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Lessons from the Littlest Suffering Souls Print E-mail
By Austin Ruse   
Wednesday, 03 July 2013

In recent columns, I have been telling the story of the little suffering souls:

Audrey Stevenson died at 7 after suffering from leukemia and bringing faith into her family.

Margaret Leo died at 14 after suffering with spina bifida yet cheerfully living a life of Christian charity.

Brendan Kelly died at 15 with Down syndrome and a life of leukemia, and is still inspiring all those who met him.

What strikes you first about their stories is how much they suffered. We are talking about intense and long-lasting physical and mental pain, excruciating suffering, the kind that would make a Marine call out for his mother in his final moments.

Both Audrey and Brendan received invasive treatments of chemotherapy, steroids, spinal taps, and eventually bone marrow transplants. They lived long stretches of their lives without immune systems where danger lurked behind every errant microbe.

Margaret Leo had titanium rods inserts into her back in order to slow the bending of her spine. Instead the rods bent. To this day they sit on her father’s office desk to remind him of what a bad day is really like.

Audrey’s parents had to order her to talk about her pain so they and the doctors could help. Margaret would rarely mention her pain and mostly smiled through it. In the deepest pain, Brendan tried to make his parents laugh so they would not worry about him. Most children are not like this. We adults aren’t like this.

As human beings we simply cannot imagine such pain. We run from pain. We mask pain with ever-improving pain relievers. We take to our beds. We whimper and complain. We talk about our pain, perhaps every day. “How are you” can invite a catalogue of even the littlest pains. Yes, sometimes we think to offer it up as Catholics do, but mostly we don’t.

Suffering is one of the great mysteries. It has occupied not only the greatest minds of all time, but yours and mine, too. One of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism includes suffering and how to use the Noble Eightfold Path to avoid it. Hinduism sees suffering as a kind of punishment for bad behavior. Islam says the faithful must endure suffering as a test of faith.

Only Christianity sees suffering as redemptive, as a way to share in the suffering of Christ on the Cross and to lessen his pain. Catholics also believe suffering can be offered to lessen the pain of others. This notion is utterly foreign to most faiths.


           Christ Blessing the Children by Lucas Cranach the Younger, c. 1640

One reader objected strenuously to some ideas in the column about Audrey.  She simply could not fathom the idea that Audrey’s story could be true. She warned that adults sometimes impose certain ideas upon young people and wondered if Audrey’s parents imposed a kind of early religiosity on her. The reader, who is Jewish, wondered if adults sometimes see things in children that are not really there. You can see how that could be the case.

I did a radio interview about Audrey with a Catholic radio network. The host urged me to look into the case of Audrey Santo, whose cult grew up when, after a swimming accident, she suffered from something called akinetic mutism in which she could neither move nor speak. Her mother took her to Medjugorje and announced that her daughter, at the request of the Virgin Mary, had agreed to become a victim soul. It was said she had the stigmata, statues wept – and so on. Her bishop urges caution.

The cases I wrote about are not like this. No weeping statues. No stigmata. Only normal children in extraordinary circumstances. They were children first and foremost, not objects of religious imaginations. None of them wanted to be sick or to suffer.

Brendan was the life of the party. I have seen pictures of him dancing at weddings with friends and family cheering him on. He loved sports. Audrey may have had an acute sense of propriety, shying away from some birthday parties because of bad words she might hear there, but still she was a normal little girl who played with her sisters and her friends. Margaret loved to watch other children play in the park. They were normal everyday children who happened to be given great crosses – and then great gifts in carrying them.

They are saints of the every day world. More than that, they are saints for our time because the other thing that strikes me about them is that they were born into vast spiritual deserts. While their families were largely faithful Catholics, these children grew up in a larger social milieu of power, influence, and wealth that tends to shun religion. These are the real deserts of these wealthy times.

Brendan was friends with James Pavitt, former head of the clandestine service of the Central Intelligence Agency. Erik Prince, the controversial founder of Blackwater security service, cried like a baby when Brendan died and flew his entire large family in from the Middle East for the funeral.

Audrey was born into a socially connected family in France with branches of family influence in the United States and other countries.

Margaret Leo became good friends with Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Her picture sits on his desk in a picture holder she fashioned crudely out of pop-cycle sticks.

When you think of children given great spiritual gifts you usually think of them as shepherds or something like that at Fatima and Lourdes. Not these children. These children were given great material gifts, great opportunities for education, and social connections. God placed these little suffering souls in these places and in this time for a reason and one of those reasons is so their stories can touch the souls living in the grand houses of Great Falls, McLean, Paris and beyond.

Audrey Stevenson, Margaret Leo, Brendan Kelly, pray for us. 

 
 
 
Austin Ruse is the President of the New York and Washington, D.C.-based Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute (C-FAM), a research institute that focuses exclusively on international social policy. The opinions expressed here are Mr. Ruse’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of C-FAM.
 
 
 
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Comments (12)Add Comment
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written by Randall, July 03, 2013
Audrey Stevenson, Margaret Leo, Brendan Kelly, pray for us.
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written by Pedro MR, July 03, 2013
Dear Audrey what great examples these children give. I am from Portugal and could not avoid commenting on the comparison with the shepards of Fatima (as if these were not normal kids with a normal life). Comparing the suffering they had, both Francisco and Jacinta, died at a very young age and were a fantastic example of how to endure suffering with a happy face giving courage to everyone around them. And talking about great opportunities for education and social connections they both and Lucia their cousin met Our Lady in person!
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written by Jack,CT, July 03, 2013
Mr Ruse,
Simply Beatiful!
I have had a difficlt time reading the
beatiful lives of these Blessed people.
Thanks.
Jack
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written by Jonathan, July 03, 2013
Those who live faithfully through suffering will always be beacons of hope to all.

But, this idea requires that I reject much of what I know and believe of God:

"God placed these little suffering souls in these places and in this time for a reason and one of those reasons is so their stories can touch the souls living in the grand houses of Great Falls, McLean, Paris and beyond."

It seems, and I am open to debate and would welcome it, that this statement requires one or more of the following:

1. God deliberately causes some souls to be placed in a position to endure great suffering? This seems to say not that "God will bring good out of Evil" but that "God wills that some souls be born into a life of suffering".

2. God deliberately wills that some souls suffer so that other people might take hope from such souls - it seems that, therefore, God is implicated in some sort of necessity. It seems like it could be said that: "In order to give people hope, I will use these suffering children".

3. If God knows that certain souls will suffer even without His positive action, he gives them the gift of Faith to...inspire others who are not suffering to have Faith or be stronger in their own Faith? What about those children who suffer who are not given the gift of Faith? Is God playing favorites?

This are all questions and ponderings asked seriously, so please take them as such.

--Jonathan W.
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written by Austin Ruse, July 03, 2013
Pedro, You misread my piece. I did not suggest that the Fatima children were anything other than normal. What I did was compare their material poverty and lack of social standing and influence with Brendan, Margaret and Audrey.
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written by Austin Ruse, July 03, 2013
Jonathan,

I think you are reading things into my piece that are not there. I did not say or suggest that God gave them suffering or willed them to suffer etc. I wrote that God placed these young people in a certain place at a certain time for a reason. Certainly, you believe that God does such things.
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written by keithp, July 03, 2013
Jonathan-

I don't have any great theological answers for you. Almost one year ago my older son had a terrible hiking accident that resulted in serious physical damage. When he came out of surgery one of his questions (besides why am I still alive? :)) was "...why did this happen to me?". I didnt have the answer for that anymore than I do for your reasonable and thoughtful questions.

I tend to take the line that I am just too small and too human to understand why such great suffering can exist in a world of a loving God. Candidly, at some points it's best to pray for acceptance of God's will (however terrible it may be for us and those we love) than to try to pray for understanding. Understanding in this life may come later. I am convinced more and more that I'll have to wait until I day and I stand before my Lord and God.

Best wishes and prayers for you as well.
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written by Jacob, July 03, 2013
Audrey Stevenson, Margaret Leo, Brendan Kelly, ora pro nobis!
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written by Jacob, July 03, 2013
And especially for those suffering and those most in need of mercy and then perhaps for our animal friends who are suffering as well, like good St. Francis did.

Audrey Stevenson, Margaret Leo, Brendan Kelly, St. Francis, pray for us!
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written by Jack,CT, July 03, 2013
@Jacob, Amen
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written by Joseph, July 04, 2013
While of course I believe that God's grace can turn evil toward the Good, towards his own purposes, I think it's important to recognize the difference between the claim that God can bring goodness out of suffering, and the claim that God causes or "places" specific people (or "little suffering souls") in suffering situations to make his "plan" work, as if God has some need of suffering to fulfill His plan of salvation. The latter claim certainly suggests that God actively wills evil (suffering qua suffering is evil), and that position is not Scriptural, and most importantly, it offers no comfort or solace worth retaining to people faced with suffering children (or any other kind of tremendous suffering).

I think Jonathan's objections are lucid and penetrating. They are objections that any true theodicy (and any true offer of consolation) must address and take into consideration in order NOT to produce a picture of a God who causes suffering actively for His purposes.



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written by Maura, July 05, 2013
Perhaps God did not so much place these children in positions of suffering, but let it happen in much the same way that the death camps and other great evils happened and that also caused us to wonder about God's intent. So whatever chromosomal or genetic problems these children had, the real issue is that God did not heal them before birth or take them at birth but allowed nature to take its course. Our free will is how we respond to God in such circumstances - whether we permit the darkness to overcome us or we choose to participate in God's love no matter what. In many ways these children are the same as others who might have been crippled or damaged after birth. WE should not focus on their physical destiny as something evil that God permitted,because similar evil could befall any of us any time. We should focus on their ability to know that God is with us no matter and the way they shared it with those around them.

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