Sacrament of the Sick
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Blessings from Lourdes, by Jim Benjamin
If I had ever thought about it I would probably have said that three children were about the right number for a family. My opinion would have been based on the fact that I grew up with two brothers, and we had, therefore, a “normal” family. But as it was I gave the matter no thought at all, busy as I was with getting through college then medical school, spending time with friends, dating, studying and playing sports.
My wife, however, had thought and dreamed about her future family quite a bit. Joan Marie came from a much larger family that I did, with seven siblings and, naturally, expected that her own family would be large. Herein lies the foundation for some marital discord.
We did, indeed, have three children in about six years and I guess I thought we were done. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy being a dad. I did. For someone who had no experience with little children while I was growing up, I became a fast learner, participating fully in giving baths, changing diapers and learning the various other tasks to support my wife who did the heavy lifting of child rearing.
Around this time we became involved in Marriage Encounter, becoming a team couple and then going on to train other teams. We used the communication tool of dialogue that we had been taught and that we had taught others, as we worked through our disagreement about our family size, my fears that we would not be able to support more children than we already had and my wife’s deep desire to have a large family. We dialogued, and dialogued, and dialogued. Eventually I was able to experience her profound yearning for more children at least to some degree, and through God’s grace I found myself first in alignment with her desire, then actually becoming enthusiastic about increasing our family.
To ease my fear about how I would support them all, I called my father-in-law. After all he had managed to put eight through college and I suspected he had a master plan. To my surprise his “master plan” was to tell me that each of his children’s financial challenges had worked out differently and that I ought to trust in God, as he had, and he was sure everything would work out. When he said that, I felt the ground dropping away beneath my feet, as I realized I would have to make a leap of faith. I had been hoping for some surefire program that would relieve me of my financial worries and what I got was, “just trust God and it will be OK.”
I said to myself, well let’s go along with this program, such as it is, and see how it works out. As time went on, months stretched into years and the children that had always come along so easily now were not coming along at all. After several years we decided to go through a fertility evaluation and we were very surprised to find out that Joan had somehow contracted endometriosis. Unlike many women her condition was totally without symptoms but the end result was that her fallopian tubes had become so scarred that even air could not pass through them. It appeared that we would get my original perfect family of three children and no more.
Then I encountered a force of nature called my wife’s determination. She began systematically to do all that was possible humanly and technologically to have those additional children join us. The first step was to contact her gynecologist who had recently begun doing tuboplasties for women in similar situations. He was able to repair one of the tubes but the ovary on that side was also diseased and had to be removed. That meant that future fertilized eggs would have to make their way to the opposite tube on their way to the uterus. As if that weren’t enough, he warned us that the surgery would probably keep the tube open for about six months; after that the scarring would most likely come back. Unfortunately six months came and went without a pregnancy.
The next step was to attempt adoption. After the expenditure of time, effort and money, as any adoptive couple knows, we eventually were in line to receive children first from Vietnam and later from El Salvador. In each case, as we moved ever closer to becoming adoptive parents, internal barriers arose in those countries that closed this door to parenthood as well.
As you might imagine, my wife and I went through a period of emotional swings that resembled a roller coaster. Each time she saw a pregnant women it was as if a knife was stabbing her. Meanwhile I did my best to support her even though my own faith seemed to be wavering at times. Why was this process so difficult? Why did all our plans not work out?
By this time we had also been attending charismatic prayer meetings in our parish. We were baptized in the Spirit and for me, this became a time of learning to pray in a new way. By nature introspective and non demonstrative, I found charismatic prayer to be an opening for me to be more expressive and free in my prayer life. We met new friends who offered to pray for our healing and we gratefully accepted their prayers.
In the midst of this time of prayer for healing and emotional turmoil, the Marriage Encounter community in the entire U.S. was planning a pilgrimage to Lourdes and Rome as a celebration of the Jubilee Year of 1975. When my wife learned about this trip, she focused on Lourdes as the place where she would be healed. When the time came we and about 2000 other ME couples and priests traveled to Southern France and the shrine of Lourdes.
We entered the holy ground of the grotto the morning after we arrived in Lourdes. Hymns to Mary were being sung outdoors almost continually. The atmosphere there was hushed, prayerful and supportive. We could see local boy scouts wheeling people who were unable to walk to the healing waters.
My wife got in line to bathe in the water. We only had one day to spend at Lourdes and one chance to enter the healing bath. As it turned out, my wife gave her place in line to a young woman who was going blind, and nearly missed entering the bath herself because time was running out. But God was not to abandon us at this point. She was helped into the bath by some caring volunteers. Not being English speakers, they wanted her to indicate what part of her needed healing and she pointed to her stomach. For her these moments in the bath at Lourdes were among the most profound in her life. The women gently helped her lie down in the shallow water so that her stomach was covered. Then they helped her up so that she could get dressed.
When I met her outside the bath she had been so affected by her experience that she was unable to speak. All I could think to ask was whether she thought she had been healed. With tears running down her cheeks she nodded yes.
Our spiritual journey continued, though, after we returned home. She did not get pregnant immediately as we had expected. After several months went by our spirits were starting to sink again but I happened to come across a series of books. I still remember the titles, “Prison to Praise” and “Power in Praise.” The gist of the powerful message was that after we’ve prayed for a miracle, that we should then begin praising God even though the miracle has not yet manifested itself. Our faith tells us that He has heard our prayer and that it will be answered. God in His mercy had sent the right books to us at the right time. We began praying in that way, praising God each day for the miracle He had wrought for us and in us.
It seemed as though this was the final step in our learning how to pray for a miracle. Our fourth child was born on Thanksgiving Day in 1976. Throughout that pregnancy and afterwards, Joan and I have told many people about God’s gracious intervention in our lives, bringing us the precious gift of Amy. She joined the other precious gifts of our older children, Jim, Debbie and Chris.
Our gynecologist had been skeptical in the beginning when Joan came in for her first prenatal check. He was convinced that she had a tubal pregnancy, but Joan informed him, in words that she has often repeated, “when God heals, He heals!” After Amy we had Jennifer then Patrick. We did lose Patrick’s twin, whom we named Tomas. Our faith in the communion of saints tells Joan and me that Tomas has been looking out for his brother throughout his life.
But God had more in store for us.
Fast forward 38 years. Jennifer is now a practicing neonatologist and in 2014 she and Ryan married. My daughter is one of those people who plans everything in advance. She had been thinking about her wedding, what kind of house she would have and how many children she would have from the time she was in middle school. Her husband was totally supportive from the beginning, agreeing that they would start their family right away. At the time of their wedding Jennifer was closer to 40 than she was to 30 and they both were well aware that her biological clock was ticking.
She and Ryan became increasingly dismayed when her plans went awry. She had no trouble becoming pregnant, but she could not keep the pregnancies. Miscarriage after miscarriage occurred, with all the grieving, anger, disappointment and distress that you might expect. As a physician herself she had access to the best specialists and the most advanced diagnostic techniques, but the miscarriages continued. Nothing they or their physicians tried was effective. My wife and I shared their pain since we had gone our own period of sterility. We were all storming heaven with our prayers. The breakthrough, though, was about to come.
Our entire family was at our home for Christmas in 2015, all 25 of us. One of the last gifts that was opened that day was from Ryan to Jennifer. It was a necklace with an Eiffel Tower pendant and a map from Paris to Lourdes that she at first did not understand until she saw the plane tickets to Paris. What a time of joy and tears in our family! What a magnificent gift from Ryan to Jen!
They traveled to Paris and Lourdes over Valentine’s Day, 2016. Neither one of them was sure what to expect though they had read about Lourdes and had researched the place online. They also had heard our story but, when they finally arrived in the town early on a rainy morning in February, they were somewhat disoriented, had no idea where the grotto was and were unsure what to do next. They attended an early morning Mass and a communal Rosary, where Ryan was invited to lead the group in a decade. The pair then found their way to the baths and Jennifer went in. He asked her if she would be OK and she smiled yes. Ryan waited outside as I had for Joan years earlier. He walked along the river which ran past the area of the baths, and prayed for his wife to be healed.
She was surprised at how cold the water was. The women who helped her did not speak English, but her time in the healing bath was over very quickly and without any difficulty. She remembers praying, “heal me Lord, heal me Mary” throughout her experience.
They met and embraced after she emerged from the bath area. Both felt hopeful and cautiously optimistic. Ryan felt humbled to be in the presence of Jennifer’s strong faith. He had felt himself steered to Lourdes and had known that he couldn’t just go through the motions while he was there. Their prayers continued after they arrived home.
For months I had been praying to St. Gerard, the patron saint of marriage, for his intervention so that she would become pregnant again. After they returned from Lourdes but before any of us knew she was pregnant, I received a strong message one evening when I was praying to St. Gerard. The message was to shift my prayer that she would become pregnant to a prayer for the health of the baby and her mother. I was being retaught the lesson I had learned 40 years ago about trusting in the miracle before there is evidence of it. And so I began praying to St. Gerard every night to protect this child and her mother, to keep them both safe throughout this pregnancy. This kind of prayer is not easy or natural, at least for me. I had to keep reminding myself to trust God, to trust that healing could happen again, to believe indeed that it had already happened in the wonderful place where the Blessed Mother had appeared to the 14 year old Bernadette Soubirous in 1858, that place where so many others had also experienced miracles of healing.
As soon as they knew she was pregnant, all of us began to rejoice. I think, though, that my wife was the only one of us four who rejoiced without any reservations. She again was living by her belief that “when God heals, He heals!” The rest of us were more cautious, perhaps Jennifer and me even more than Ryan since we had a physician’s knowledge of what could go wrong in the coming months.
All of our prayers for Jennifer’s and the baby’s safety were answered, though we all had some anxious moments during the delivery when Everly’s shoulder got stuck and she was born blue and not breathing. The medical staff was superb throughout the delivery and they got her breathing going without delay.
Now we are praising God and the Blessed Mother for another gift from Lourdes. We four and others in our family have found our faith to be strengthened because of the blessings of new life we have received there. It is my hope that others will have their faith renewed that miracles still do happen, and that ordinary people can receive extraordinary blessings.
Jim Benjamin is a physician and deacon in the Archdiocese of Baltimore. He lives with his wife in Columbia, MD where they raised their six children.