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Wife’s death shook his faith; her example fortified it

“I was thoroughly awed by my wife’s steadfast Catholic faith, courage and strength as I watched her, day by agonizing day, slowly deteriorate, her attention always on others, not herself,” Doug Fencl shares.

by Doug Fencl
Special to The Leaven

It wasn’t until I recently lost my wife of 43 years to cancer that I began to plumb the heart-wrenching depths of the rosary’s sorrowful mysteries — I had evolved from an observer of the mysteries to a participant, getting a taste of the brutal weight of Christ’s suffering. The mystery in which I could most relate was the crowning of thorns.

Before the loss of my wife, my contemplation of the mystery centered on the humiliation and degradation suffered by Jesus as he was reviled and mocked, viewed as a delusional fraud who thought himself a king.

But it was during my wife’s prolonged illness that I began to regard the mystery in a different way, through the eyes of Mary and the apostles, resulting in an aspect of the mystery I had never considered: doubt. In my case, a deleterious doubt that was insidiously undermining my faith during my wife’s illness and subsequent death.

I was thoroughly awed by my wife’s steadfast Catholic faith, courage and strength as I watched her, day by agonizing day, slowly deteriorate, her attention always on others, not herself. I, on the other hand, began to be consumed by a crippling fear in which my self-constructed notion of the future was being unexpectedly ripped apart — my reality being turned on its head.

The fear I felt slowly galvanized into doubt, a doubt in which I began to question the existence of a sovereign God who would allow this travesty to happen to such a wonderful person. In my mind, it was cruel and senseless, completely contrary to what I had hoped for our remaining years together.

It was during this time that I began to reflect on the crowning of thorns — a shocking event that turned an expected promising future for the followers of Jesus into an unforeseen nightmare. We must remember that Mary was told by an angel that her son would be “great” and sit on the throne of David. The apostles believed him to be the Messiah, the anointed one designated by God, a king that would rule a realm that would last forever, the apostles James and John even vying for special positions of prestige once Jesus began his kingly rule.

Then, all these expectations were horrifyingly shattered as they witnessed the brutal and farcical spectacle in which Jesus was dressed like a king: clothed in a purple robe, a reed placed in his hand as a scepter, then crowned with lacerating thorns. The man who would be king was being mocked and viewed by the crowd as a pathetic fool and misguided egotist.

To the followers of Jesus, this appalling scene was completely antithetical to the reality they had envisioned; instead of a king’s gold crown, here were thorns that gashed and debased — the height of irony.

Many of the apostles reacted like myself — first fear, then doubt. The apostle Thomas going so far as to demand the manual probing of the resurrected Jesus’ wounds before believing that the bloody catastrophe had somehow resulted in an unimaginable ending.

Mary, on the other hand, always steadfast, fully entered into Jesus’ suffering, pondered the incongruity of it, yet still trusting in the benevolent ultimacy of God’s reality rather than her own. Then the Resurrection, the unexpected, the imponderable twist that transformed what seemed humanly senseless into something miraculously sensible.

As I sat at my wife’s hospital bedside during those last days, it was obvious that she was totally confident in the miraculously sensible, trusting and serene, while I struggled with the seeming senselessness of it all. The reality was that my wife was leaving this world, and regrettably, there was nothing I could do to stop it. Faced with this painful eventuality, I had to ask myself:  How would my wife want me to continue without her?

I soon realized that there were two choices and only two. I could collapse in on myself, insist on my own sensible reality, and devolve into resentment and anger, becoming a poison to those I loved and a painful disappointment to the memory of my wife.

Or I could try and emulate the Blessed Mother and accept the imponderable, believing in the ultimacy of God’s reality. Trust that the crown of thorns would somehow, beyond what the sensible could imagine, be transformed into gold, and that her crucified son, an accused impostor, be transfigured into the promised Messiah.

I chose what my wife had chosen, lived and died by — Mary’s hope and trust over and against the doubt that would surely have led to me becoming the veritable pathetic fool and misguided egotist.

My wife’s last words were: “All will be well.” I cling to those words, hoping that someday I will be blessed enough to see her again.

To think otherwise would be a crown of thorns too heavy to bear.

Doug Fencl is a parishioner of Church of the Ascension in Overland Park.

About the author

The Leaven

The Leaven is the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.

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