Posted September 14, 2015:
Living with Weakness

by Marilyn Marsden-Busset, a reader.

When our children were in elementary school, the teachers would often ask, "How many brothers and sisters do you have?" They were the only ones in the class who responded, "I’m not sure."

You see, my husband and I became foster parents before our children were born. So as long as our children could remember, our numbers ranged from six to ten people. It seemed to them that everyone in the house was part of the family, so it was difficult for them to figure out who was their brother or sister and who wasn’t.

Our children are grown now, and most have left home. As adults, they have thanked us that we had handicapped children in our home. One daughter, who is a clinical care nurse, said that it made her stronger as a person.

She grew up with a girl who had mental health problems, so when there is a crisis at work, she feels no panic or distress. She thinks to herself, "This is a piece of cake compared to what I grew up with."

Here’s one example.

One sunny day, we were all sitting around a picnic table having lunch. Suddenly, Katrina, who is autistic and mentally challenged, threw herself on ground and started hitting her head, biting herself, and screaming. The children calmly continued eating.

Later, I sat down with them and explained in words that they could understand, that Katrina was wearing the crown of thorns, that she was making up in her body what was lacking in the passion of Christ (Colossians 1:26).

In God’s economy, I told them, nothing is wasted. Not one tear, not one sigh. Everything is gathered; everything is harvested. Everything is redemptive for our loving God, who has claimed victory over all suffering and pain.

It was easy for me to recognize that Katrina was wearing the crown of thorns; it took a lot longer to realize that our whole family was wearing it. For we were called to be a presence to those who are suffering. And this is presence to the suffering of God.

When Mary and John were standing at the foot of the cross, they were crucified, too.

One summer, we went to Cana Colony, the family vacation-retreat camp at Madonna House. There I wept bitter tears as I confided to Fr. Robert Johnson that I didn’t love the handicapped girl I was caring for at the time.

She demanded very heavy care; I was changing her diapers and often the whole bed. I was feeding her, bathing her, helping her to drink. And throughout everything, she remained silent.

It drove me crazy that she was all smiles and hugs for strangers who arrived at our house. But with me she would pout, often refusing even to look at me as I gave her her morning care.

I had to dig deeply into St. Paul’s words about giving freely without expecting anything in return (Col 3:23).

Fr. Robert looked at me with such compassion and said, "My poor child, haven’t you realized that love is not a feeling and that your care minute by minute, day by day, every day for years, is love?"

Another thing is that when you are confronted with a handicapped or mentally ill person, you are constantly face to face with the existential human condition: we are limited.

When I was faced with this girl in the wheelchair, whatever I did, whatever I said, was never enough. I could not "fix" her. I could not make her happy. Her needs were an abyss.

Don’t get me wrong. There are lots of moments of happiness when you are with these children. But fundamentally, you are touching a limit. In some way, somehow, I wanted to be God.

But the truth is contained in Romans 8:22-23: From the beginning until now, the entire creation … has been groaning in one great act of giving birth; and not only creation, but all of us who possess the first-fruits of the Spirit. We, too, groan inwardly as we wait for our bodies to be set free.


I often said to my children, "When we get to heaven, Katrina will be perfect, and Claudia will no longer be in a wheelchair, and she will be able to talk".

It seems that I have written a lot about pain in this article. Yes, there is pain in families. Life is difficult. That was another lesson that I learned at Madonna House, from my godmother, Jean Fox. "Never be afraid of pain," she said. "Pain and joy are intricately intertwined like the cross and the resurrection."

Taking these words into my heart, I became stronger. Knowing that pain is not the final word and that I didn’t have to be afraid of suffering, I was more able to take risks. Christ is in my pain, and he was there first.

God is not standing there judging and counting every little thing we do. He only knows how to love. He accepts all our contradictions and incoherencies. He gathers, like sacred objects, all our tears, even the tiniest and most secret ones.

He gathers everything into a sort of elevator propelling us into the arms of God. His love, present in all things, takes us out of the banality of our existence and reveals to us the fullness of life.


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