‘Be Brave in the Scared’ memoir urges trust in God during life’s most difficult days

Reviewed by Nancy Piccione 

There’s a well-known, if not necessarily true, story about St. Teresa of Avila, the 16th-century mystic Carmelite. The account goes that when experiencing a physical setback (I heard it once as when she fell off her horse into the mud), she complained to God, and he told her, “Fear not! This is how I treat my friends.” To which St. Teresa replied, “If this is how you treat your friends, no wonder that you have so few.”

For some reason this story has always vexed me, for a number of reasons.

(An interesting digression: Diocesan priest Father Geoff Horton has an absorbing and well-researched blog for those of us interested in the veracity of quotes by saints and others.  It’s called “Fauxtations” and its tagline is nearly perfect: “Because sometimes the Internet is wrong.” Father Horton calls the St. Teresa quote dubious.)

Why don’t I like this St. Teresa story? One, it seems to imply that God was “making” St. Teresa fall into the mud, and we know that’s not how God works. He doesn’t cause our sufferings, whether natural or human-made. The mystery of evil is just that. A mystery.

But probably even more annoying to me is the notion that somehow God’s friends will experience more setbacks and crosses than the average person. This is obviously false, as bad and good things happen to good people, bad people, and mediocre people. The rain falls on the just and unjust alike, the Gospel of Matthew tells us.

A COMPELLING STORY

And yet, “If this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few,” popped up more than once as I read “Be Brave in the Scared: How I Learned to Trust God in the Most Difficult Days of My Life,” Mary Lenaburg’s excellent, intense memoir of her family’s life experiencing the challenges of her severely disabled daughter’s life and death, and how her marriage and family nearly didn’t survive it.

Not that Lenaburg and her family experienced the sufferings they did because they were (or weren’t) friends of God, but how she allowed the sufferings to mature her spiritually, and how her life changed as a result.

Why read this book? There are a lot of good reasons.

First, it’s a well-written and compelling story. Even though I’ve followed Lenaburg on social media for years, I’ve met her at several Catholic women’s conferences, I’ve heard her speak at a retreat, and I know her story well, I raced through each chapter to find out what would happen next, even though I know what happened next.

Despite the tough subject matters covered, there’s a lot of humor in “Be Brave in the Scared.” That humor starts with Jerry Lenaburg recounting in his forward to the book that he said the book’s working title should be called, “Well, That Didn’t Go as Planned.” But Lenaburg herself has a lot of funny asides and wry observations that help balance the intensity of the subject matter.

The book tells in a chronological way Lenaburg’s life as a not-very-observant Catholic to a mother who trusts and relies on the Lord more and more. It is unflinchingly honest about her marriage and other struggles, which is why I wouldn’t recommend the book for younger readers.

LEADS TO SPIRITUAL GROWTH

Second, it’s a spiritual memoir of sorts, in which Lenaburg explains how she felt one way about God — that he was punishing her for bad decisions; that He didn’t want her to be happy because she had sinned; that He was far from her. But over time, and with prayer, her views transform as she allows herself to grow through her sufferings, her mistakes, and rely on God’s grace, mercy, and healing, and recognize He was with her, and loving Her just as she was, in the midst of all her struggles and suffering.

Third, for the reader wanting to experience the book as a retreat of sorts, the end of each chapter offers a short reader-facing section on the chapter’s theme, a Scripture quote, and a journaling page for reflections.

For instance, at the end of the chapter “Sacrifice & Self Gift,” Mary writes of  “Do you expect God’s grace to produce immediate results?” and offers more prompts for journaling, along with the Scripture passage Romans 3:23-25.

Finally, through Mary’s mature and hard-won insights, “Be Brave in the Scared” helps readers themselves to explore the mystery of suffering. God does not cause our suffering. He doesn’t give more suffering to those who follow Him, but invites everyone who experiences sufferings and bad things to deepen their trust in God and experience His comfort.  This book could be especially helpful for moms to read, as many moms (myself included) have times when we feel like failures or not equipped for our vital role as parents.

As Mary writes in the chapter, “Mercy in the Mess”:

“We will have hardships in this world, but Jesus came into the world to enter into the depths of our lives — the emptiness, abandonment, betrayal, loneliness, physical pain — for the sole purpose of transforming us. Why would the Creator of the world do this for us? To redeem us. When we embrace our suffering, everything changes.”

NANCY PICCIONE is a member of St. Jude Parish in Peoria and is a member of The Catholic Post’s six-member book review team.  She recently established her own business, Clarus Money Coaching.  Nancy edited The Catholic Post’s book page for eight years. Learn more about Nancy’s interests and view her past book reviews at her blog, Reading Catholic.

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