Littlest Suffering Souls
Littlest Suffering Souls brings us six stories of children who amazed their elders in the way they endured suffering with joy. The book is divided into nine sections: an introduction, three stories, Ruse’s reflections on suffering in Section 5, three more stories, and a conclusion. The first three stories center on children slightly better known. Ellen Orgon and Antonietta Meo have attracted the attention of the Congregation of the Causes for Saints. Mary Ann Long is known to many because southern author Flannery O’Connor wrote about her. Brendan Kelly, Margaret Leo, and Audrey Stevenson are lesser known children, born in the last few decades.
Sometimes the extraordinary joy of the saints makes us feel as if they live in different worlds. These children may or may not be saints. They certainly experience incredible joy, but Ruse is at pains to demonstrate that these children are normal, regular, and relatable. Nellie loves flowers. Mary Ann gets a dog she gives the feisty name of “Scrappy.” Margaret likes macaroni and cheese. Audrey is always the first one in the pool. My favorite story concerns Brendan, whose leukemia and its treatment make urinating a life and death matter for the two-year-old boy. After a terrible scare, the toddler manages to urinate. A lot. Brendan is suffused with giggles; he is after all, a pretty normal little boy.
Yes, these children experience supernatural joy. But this does not set them apart from regular experience. God wanted these children to understand that they were loved, as we all are, even if our suffering suggests otherwise. We see them experiencing God’s love, either mystically or in simple ways. The Baby Jesus danced for Nellie. At six years, Antonietta has a better understanding of grace than most. Mary Ann is brought to tears in her happiness at receiving the Eucharist. Multiple experiences suggested that Brendan had conversations with Jesus and special protection from his guardian angel. Margaret has no mystical experiences, just a profoundly unshakeable connection to God. Upon hearing the leukemia diagnosis, eight-year-old Audrey replies “We’re going to be like the birds in the sky. And we’re just going to take one day at a time.” Although suffering terribly, these children experience the love of God, and that experience gives them happiness.
Remembering that these children were normal is important. It helps us see we are all loved as extravagantly as these children were loved by God. Although suffering may suggest God has rejected us, Littlest Suffering Souls inspires a hope that perhaps God loves us just as abundantly and is waiting to lavish similar experiences of his concern on us. For someone suffering, that is an important message.
Littlest Suffering Souls also teaches us how to accompany the suffering, particularly in Brendan Kelly’s story. Like him, you could draw people out and help them talk about their suffering. You could comfort them and try to make them laugh. You could tell them about how God loves them as Brendan did. And this lesson in accompaniment is probably the most important reason for reading Ruse’s book.
So I was a little surprised that Ruse did not draw out the importance of helping the suffering to see God’s love for them, which seems to be the key insight not only from Brendan’s story but from all the stories. Ruse addresses the problem of pain most thoroughly and directly in Section 5, “Blessed Be Pain, Sanctified Be Pain.” He relates atheist Stephen Fry’s statement “Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world that is so full of injustice and pain?” Ruse closes with Bishop Barron’s insight, drawn from the book of Job, that human beings simply cannot see the bigger picture.
However, section 5, as well as the conclusion on lessons to be learned from the book, misses the one conviction necessary for grappling with suffering. People cannot embrace the Church’s teaching on pain, redemptive suffering, and reparation, etc., all of which Ruse explains well, without certainty that God loves them. Suffering makes people question whether God loves them, and unless they can be sure of that, they are often unable to hear the rest of the teaching about suffering.
In addition, while the stories might be able to disarm and console the sufferer, the reader must first encounter passages such as: “What little pain it takes us to howl and hustle for the aspirin, or things even stronger, to dull the pain. How even the littlest inconveniences of the day can overwhelm us and upset us. How happiness can turn to sorrow over the most insignificant things.”
This passage suggests that Ruse is addressing an audience of readers who do not suffer very much. So this raises the question: who is the proper audience for Ruse’s book? This book will make sense to those who have a firm conviction in God’s love for them. However, those who suffer, including believers, are at particular risk for doubting God’s love. So this book may be a harder read for those who are suffering.
Nevertheless, while I was left uncertain about whether I would recommend this book to anyone suffering, stories like Brendan Kelly’s left me no uncertainty about how to accompany the suffering. Suffering is a mystery, and there is no better way to explore it than through the real experience of suffering, as Ruse has done. Ruse is absolutely correct in asserting that these stories need to reach a wider audience; readers will be grateful for coming to know these remarkable children.