of the Carmelite Order. Follow his YouTube channel at www.youtube.com/c/thefrankfriar or his podcast under the name “The Frank Friar.”
Blessed Rupert Mayer
Rupert Mayer was raised in Stuttgart, Germany, in a family of five children. He felt the call to join the priesthood and was ordained in 1899. Father Rupert was an army chaplain in World War I, first working in a camp hospital, but was later promoted to captain and sent to the front lines. In December 1916, while serving on the Romanian front, he was injured by an exploding grenade and lost his left leg.
He returned to Munich after the war and served as a preacher, teacher, youth minister and retreat leader. He spoke out publicly against Nazism, saying that no Catholic could be a member of the party. This led to several arrests by the Gestapo and seven months at a concentration camp. In 1939, with his health failing, he was sent to a Benedictine Abbey at Ettal where he was instructed not to preach. In 1945, he was freed by the Allied forces and returned to Munich. He died of a stroke while preaching during a Mass on Nov. 1, 1945, at St. Michael in Munich. Pope John Paul II beatified Blessed Rupert Mayer on May 3, 1987.