My Journey to Developing a Theology of Suffering
The development of this theology is the culmination of an amazing journey, one that I neither planned nor anticipated, yet felt strangely compelled to take. In fact, I feel like I was being driven to it by circumstances largely outside my control, with numerous people contributing to it, seemingly unwittingly. The journey seemed to begin with a very vivid dream in May 2013; but in retrospect, the seeds had been planted long before that. In May 2013, my oldest daughter Kathy graduated from Cornell University, and I was impressed by one of her professors who had given up a lucrative job in industry to go back to school and teach the next generation. At the time, I was in a similar situation, having worked for one of the great American corporations for over thirty years, the last decade of which was spent planning the manufacturing strategy for its most capital-intensive division. I was unhappy in my job, however, for a variety of reasons. The most significant of these reasons was that the company had decided to divest itself of the division that I had spent my whole career building up. In a way, it was not surprising that following that graduation, I had a vivid dream telling me that I, too, should give up my lucrative position and go back to school and teach. There was a twist, however: it would not be to teach what I had learned in my professional life.
Back in the summer of 2000, I had experienced another overwhelming sequence of events that had begun with a sacramental confession of sins that I no longer remember. What I do remember was the penance: attend a weekday mass. Although I was a conscientious Sunday communicant, I had never attended a weekday mass, and for some reason I felt a trepidation to do so. I hesitated for a few days, but I felt compelled to go because I told the priest that I would. I finally went, and it felt profoundly right to me. I continued to go, day after day, until the present. A few months later, when my daughter Kathy was about to enter the fourth grade, the parish put out a call for catechists. I volunteered.
I had never taught anything before, but teaching came naturally to me. I was astonished, however, by how little I actually knew about the faith, despite having read the Bible daily since the sixth grade, which represented a period of about twenty-five years by that time. I found myself learning from the textbook, just like the students did. I had never even prayed the Rosary. I embarked on a program to correct that deficiency, reading vociferously on Church doctrine, the lives of the saints, and even engaging in online apologetics. I became a more effective catechist, and two years later, I took on a second weekly class, in part so that I could also teach my three sons. Some years later Sister Marie Pappas, who also happened to have a nation-wide cable radio show, took over the school of religion in our parish and began encouraging me to expand my catechetical reach beyond the parish. It was her voice that I heard in the dream telling me to become a teacher of the teachers, but in the field of catechetics.
The dream itself was vivid and strangely compelling, not that I can remember anything about it other than the message to quit my job, get a doctorate in catechetics, and teach the teachers. I talked it over with my wife Sue, and she was very supportive; she had fortuitously taken a job recently which allowed her to work from home, making the journey toward obtaining my doctorate economically feasible if we had to move. I proceeded to investigate what it would take to get the required education and took the college boards, upon which I did surprisingly well, despite a thirty-plus year lag in academic studies. I soon found that there were only three Catholic schools on the East Coast with doctoral degrees in catechetics or religious education: Boston College, Catholic University, and Fordham. I went to Washington, D.C., and had an interview with Sr. Margaret Schreiber, who ran the program at Catholic University, and she graciously explained the basics of what I was getting into. At the very least, I was going to have to earn a master’s degree in an allied field even to be considered. I appreciated the information and developed a good rapport with her that I believe made the interviewing process easier for both of us.
Equally gracious was Harold (Bud) Horell, the professor at Fordham who ran the online religious education program. He offered me a slot in his course entitled “Introduction to Moral Development,” and told me that if I did well and wanted to continue, I could enter the online master’s program which would take approximately four years to complete. I took the class, found it engaging, and did well enough to be accepted into the program, which I completed in fourteen months. To proceed at that pace, I found it necessary to reduce my work schedule from full-time to two days per week, which fortunately was approved by the management team despite the intensity of the work. By the end of 2014, I had completed my master’s work, including a thesis on how to teach morality to youth and young adults, and began to apply to doctoral programs in both catechetics and moral theology to pursue that avenue. I applied to ten programs in total, and was accepted into one: Catholic University’s catechetics program, in which I was the only entering doctoral student in my cohort. It was run by Sr. Margaret Schreiber, the nun whom I had contacted eighteen months earlier.
I was happy to be accepted, because Catholic University felt comfortable to me from my first visit. It was also convenient from a family perspective, since I grew up in the area and my mother found herself needing more help since my father died in 2011. In the spring of 2015, I accepted the invitation to study at Catholic; put my New York house on the market; bought a house with my brother Richard in Arlington, Virginia; and notified my employers that I would be retiring at the end of July, which I had fortunately become eligible for just a few months earlier. It was at this point that I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. I was told by my doctors in New York, “It is not a death sentence. You will have five to ten years of reasonable functionality.” Having already made a series of commitments, there really was no choice but to push ahead.
This diagnosis was also not my first significant medical event. I was born with a congenital heart defect that left me seriously fatigued after any physical activity, and I had undergone open-heart surgery at Boston Children’s Hospital in 1965 at the age of five. It was not without complications (my heart stopped twice on the operating table), nor was it successful in correcting all of the problems. I spent my youth enduring extreme fatigue whenever I exerted myself. This was finally corrected in July of 1977 with a second open-heart surgery at the same hospital, but it too had complications. My left arm was paralyzed during the operation, and I was told that there was nothing that could be done|--|but I was also told that half the time, people regain use of the limb through natural healing processes. I never doubted that the problem would resolve itself, and after six weeks, it did. I regained feeling, and then use, of the arm the week before I started my senior year in high school, all without any specific medical attention.
I was healthy for the next twenty-five years, or so I thought, until I came home from a family trip to California in 2002 to find sixteen urgent messages from my doctor on the answering machine. I had been diagnosed with Hepatitis C after a routine blood check before a statin drug to control a hereditary cholesterol problem. I was told that it could be potentially fatal, but that fortunately there was a new ribavirin-interferon drug protocol that was successful in resolving the virus in a high percentage of cases like mine. It had very harsh side effects, however, so I spent the next six months with severe nausea, headaches, and tremors, but it did resolve the issue.
However, the drug protocol came with its own complications, as well. During the last month of treatment, I lost forty pounds off an already thin frame and found myself in the hospital after passing out. After a week of testing, I was diagnosed with celiac disease, an autoimmune disease in which the body’s natural defenses attack the person’s small intestines in the presence of gluten, a protein found in wheat. Fortunately, this disease can be controlled by avoiding wheat, which is inconvenient at times but not a significant issue. What was an issue, however, was that something that the experience left me with was severe and unrelenting nausea that lasted until 2015, despite the efforts of many medical experts. Just as I was about to enter Catholic University, my wife found a book by a doctor in Rye, New York that suggested that I had small-intestine bacterial imbalances that could be corrected with some supplements that she sold. I tried them, and surprisingly enough, they gave me some relief just at the time I was embarking upon my doctoral journey.
I started at Catholic in August 2015, and I really had no idea as to what was required of me. I was operating under the assumption that my goal was to develop a program on how to teach morality for future catechists. I was a generation older than my fellow students, and even older than most of the professors, but that was never a problem. What was a problem was that as an engineering major, I had never experienced the liberal arts training that is fundamental to doctoral studies in theology at a research university like Catholic. Fortunately for me, as the only doctoral candidate in catechetics, I had an independent study class my first semester with Rev. Dr. Emmanuel Magro, a priest from Malta. He took the time to teach me how to research and write an acceptable academic paper. Because I was minoring in moral theology, I was splitting my course load equally between the two disciplines, which was also fortuitous.
Roughly a week or so after starting my doctoral studies, I found a neurologist in the area, Dr. Natalia Kayloe, to help manage my Parkinson’s symptoms. I was dumbfounded when in the initial interview, upon learning that I was studying at Catholic University, she asked me why people suffer. I, of course, had never given the question any serious thought, and so I told her I was not prepared to answer that question. She encouraged me to pursue it, explaining that doctors confront this question every day, but have no answer to give. I was non-committal, but the question stuck in my head.
Over the next year, I used the twenty-five-page essays assigned in my doctoral classes to explore the concept more fully, and I became convinced that it was a viable topic for me to pursue if I were studying moral theology. Since I had taken an equal load of moral theology and catechetics classes, I inquired whether I could dual-major. The answer came back that I could not, but also that the catechetics program was losing its director, so there was no one left to administer my doctoral program. Instead, based on my course work in moral theology to date, they offered me the opportunity to switch to the program that I had been denied entrance to at every school to which I had applied (and deservedly so, since I had none of the pre-requisites). Furthermore, one of the bright young professors, Dr. Paul Scherz, for whom I had written my initial essay on suffering, made it clear that he was willing to become my advisor on the project, which again was fortuitous because he has since been very effective in compensating for my academic shortcomings. He, along with the other members of my doctoral committee, Dr. David Cloutier and Dr. David Elliot, were invaluable in giving me the necessary insight, critique, and encouragement to complete this work.
From that point on, I have been consumed with the topic of suffering. As my wife will attest, I regularly get inspiration at four in the morning; the bulk of this text has been written when I should be asleep, but I cannot help myself. I have drawn insight from my own struggles and from those around me, particularly my mother, Dolores Chaloux, who has suffered mightily for the last few years following an accident in an assisted living facility that caused third-degree burns. Her ability to overcome extreme pain and bodily degradation has been a true inspiration.
I have also received tremendous encouragement and insight from the students I taught at Catholic during this process, learning as much from them as they did from me. In 2019 I was teaching Freshman Theology as I wrote the doctoral dissertation that provided the background for this book, and the students in the fall and spring sections were highly engaged in the project on their own time, helping me fine-tune the arguments. In the 2020 spring semester, I was assigned to teach three sections of Nursing Bioethics that allowed me to teach this theology as part of the curriculum, and the nursing students collectively taught me how it could be best applied to their vocation, for which I am highly grateful. The greatest encouragement, though, has come from my family, and most specifically my wife, who had to sacrifice her comfortable life in order for me to pursue a dream, which I recognize was a huge leap of faith.
It is unclear where this journey will lead. There seems to be a destiny to it that I do not understand, because so many things have broken just the right way to make it reach this point. Every decision, except to cooperate, has seemingly been made for me: the choice of schools; my major; my topic of study; my advisor. I think this situation applies to a lot of people, and one never knows why they are called to do certain things. I am sure that the priest who sent me off to my first weekday mass had no idea how it would affect me, nor did my doctor anticipate that a simple question would change my academic (and maybe even my life’s) trajectory. It is possible that this journey was only for my benefit, but then again, one can never know the extent of one’s role in God’s plan. As my personal story shows, seemingly small things said or done unwittingly by one person can radically change the life of another. Who knows? Perhaps the entire reason for this journey is to change one person’s perspective about God, and maybe that person will influence others. That thought has certainly given my suffering purpose, and I embrace it when I do not feel well, which makes the suffering much more bearable.
Suffering has a way of turning a person inward, toward where God resides. I know that God takes no delight in human discomfort, but I see now that it is unavoidable when breaking humans of the vices with which they have become comfortable in order to set us firmly on the path of redemption. I also have come to understand that God must truly love us if He puts this much effort into keeping us on the path to joy. This is, after all, the same God who waits anxiously for the Prodigal Son to return (Luke 15:11-32). I say to all who may happen to read this: God has a plan for you, and even if you cannot see where it is going, trust Him and follow where He leads you. It will be a remarkable journey for you, as well.