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Christ’s presence in suffering

Review: Victor Austin, Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest’s Wife, and the God Who Gives and Takes Away (Brazos, 2016). 

In early 2011 I was coming to the end of my middler year at General Theological Seminary, and I received the blessing of my bishop to accept the invitation of Fr. Andrew Mead, rector of St. Thomas Fifth Avenue, to serve as the parish’s seminarian for the 2011-12 academic term. Fr. Mead was introducing me to the staff members with whom I would directly work and who would comprise my field education committee.

One of the five people on my committee was Fr. Victor Austin, Saint Thomas’s theologian-in-residence. It was Fr. Austin who had the biggest impact on my discernment of my priestly and scholarly vocation. I value the role of scholarship in the Church’s life and witness, and love the work of parish ministry. It was Fr. Austin who showed me what it looks like to balance being a learned scholar and loving pastor; he remains the example of the kind of priest I strive to be.

The second person I met at St. Thomas was a parishioner, Fr. Austin’s wife, Susan. On that day, Fr. Austin was working at his desk while his wife was sitting on the couch looking through a periodical. Fr. Mead introduced me to them. Being an eager introvert, I remember instantly reaching out to shake Mrs. Austin’s hand.

There was a momentary pause. Looking back, I would describe feeling a sense of uncertainty regarding the moment. Then, slowly, Mrs. Austin extended her hand and shook mine, but did not say anything. I could tell that there was something “particular” about Mrs. Austin, though I did not know exactly what. It was the beginning of an acquaintance that would affect me throughout my experience at St. Thomas.

I have recently finished reading Fr. Austin’s book Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest’s Wife, and the God Who Gives and Takes Away. Five years on from that initial meeting, I finally know what Mrs. Austin’s particularity was: brain disease.

Losing Susan was both joyful and sad to read. It was a joy because I came to know Mrs. Austin more in a way that I could not as St. Thomas’s seminarian; I learned what kind of person she was before the discovery of her brain tumor at age 38, how she was a loving wife, caring mother, and, as attested by the inclusion of one of her papers, her husband’s intellectual equal. It was joyful also because I learned more about Fr. Austin’s personal side, not just his theological erudition.

But it was also sad to read. As Father Austin says in the preface,

Here was a woman who had much promise that was never fulfilled. But of whom can that not be said? Here was a man with hopes and projects for a theological career who found his life upended in order to care for the one to whom he had made the vow “for better, for worse.” But who has not known unexpected, forced life changes? (Losing Susan, pp. 9-10)

It is, as Fr. Austin describes, a universal story. Regardless of lifespan, every human being experiences suffering at one point or another. But there is one important character in that universal story, one that is always there with us, and that character is God. Suffering, at times, causes us to forget or even doubt his presence. It even causes some, unfortunately, to deny his very existence. But the great truth is that God is there with us in the midst of suffering, for he is relational, not aloof or detached, but active in the world and amid the creatures he has made.

And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth … that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each of us, for “In him we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:26-27)

The cross gives us the courage to trust the surety of God’s presence during suffering. The suffering that Jesus Christ, the God-man, experienced through his Passion was of the most horrific and torturous form. But the good news is that through the darkness of the cross came the light of the resurrection.

It is in the cross of Christ, knowing the suffering that he endured for us, that we can find the strength to persevere, continue in faith, and carry on. Not only because of his creation of and love for us, and his omniscient nature, but in his Son Jesus Christ, God knows our suffering, hears our cries for help, and gives healing.

Sadly, the ultimate healing that God gives, the passage from this mortal life to eternal life with him, is a healing we do not get to see; what we see is the death of our loved ones. And so we experience conflicted emotions, rejoicing in healing and the promise of resurrection to new life, but weeping because we are not yet able to see it visibly.

The cross, the instrument upon which Jesus showed there was no partiality,[1] testifies to the truth that no matter the handicap, affliction, or level of suffering people have, God can still use them for his good purposes. In their afflictions, they help testify to the truth that God is love, that he truly loves all people, and that no one is incapable of conveying the truth of the gospel.

I remember the bishop who ordained me once saying, “Everybody in the world has some sort of handicap. Unfortunately, for some people, the handicap is just a little more visible.” Or, as St. Paul said, “We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28).

Although she had brain disease when I knew her, I felt the presence of the living Christ every time I encountered Susan Austin. Not only did I feel this, but I believe many others, who knew her better than I did, felt Christ’s presence through her also. And in reading Losing Susan, I felt Mrs. Austin proclaiming to me Christ’s presence once again, in both good and bad times, only this time in her new state in Jesus.

From Mrs. Austin I learned the validity of St. Paul’s proclamation:

Neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom. 8:38-39)

Thank you, Mrs. Austin, for being a witness of Jesus’ love to me.


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