During the first week of my long retreat I was having disturbingly vivid dreams about wounded children. Every morning I’d awake having dreamt of kids in hospital beds, kids with swollen limbs, kids with gaping wounds that covered their bodies. Terrible. At the time I thought that these dreams might be the bubbling up of pre-conscious memories of my own early hospitalization.
When I was 13 months old I contracted spinal meningitis. I had to undergo innumerable painful procedures at the hands of those who meant to love and care for me. And those procedures were life saving, but that fact would have certainly been incomprehensible to me at the time. All this to say, I learned very early in life that the ones we love have a great power over us, including the power to wound us.
My mother describes these experience as some of the most difficult in her life. She’s told me how she held me, her infant son, in her arms as the doctor cut into my ankle to access an artery so that I could be given I.V. meds after my tiny veins had begun to collapse. I imagine that much of what I must have known at the time was pain and fear. And thirty years later I was having graphic dreams of wounded children.
I was troubled most by the children’s lack of understanding and by my own inability to explain to my infant self why he was suffering. All I could do was cry and mutter in the silence, “He’s suffering and he doesn’t know why… He’s suffering… He doesn’t know why…”.
The 1st week of the Spiritual Exercises is intended to be an extended meditation on our own sinfulness (it even includes a meditation on hell). But one particular prayer during the 1st week St. Ignatius instructs the director to encourage the retreatant to imagine hell in all of its sensory detail—sights, sounds, and smells. I’d shared these dreams with my director, who creatively made use of these dreams of mine with a simple suggestion. Instead of pushing me on a forced march through an abstract fiery landscape he said only, “It sounds like you need to pray about what the world does to children.” These simple words—‘what the world does to children’—broke me open. I immediately left the room, went straight to the house chapel, and began to weep.
However, before the 1st Week had even begun, all retreatants pray a prayer Ignatius titles the 1st Principle and Foundation. This is very important. This is what eventually ended my weeping. It’s so important because the Principle and Foundation makes us see that the point of praying about hell is not to be immersed in sin, in pain or in suffering. The point of meditating on hell is not to see only what the world does to children, but to see the love and grace that made us children in the first place, to see the merciful love that redeems us in the end.
The point is this: we must see the fact of our sinfulness, the reality of our pain, only in light of God’s love. It is only in light of God’s merciful act of salvation from creation to the end of time that we can look at things as painful as the suffering of children. I suppose you could say we must begin with the fact that there are children, that we are children. And that is wonderful place to start.
To this day I have a scar on my ankle from the procedure that saved my young life. The scar has stretched (it’s probably wider now than my entire ankle was then), and so have I.
My mom tells the story as proof of love, of how hard it was to think of losing me, but for too long I knew only the scar. I had no memory of her arms holding me, of her empathetic tears. Those horrible dreams of wounded children were, in the end, a real gift to me, an invitation to remember not only what the world does to children, but an invitation never to forget the love that held us close through our suffering, a love that made us children in the first place.