MAN OF THE HOUSE | Sharing the spiritual burden

One friend sat in the driver's seat of the car, transporting us on a six-hour journey to the site of our retreat last year. In the passenger seat, another friend kept the driver engaged in conversation.

With the entire backseat to myself, I I began my week of silence a few hours early. As much as possible, I waded into an interior room of quiet. I stared out the window as the world flew past at 70 miles an hour.

My eyes and thoughts focused not on details, but rather on the kaleidoscope of the world's rich colors — deep greens of the trees, light blue sky scattered with white clouds, blurred splashes of various hues on billboards.

The names of dozens of people came into my heart's focus.

Before leaving town, I had promised to pray for these people, to pray in a way that was less distracted than it usually is by life's racket. In the stillness of the retreat, I could be more straightforward, more vulnerable in lifting up people who had expressed their needs.

Some were family, some were friends, some acquaintances, some virtual strangers. Some were fellow Catholics, some Christians of different stripes — even a couple of people who aren't sure they believe in God or a god or any higher power. (Full disclosure: The latter people didn't ask for prayers. I offered; they didn't decline.)

They were people of vastly different shapes and sizes, ages and backgrounds. They held one thing in common: suffering. True, deep agony. Burdensome mental trauma. Distressing, persistent physical misery.

They all had been suffering for some time. They felt like surrendering to the pain. They were ready to give up — nay, in most cases they already had.

As I thought of them during that drive, I remembered another promise I had made. "Give some of your suffering to me," I told them. "As much as it will help you, put that suffering on me."

A few hours later, as I participated in the Divine Office, I sensed a great heaviness. Tears overwhelmed me. I already had been struggling spiritually, but I became hyper-aware of a darkness, a great sadness.

Seeking solace outdoors everyday, I went for a combination walk-run for several miles along the country road. Save for making sure no cars were moving around the approaching curve, my eyes took in the colors of rural Kentucky. Everywhere I looked, I saw my God, and I prayed again for the strength for the suffering.

Grateful there were no billboards to ruin the scenery, I looked ahead and saw a piece of so-called civilization: a discarded empty beer can. Ugh! "So wrong," I thought. "That shouldn't be here, ruining the landscape, the ideal picture. I'll pick it up on my way back."

A few more steps and I saw a wadded-up fast-food sack. And a crushed soda cup. I tried to refocus on prayer, but I became fixated on roadside trash. I wanted to pick up every bit of it, trying to return things to a more natural beauty.

I simply couldn't handle all of that garbage. And I found myself crying again. Maybe it was because I felt helpless to rid even this small part of the world of litter. Soon, I understood that the emotions came from a different helplessness. All my own suffering compounded with that of dozens of other people — It was too much for me to handle. Frustrated, I felt like a failure. I didn't know how to make good on my promises.

I have thought about that often since August. I realize now that part of the answer had been sitting in the front seat of the car. I could have shared these people's lives and struggles with my friends. They could have and would have shouldered the spiritual burden with me, just as Simon helped Jesus with the cross.

Jesus certainly shares my suffering. We also have each other. We're called to share.

Next August, when we return to the monastery for our retreat, I'm going to bring trash bags. And I'll ask my friends to help me shoulder the load.

Eisenbath is a member of St. Cletus Parish in St. Charles. 

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