Suffering poses the toughest questions for religion. How can you believe in a loving God/gods when some people suffer so grievously and disproportionately? The glib answers of my Catholic childhood – that "God moves in mysterious ways", as my Christian Brother teachers would intone, or that "God sends the heaviest burden to those strong enough to bear it" – seemed only to mock my growing up with a mother with multiple sclerosis. The real landmarks of my childhood were not the usual ones – holidays, school exams, first kiss – but the stages of her long, bitterly-fought and ultimately failed battle to keep walking.
Chance rather than faith led me to my first job at the Catholic weekly 'The Tablet'. One of the paper's star names was the broadcaster and biographer, Mary Craig. I was initially reluctant to read 'Blessings', her bestselling memoir published in 1979. Its title suggested "offering" pain and suffering to God with a beatific smile. But when I did pick it up, I devoured it at a sitting, and have returned to it regularly ever after when those age-old questions about suffering have re-surfaced in and around my life and threatened to overwhelm whatever frail faith I have.
The book covers the short life of Craig's second son, Paul, born in 1956 with Hohler's Syndrome, crudely called gargoylism, which left him severely handicapped and unable to engage emotionally with his parents. Paul's overwhelming needs, until his death at 10, dominated the family's life, and coincided with Craig's fourth son, Nicky, being born with Downs Syndrome. There were, she candidly admits, plenty of moments when she felt utterly defeated. Where was the God of her Catholic upbringing?
The turning point for her, she recounts, came via a chance encounter with Sue Ryder's work in Britain and Poland with survivors of the Holocaust.
Escaping her domestic situation, Craig stumbled into volunteering as a helper at a Sue Ryder home. "The survivors showed me another possibility: that one could live with pain precisely by not fighting it," she writes in 'Blessings', "by not denying its existence, by taking it into oneself, seeing it for what it was, using it, going beyond it. Precisely how I could not yet see, but I knew it could be done. I had tangible proof. If men could laugh after Auschwitz..."
What keeps me coming back to read Craig – over and above a way with words usually absent in accounts of faith and suffering - is that she offers no answers, no prescriptions, no rallying talk. Hers is an unflinching account of her own weaknesses and prejudices, but it is that sense that she never reaches a place of serenity and sureness, but continues instead to flail about, only inching towards understanding, that makes 'Blessings' so compelling. For those inches, she knows, are enough.
Peter Stanford's 'The Extra Mile: A 21st century pilgrimage' is published in paperback by Continuum