A Sabbatical for Suffering with the Immaculate Conception

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By Jim Dougherty, Catholic Stand, December 8, AD2017 

A year ago when I was 65 and working in Hawaii, I traveled 4,860 miles to Delaware to visit my Dad who had just been hospitalized in a psychiatric hospital. Dad was 90 and was suffering, we later found, from dementia. While I was home, I realized that the house was no longer spick and span as it was on previous visits. Mom had begun falling, too. I thought I should stick around until Dad’s health improved and he and Mom could take better care of themselves, and we could get some help on improving the general condition of their home. This did not occur until I had been in Delaware for 7 months. In the process, I lost my job, which was temporary anyhow. I began to look on my absence from work as a well-deserved sabbatical. Little did I realize then that I was engaged in a sabbatical for suffering.

It was mentally exhausting being responsible for my parents 24 hours a day. My brothers and sisters stopped by and helped out, but I felt it was my duty as the eldest child to be there for my parents.

Also, I had hoped that being back in my boyhood home I could reconnect more deeply with my six siblings, many relatives, and high school friends. But I was too tired at the end of each day to reach out often to family and relatives; they all had their own families to care for anyway; all my friends had moved from the area. I was achingly lonely.

When Dad or Mom were napping, I found I had more time for writing, prayer, and studying. I was finally able to complete my book about the loss of our son when he was 26. I had been working on it for twelve years.

My prayer life became extended but remained dry and taxing. I brought Mom and Dad Holy Communion each day. I taught Dad to say the Divine Mercy Chaplet, which we did for most of Lent.

I studied the lives of the saints, especially St. Francis of Assisi, St. Pope John Paul II and particularly St. Bernadette, to whom our Lady had revealed, “I am the Immaculate Conception”. It had been unheard of for a poor and uneducated 14-year-old girl like Bernadette Soubirous in Lourdes in 1858 to know that our Lady was revealing herself to her in words through the 1854 dogma promulgated on The Immaculate Conception.


My wife and I had been having problems before I left for Delaware. I mistakenly believed that some time away from each other might help our relationship. It did not. I found myself arguing on the phone with my wife as much as when we had been together in Hawaii. This exacerbated my depression, anxiety and bi-polar condition. My meds had to be readjusted. I blew up at my Dad and argued with him like I had done when I was an adolescent. I apologized but was still suffering.

Then, one of my children informed me that my wife felt that I had abandoned her. On top of that, her feeling abandoned was not associated with sadness or hurt, but only a desire to move on with her life, even if it was apart from me.

I had a “panic attack” and decided I had to immediately get back to Hawaii to try to repair things with my wife. Dad was doing better; I was not. When I arrived home in Hawaii, things were tense. After some time, I realized I had to die to myself more than what I had done with my parents and look after my wife’s needs even if I disagreed with her.

Since I have returned to Hawaii, I have not worked for another 5 months. I am still mentally exhausted from being the primary caretaker for Dad and then my 90-year-old Mom. My wife and I are doing better. We have settled into an uncomfortable routine with no more complaints from me. This seems to work for her, and so I have continued to die to myself.

Sabbatical Changed My Life

Soon, my “sabbatical” will reach a full year. I have changed my entire outlook on life in that period.

I have more time so that I can market my book and myself. That takes a lot of effort and creativity, which I have never before devoted to my own work after a career in marketing and fundraising in private education.

I pray a lot for the soul of my son, and for others who have pre-deceased me. My prayer life is not so dry anymore; I am being led by the Holy Spirit to accept my suffering, to even find some joy in it. This has a lot to do with preaching more often as a permanent deacon. I have been allowed to preach three weekends a month now rather than two weekends as in the past.

I usually find the preparation and proclamation of the scriptures in the liturgical rites extremely moving. I sometimes even have a profound experience or “gift” of the presence of the Most Holy Trinity in the process. The joy I experience when I preach, or the quality of preaching, are simply free gifts of God which do not occur because of any special quality I possess.

But I still worry constantly. What if I lose my wife? (She still might want to get on with her life, even though she is now in declining health.) What if my book does not sell well? What if I cannot prepare my monthly column for Catholic Stand? What if God decides to take away my joy in preaching? What if we run out of money?

I had to have my meds adjusted once again because of my increased depression and anxiety. I take this to be a suffering that God is helping me through, both by meds and by His special graces.

“Why are you downcast, my soul;

why do you groan within me?

Wait for God, for I shall again praise him,

my savior and my God.” (Psalm 42:6).

The Immaculate Conception

I now am spending more time studying. I have been inspired to better understand St. Maximilian Kolbe’s theology on The Immaculate Conception. It is really fascinating.

St. Maximilian found that having an appreciation for the Immaculate Conception of Mary led to a better understanding of the inner life of the Most Holy Trinity. As the Church taught, Mary was given a singular grace, prevenient grace, to be preserved from original sin and conceived in grace in her Immaculate Conception. The Holy Spirit was present in her from her Immaculate Conception. This relationship, now a spousal one, was confirmed when “…the angel said to her in reply, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God’” (Luke 1:35).

In the words of St. Maximilian from February 17, 1941, just minutes before he was arrested by the Gestapo:

This eternal Immaculate Conception (which is the Holy Spirit) produces, in an immaculate manner, divine life itself in the womb (or depths) of Mary’s soul, making her the Immaculate Conception, the human Immaculate Conception. The virginal womb of Mary’s body is kept sacred for him: there he conceives in time – because everything that is material happens in time – the human life of the Man-God.

In this spousal union of two immaculate conceptions, one divine and one human, all grace from the Trinity flowed through the Holy Spirit to Mary as the spouse, and all prayers from the faithful returned to the Most Holy Trinity through Mary and the Holy Spirit. These graces additionally flow from the Father to the Son and return to the Father through the Son.

There’s still a lot to fathom about The Immaculate Conception. It is a mystery so profound that many sabbaticals and all eternity could be spent exploring it. It illuminates the Trinity and confounds my depression, helping me to hunger instead for the beatific vision in eternity when all be revealed, which is another profound mystery.


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About the Author: 

Deacon Jim Dougherty is a married permanent deacon for the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity (SOLT) serving in the Diocese of Honolulu. Dougherty has a doctorate in Interdisciplinary Studies.
For 27 years, he served as executive director of the DeLaSalle Education Center in Kansas City, Missouri, a national model of excellence in education for central-city high school students.
Dougherty has recently published a spiritual memoir about his son’s death entitled: A Place for Us to Meet. The book is available at https://www.amazon.com/dp/1549858076/
He and Karol have been married 43 years and have four children and six grandchildren.