Karen Swallow Prior reflects on patience, suffering and books -- after being hit by a bus

Karen Swallow Prior reflects on patience, suffering and books -- after being hit by a bus

While finishing her book, "On Reading Well," Karen Swallow Prior wrote a reflection on patience, suffering and the virtues of one of literature's less celebrated heroines -- Anne Elliot of Jane Austen's final novel, "Persuasion."

The link between patience and suffering, she noted, can be seen in the word "patient," as in someone who is under medical care.

"Suffering is not something that we do well in the modern age," wrote Prior. "It's certainly not something I do well. … Since suffering is inevitable in this world, it might seem silly to consider the willingness to endure it as a virtue. But while suffering is inevitable, we can choose how we bear it. Patient character has everything to do with our will, as opposed to our circumstances."

Days after finishing that book, the Liberty University English professor visited Nashville for work on another project. At the same time, she was involved in a national news story, speaking out as a Southern Baptist on #ChurchToo controversies swirling around Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

Walking to an editorial meeting, Prior stepped into a Nashville crosswalk and was hit by a bus. That was a year ago.

This wasn't a story about a fictional character, with mental images and lessons that could be filed away. This suffering was real, with stabbing pains and scars linked to fractures in her spine, shoulder, ribs and pelvis -- now steadied by a large titanium screw.

But the point of "On Reading Well" -- including her meditation on patience and suffering -- is that great books soak deep into readers, providing wisdom and strength during life's twists and turns. In that book, Prior linked specific books to specific virtues. Prudence, temperance, justice and courage are "cardinal" virtues, while faith, hope and love are "theological" virtues. Finally, there are the seven "heavenly" virtues -- charity, temperance, chastity, diligence, patience, kindness and humility.

"Reading well adds to our life -- not in the way a tool from the hardware store adds to our life," she wrote, but "in the way a friendship adds to our life, altering us forever."

This is why Prior remains convinced that -- in an age of noise, confusion and intolerance -- it's more important than ever for families and congregations to help believers learn to enjoy and absorb great stories from great books.

Patricia Neal and her angels

After her destructive affairs with married men, after the death of her first child, after an accident left her infant son brain-damaged, after the near-fatal strokes that struck months after her 1964 Oscar win for "Hud," actress Patricia Neal faced yet another personal crisis that left her on the verge of collapse. While her marriage to British writer Roald Dahl, the author of children's classics such as "James and Giant Peach," had long been troubled, Neal was shattered when she learned he was having an affair with one of her friends. They divorced in1983.

In her 1988 memoir, "As I Am," Neal admitted: "Frequently my life has been likened to a Greek tragedy, and the actress in me cannot deny that comparison."

That quotation captured the tone of the tributes published after Neal passed away on Aug. 8 at the age of 84. Broadway theaters dimmed their lights in honor of the Tony Award winner and critics sang the praises of one of Hollywood's ultimate survivors, an actress who literally learned to walk and talk again before returning to the screen to earn another Oscar nomination.

But Neal's story contained angels as well as demons. This is obvious in the overlooked passages in "As I Am" that described her conversion to Catholicism and her visits to the cloister of Regina Laudis (Queen of Praise) Abbey in Bethlehem, Conn., where the sisters helped her confess her sorrows and rage.

Finally, the abbess suggested that Neal move into the abbey for a month.

"Lady Abbess," said Neal, "I don't want to join up, you understand?"

The abbess sighed and said, "Believe me, we don't want you to, either. I don't think we could take it for more than a month."

As she arrived, Neal stubbed out the "last cigarette I would ever smoke."

A priest gave her a blessing and, she recalled, "I felt his cross blaze into my forehead. ... I traded my street clothes for the black dress of the postulant and scrubbed off my makeup. I removed the rings from my fingers and covered my hair with a black scarf. I looked at the bare wooden walls of my cell. ... I did not live the exact life of a postulant, but I did my best."

Neal went to church on time, followed the abbey's prayer regime, baked bread, remained silent during meals and, with the help of a spiritual director, began writing the journal that evolved into "As I Am."

Behind closed doors, she unleashed her fury. At one point she screamed so many curses at her counselor that the sister finally cursed right back, urging Neal to be honest about her own faults and mistakes.

The actress finally voiced her secret pain. Monsignor Jim Lisante of Diocese of Rockville Centre (New York) later discussed with Neal the tragedies of her life and asked if there was any one event that she would change.

"She said, 'Forty years ago I became involved with the actor Gary Cooper, and by him I became pregnant. As he was a married man and I was young in Hollywood and not wanting to ruin my career, we chose to have the baby aborted,' " wrote Lisante, at the Creative Minority Report website. "She said, 'Father, alone in the night for over 40 years, I have cried for my child. And if there is one thing I wish I had the courage to do over in my life, I wish I had the courage to have that baby.' "

Several of the obituaries for Neal -- including the New York Times feature -- mentioned this episode in the context of her pain and regret. The Washington Post noted that late in life "she suffered periods of depression and suicidal thoughts before finding peace as a Catholic convert."

In the end, Neal decided that, "God was using my life far beyond any merit of my own making" allowing her to reach out to those who were suffering. "I learned that my damaged brain cannot reclaim what is dead. It has to create totally new pathways that allowed me to make choices I would never have made had I not suffered that stroke -- choices that an infallible voice assures me will be blessed."

One final lesson from the abbess, wrote Neal, stood out: "There is a way to love that remains after everything else is taken from us."

Bullets, Bibles and Big Questions

By age 14, Cassie Griffin had collected a bedroom full of toy frogs, each a playful symbol of her F.R.O.G. motto -- Fully Relying On God. She was tall for her age, which probably made it easier for gunman Larry Gene Ashbrook to target her on that horrific night a decade ago at Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas. Cursing God and Baptists, he stormed into a youth prayer service, firing 100 rounds and exploding a pipe bomb -- leaving seven dead and seven wounded.

At a recent meeting of the Wedgwood deacons, Cassie's father gave his pastor a message for the faithful at the First Baptist in Maryville, Ill., where another disturbed gunman killed the senior pastor while he preached on Sunday, March 8.

"Let those people know that my son is still struggling," the deacon told the Rev. Al Meredith, who preached to the stricken Maryville flock exactly one week after their pastor's death.

This kind of tragedy, said Meredith, is not "something you get over with three points and a poem," a dose of scripture, a verse of "Victory in Jesus" and a proclamation that, "Everything's fine. Let's move on."

There's a "Greek word" for that kind of theology and it's "baloney," he said, preaching where the Rev. Fred Winters bled and died, his Bible blasted apart by one of 27-year-old Terry Joe Sedlacek's first shots. Police have not announced a motive.

"Every day with Jesus is not sweeter than the day before," said Meredith, in a sermon that swung from tears to gospel singing to laughter. "Some days are evil. In fact, the Bible says, 'Stand that you might be able to stand in the evil day.' Last Sunday was an evil day, and our hearts are breaking. ...

"People are going to ask, 'When are you going to get over this?' You're never going to get over this, but by God's grace you're going to get through it. And God will give you joy and peace in the midst of it, in the midst of the tears and the heartache. Have you learned that? You are learning it. It's the praise you give with a broken heart that is the greatest sacrifice you can offer God."

There are few pastors who have faced the challenge of preaching in a sanctuary that has blood on the carpet and bullet holes in the walls. There are few who have had to face the press after this kind of bloodshed, with most of the reporters asking an ancient question that is at the heart of mature faith: "Can you tell us where God is in all of this?"

Meredith, of course, addressed that question when he faced his own shell-shocked flock. That's why the Maryville church asked him to come preach.

Back in 1999, he said: "If God really loves us, if God is all powerful, why in the world did he let this happen? Why does God allow evil to seemingly abound in this world? Why Columbine? ... Why do a million and a half unborn babies have their lives snuffed out before they have a chance to breathe a breath? Why do children die of hunger daily around the world? Why is there pain? Why is there suffering? Why is there mental illness? ... The question is, 'Where is God when we hurt?' "

The reality is that there is no way to avoid suffering. Thus, the crucial test is whether believers can face trials and tribulations without sliding in despair.

Meanwhile, said Meredith, far too many churches are fighting about the "color of the carpet or the music they sing," while suffering people keep looking for some sense of hope -- in this world and the next. It doesn't help that anyone with a television remote can find scores of "health and wealth boys" who claim that true believers will avoid pain and strife altogether.

"Tell that to every saint that's died. Tell that to the saints that are struggling with unmitigated pain," he told the Maryville congregation. "God never promised us a life without trials. As Americans, we want a carefree and happy life. We think that's God's will for our lives. Get a clue. God's will for your life is to make you into the image of His Son, and that only happens through the heartaches and trials of life."