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  • Writer's pictureElizabeth Leon

What is this feeling????

In the wake of so much sadness and suffering, will I ever be happy again?

"For the joy of the Lord is my strength." Nehemiah 8:10

I loved the royal wedding. I didn’t wake up at 5 am to watch it with a fascinator on my head, but viewing the live coverage later in my bed, I just soaked it up. What a beautiful ceremony and celebration. I wanted every good thing for Harry and Meghan as I witnessed the spiritual joining of their souls. I prayed that life would be kind to them.

I was so burned, so utterly destroyed by the end of my first marriage that weddings can be hard for me. I feel so scared for the bride and the groom with all their hopes and dreams for each other and their love and their future. I wouldn’t call myself jaded in any way, but my experience with some of the unexpected blows of life sometimes makes me want to caution a young couple. I was recently asked to write some words of encouragement and support for a cousin who will be getting married, and at this season of life, the first two words that came to mind were: WATCH OUT.

And yet I am so happily married and so deeply in love. Ralph and I are coming up on our 5-year anniversary and every day I thank God for the gift of this man and his heart. June 1, 2013 was a miracle day for me. After suffering so brutally for the previous 4 years, God brought me a profound and unexpected gift that day – a day of TOTAL JOY. I have never in my WHOLE life had a day like that wedding day.

I am a girl who has felt the burden of shame and fear and abandonment for most of my life. I was bound by the heaviness of my own childhood history and then further shackled by betrayal and divorce and shame. I never knew the weight of what I carried until God took it all away for that one glorious day. I wasn’t just happy on June 1, 2013. I was filled with a JOY and a freedom that I had never known before and never imagined was possible. BUCKETS of joy poured over me and through me. I felt a lightness in my heart and soul that was other-worldly. Love and joy and peace were all I could feel. The Lord’s undeserved, unexpected, abundant gift of grace liberating my heart and my soul. I felt FREE. I felt beautiful and alive and loved and there was no FEAR. I was in awe of this experience. I felt like the blind man who could now see or the lame man now leaping for joy. Was THIS what the scriptures talked about? The “peace that surpasses all understanding”? The “pearl of great price”? I know it is normal and expected for a bride to be joyful on her wedding day, but this was supernatural. I felt like a new creation and I hope that the light and love that were bursting out of my heart and soul could be seen and felt by everyone around me because this was God. This was His presence, His Spirit hovering in a cloud in and through me for that one perfect day.

It would be 4 years, 7 months and 3 days before I had another perfect day – actually more than a day: 28 hours and 10 minutes. The hours of John Paul Raphael’s brief life brought back the intensity of joy and the overwhelming experience of God’s presence. 1,690 minutes of pure love. When I was pregnant with him and when we carried the burden of the unknown outcome of his life, there was so much anxiety and fear. I worked every day to trust God and surrender to His plan, but humanly, we anticipated that we were in for pain. And a lot of it. I had no way to know what it would be like to give birth to a baby with a life-limiting condition. To hold him and love him knowing he would die. After these long months of waiting, lying face to face with him on the operating table was complete joy. It was here again - this mystical, profound holiness. Every fear, ever burden, every worry just GONE. In its place was an intense and burning love from God and for my child. Babies are such an incredible gift from our Creator and newborns just inspire this sense of true AWE – like the fragrance of Christ is still on their skin. Our little hospital room was Heaven on earth. The sacred holiness of these hours was tangible. Except for the wee hours of the night, the room was always full of siblings and relatives and grandparents all anxious to share in the perfect gift of this child. We couldn't get enough of smelling him or feeling his skin. He loved to hold our fingers. He was always wrapped in his blue blanket and held in someone's arms. Ralph had a cologne spray we had gotten from Rome when I was pregnant and he sprayed the blanket and the room often. We all smelled like sandalwood. The scent can still powerfully transport me back to the holiness and beauty of that time. Never once during his life did I worry or even wonder how much time we had. We were just held in the present moment with love and with our son. 28 hours and 10 minutes of total joy.

John Paul Raphael is here!!!!

In the spiritual life, we are not often allowed the grace of these mountain-top experiences. I have incredible gratitude to the Lord for his abundant gift of sharing His presence with me in such powerful ways. The experience of being so completely HELD in the palm of God’s hand, of feeling Him SO CLOSE, is beyond description and cannot help but change me. I wish I could say I was completely healed and transformed beginning on June 2nd, 2013. I wish I could say there has been no pain and suffering after the loss of John Paul Raphael. The truth is far from it. Remember, I am still in the middle of the mess.

I have found that most often we are called to seek joy and peace, these pearls of great price, in the ordinary suffering and pain of real life. After my wedding to Ralph, the radiance of God’s presence stayed with us in those early months, but as time continued, I came back down out of the clouds. God didn’t put the shackles back on me, but without knowing any better, I began to pick up all my old burdens – the shame and the fear and the woundedness. They were, after all, as familiar as my own skin. I would spend the next several years (maybe a lifetime?) learning to take them off.

After John Paul Raphael died in my arms, there was this slow but insistent exchange in my heart as the power of the love and grace I experienced during his life became the crushing burden of grief. As I began the hard work of living without my baby, the words from Matthew 11 rebounded in my head and heart: “Come to me all you who labor and I will give you rest. Take up my yoke and learn from me for my yoke is easy and my burden light.” Your yoke is easy and your burden is light?????? LOSING MY BABY IS NOT LIGHT. THIS YOKE OF DEATH IS NOT EASY. Joy now seemed an impossibility forever-more.

And yet, I am still called to pursue joy. To pursue love. To pursue peace. This is the legacy of Jesus -- His gift to us through the Holy Spirit. He tells us in the gospel of John that he wants our joy to be full and complete. Psalm 16 says that “in His presence is fullness of joy.” Psalm 89 says that “In your name, they rejoice all the day.” Philippians 4 gives us a double dose: “Rejoice in the Lord! I shall say it again: Rejoice!” Joy seems not just a feeling to be sought after but a command we are given. How can this even be possible in this valley of tears with all this grief and the hardships of life and the losses and disappointments we all face? This is too hard! I was still stuck in some other passages -- Psalm 42 says "my tears have been my food day and night". Psalm 6 reads: "I am weary with sighing... my eye wastes away with grief." How was I expected to find joy????

I go back to those 2 separate days of perfect joy and love. What was my focus? What did I do? I was surrendered to God's plan. I was inviting Him into the experience. I was letting myself be loved by Him on my wedding day and while I held my baby. I was trusting that I was not alone. I had HOPE --that total confidence that my whole journey is with God and towards God. And perhaps most striking for me -- I was completely in the present moment. I wasn't lingering in past hurts and fears. I wasn't racing ahead to what pain and suffering lurked around the next corner. I was right here, right now with God and with whatever He had in store for that very moment, that very day. Was that part of the secret? To give ourselves the gift of freedom found in this present moment? To somehow find out how not to dwell on past hurts and disappointments or quake in the face of the unknown future? To just live RIGHT now, letting ourselves be loved?

Part of what I am learning in this season of the journey is the mystery of BOTH/AND. It is the mystery of living BOTH Good Friday AND Easter Sunday at the same time. It is being grateful for the bloody sacrifice of the crucifixion because of the beauty of the resurrection, knowing that the resurrection isn't even possible without death. It is living the perfect joy of John Paul Raphael in my arms while still knowing the next breath could be his last. It is laughing at a hilarious movie and feeling the silent stab that my baby will always be dead. It is loving my family with all my heart but with open hands, knowing there are no guarantees. I can be both suffering and joyful. In fact, I am called (this is so so so hard!) to be joyful IN my suffering and because of my suffering. We cannot wait until suffering has ceased to try and seek joy.

However challenging that proposition may sound, it has actually been a great comfort to me. As a bereaved mother, although I expect my grief to change over time, the loss of missing my child will always be with me. As a wife in a second marriage, the painful impact of divorce in my life and in my children’s lives cannot be changed. If I had to eradicate all that pain in order to ever be joyful again – well, that wouldn’t be an option.

These are great mysteries – I barely feel qualified to speak of them at all, except that they are part of my experience. I DID find joy again in my marriage to Ralph. I AM feeling joy at times after John Paul Raphael’s death. In fact, I have been so stretched and changed and increased by these experiences of suffering that I find my joy (when it comes) to be even greater.

Right now, in these fresh raw days of early grief, the joy that comes is much like the experience on my wedding day – unfamiliar, light, uplifting. A total gift given to encourage me in the depths of sorrow. At first it was discolored with guilt: how can I possibly be feeling peaceful today? How can I be feeling happy? Did I not love my baby enough? Am I not mourning enough? I even worried that my grief was “done” and wouldn’t come back and that terrified me because the pain is still the place where I most find John Paul Raphael. (I need not have worried – the sorrow is never long gone.) But there is lightness and peace that flows in occasionally and a new pattern emerges: My deep sorrow has me clinging to God and this leads me to rejoice in His presence. I am hurting. I run to Him. He is close. He brings joy. Does that mean I should be thankful for the pain because it leads me to the Lord????

It reminds me of some lyrics I wrote several years ago:

Every scar that I have makes me look more like You.

It really is the pearl of great price, this relationship with the Lord. The “peace that surpasses all understanding” is worth everything. I may not live it every minute or even every day, but my deep experiences of the joy of the Lord have cultivated a longing to pursue Him and His presence in all I do. The sufferings will always be here – those I have carried now for years, or only months, and those sufferings I have yet to meet; but when I unite those sufferings to the heart of Christ, I open myself to the gift of joy and that changes everything.

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