by Miriam Stulberg.
Not long ago, after almost twelve years, I left Magadan, Russia. God has been so incredibly good to me that this step, which I had feared for so long, came gently, wrapped in many graces. I know they are not for me alone.
When Marie Javora, Alma Coffman, and I arrived in Magadan in 1993 to open a field house of Madonna House, we were overwhelmed by the warmth and generosity of the people we met.
We had come knowing that we had everything to learn, and among other things, we found ourselves learning how to love. I soon realized that I hadn’t even begun to live the line of the Madonna House Little Mandate, “Love, love, love, never counting the cost.”
Anything I thought I had given up faded into insignificance compared to what these people had lived and undergone. I became ashamed of the narrowness of my own heart.
When Catherine Doherty talked about loving God passionately, I used to think, “That sounds wonderful, but I can’t imagine feeling that way myself.” It wasn’t until I came to Russia, Catherine’s homeland, that I began to perceive what it means to live passionately. For I saw there a kind of wholeheartedness that had nothing in common with our Western psychological self-consciousness.
During those first years in Magadan, I came to understand what gospel love and self-giving really look like, and the desire to love that way began to grow and burn within me. This is the depth of our Madonna House vocation, and the real hunger of my heart.
To those of the former USSR and its satellite countries, the name “Magadan,” the location of Soviet labor camps and death camps, carries some of the same associations that “Auschwitz” does for us.
Yet in Magadan, as nowhere else, I became aware of the power of Christ’s passion and resurrection, of his victory over evil. It is this mystery that is implicit in the relationship between the capacity to love and the suffering that has marked the life of almost everyone we know in Russia, that so amazed me.
North Americans have been conditioned to consider suffering as a scandal, something to be eliminated. In Russia, it is a part of life, raw and unmasked, the most constant factor of their history. Russia had no social safety nets, and at this point in time, most of the people we know have few illusions or expectations.
Before coming to Russia, I had accepted the cross as a tenet of faith, but not one I particularly wanted to explore. I was gluttonous for life, and life in abundance. In Magadan, I came to realize that the cross was the key to the life I sought.
We can never fully understand what the people in Magadan have experienced, but a beginning, at least, was to let pain, in whatever form it took, into my own heart and to allow it to bring me to Christ.
If I wanted my heart to break open, if I wanted to truly love, I had to learn to give beyond the narrow limits of my own ability to let go. Only suffering could do that.
I wanted Christ to step into my life, and I dreaded it. I was afraid I would run away.
In 1998, when I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, I heard in my heart, “I have given you the gift you asked for. Now you will be united with me forever.”
Now I had something concrete to offer for those I loved, for Magadan, for Russia, for Madonna House, and for the Church. I was nailed to the cross, but Christ would always be there with me. I understood why God had brought me to Magadan.
I couldn’t run from this disease, but I did have a choice: to offer it, or to retreat into self-pity. It was a choice between life and death, meaning and absurdity, isolation and unity. It was a way of identifying with the pain and suffering of those around us in Magadan.
Some of this wasn’t obvious at first glance. When I had difficulty walking, I could take a taxi to church. Our lame friends, meanwhile, clambered painfully onto buses. Though at first this was a source of daily humiliation, I learned to accept it with some kind of humility as I came to understand that this, too, could be offered for others.
St. Thérèse of Lisieux, who accepted extra privileges only out of obedience, joked that she would go to heaven dragging a foot-warmer behind her. I may have to get there in a taxi!
Everything we live and experience, offered to God as best we can, becomes “grist for his mill,” as Catherine used to say. She often quoted the gospel phrase, Gather up the fragments lest they be lost (Jn 6:12).
These fragments include our limitations, our poverty, our disappointments, and our repentance. How often I have offered my very inability to gracefully accept the consequences of this disease!
And while physical pain is obvious material for sacrifice, there are other, much less glorious facets of pain, such as shame and humiliation, and confusion and fear, which we are more apt to deny or suppress than to offer. Christ accepts all our pain.
Our closeness to some of the survivors of the camps, one of the greatest privileges God has given us in Magadan, has taught me so much. What they have endured puts our own deprivations in proper perspective. As Alma once said, “They have suffered so greatly. We can never honor them too much.”
Hardest for me always was the knowledge that, as my disease progressed, I would someday have to leave Russia. People told me, “You will receive that grace when you need it.” They were right.
I could never have foreseen the peace God has given me. One day, as I pondered this, it came to me that when we really believe that God’s will is life-giving, we can let him write the script for our lives. We can surrender the need to control what happens to us.
Then a big hunk of fear falls away—the fear that we will die inwardly if this or that condition isn’t fulfilled.
Another big chunk of fear leaves us when we come to accept suffering. Freed from the bondage of fear, we are able to let God use us how and where he pleases.
I like to think that God brought me to Russia, and particularly to Magadan, to teach me about love and about suffering. I have come to know him in a way I could never have imagined. There could be no greater gift.
My life has changed so deeply during these past twelve years, and I have changed so much that I can’t even imagine what I would be like had I not come to Magadan. What I have lived there has become an indelible part of me.
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