Lace-edged rumours wafted through the student campus in Sagunto, Spain: Devin, one of the American boys who had come to Spain for a year of study, was dating Teresa, a second-year theology student who was hard to miss. Her striking beauty and cheerful nature attracted gazes like a magnet. No one suspected then, not even the protagonists of this relationship, that their love story would be in the spotlight (and in the prayers) of many people for three years, woven with threads of beauty, hope, and suffering.
Teresa was from Portugal, but her passion for theology had brought her to Sagunto. Devin lived in North Carolina, but the year of study in Sagunto was meant to familiarise him with Europe and the sound of the Spanish language. The summer vacation found the two in a relationship that had been going on for several months, but which was about to change, along with the end of the academic year, into a far less satisfying territory. At least for a while, theirs would have to be a long-distance relationship, because Teresa had just finished her second year of studies.
However, dark clouds gathered on the horizon laden with bad news, completely at odds with the bright future that the two lovers had envisioned. Teresa was diagnosed with breast cancer, and subsequent investigations revealed that it was stage 4 cancer. Devin decided to leave for Portugal for three months and be by Teresa’s side during her first chemotherapy sessions.
The following two years would be a back-and-forth journey between two continents, with Devin and Teresa meeting in Portugal and North Carolina, all the while their love aiming for eternity. If I remember one thing about Teresa’s posts during that time, it’s the intense hope that radiated from her every word. Her expressions consistently laid claim to the promises of Scripture and celebrated her joy in having met Devin, whom she described as a true hero of love that doesn’t falter in stormy weather. “When my world was falling apart, God gave me a wonderful gift, so I can smile,” Teresa wrote at the beginning of 2013.
The photos from their engagement celebration in the United States portrayed a Teresa visibly marked by the relentless attacks of the disease and the aggressiveness of medical treatments. Yet, the same spark of joy and beauty remained on her face. Devin was so proud of the love of his life. One could already hear the wedding bells ringing. The arduous back-and-forth between two continents was about to come to an end. During their final trip to Portugal in the spring of 2014, Devin asked Teresa to be his wife. Soon after, Teresa arrived in America, welcomed by a family that already treated her as their own, to prepare for the long-awaited wedding.
However, their wedding plans had barely taken shape when a wave of grim news hit the couple again. The tumour had spread to Teresa’s bones and brain, disrupting the fragile balance that her body had maintained. Instead of stepping towards the altar, Teresa and Devin plunged into a final battle with the treacherous foe that refused to cede an inch of the nearly conquered territory. Nine months later, on June 22, 2015, Devin informed his friends through Facebook that his fiancée had passed away.
A touching love story came to a premature end, reminding acquaintances, as if it needed any more reminding, that not all relationships have the neatly tied up epilogue of childhood fairy tales: “And they lived happily ever after…”. Happiness, as we imagine and desire it, is more often the privilege of realms with the breath of angels than of a world aged by suffering.
A tiresome yet ever-fresh question: “Why?”
Whenever our careful efforts to avoid the impact of pain fail, the most worn-out questions on a planet scarred by suffering resurface: “Why is this happening?” / “Why to me?” / “Why now?”
We are confused because suffering defies the boundaries between good and evil, justice and injustice, guilt and innocence, as it “does not follow strict standards of rationality or clear patterns of predictability.”
Suffering not only triggers agonising questions and dilemmas but severely tests or even upends all the certainties of its witnesses, and most importantly, its victims. And the certainties regarding God are probably the first to undergo reevaluation.
John Donne, the English poet, lawyer, and preacher who shepherded London’s largest church in the 17th century, St. Paul’s Cathedral, experienced all the fears, excitements, and interrogations that suffering begets. After a tumultuous life, marked by multiple losses (he lost his brother during his religious detention and five children, including an 18-year-old daughter), Donne was ordained as an Anglican priest at the age of 42. Two years later, his wife passed away, leaving behind seven children. Donne officiated at her funeral, choosing the prophet Jeremiah’s statement as a motto: “I am the man who has seen affliction by the rod of the Lord’s wrath.”
Only six years later, Donne began to show symptoms of the plague—or at least that’s how he was diagnosed by the doctors of his time. The diagnosis was by no means a surprise: three waves of plague had already struck London, with the latest one killing a third of its inhabitants. It was time for the Anglican priest to grapple with God in the letters-meditations he wrote, which would later be compiled into a book, “Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions.”
“Variable, and therefore miserable condition of Man!” Donne lamented in his first meditation. Uprooted from a life that had finally found its peace and purpose, he compared himself to a sailor tossed about by a storm, with no intention of reaching the shore. He was forced to live his fears in the solitude imposed by the nature of his illness—the danger of contagion kept visitors away, and even the doctor arrived infrequently. It was as if he had already died, but even worse, he realised. If he were dead, others would find an antidote to prevent the disease from spreading: burial. As long as he was alive, the only solution was their absence, which plunged the patient into a loneliness steeped in fears.
Fearful of the imminent death, wrestling with his own “whys,” Donne wondered if he was abandoned by God to the same extent that he was forsaken by his fellow humans. Could it still be possible that God was there, with him, sharing the detestable conditions of quarantine?
Despite his attempts to identify the reasons for his suffering, which kept hitting closed doors, he found other answers, just as crucial. Tormented by the guilt of his past and the idea that illness and death were a punishment for his sins, Donne concluded, meditating on the life of Job: “Certainly it is not You, nor is it Your hand.” God had not been behind the fire, the deadly wind, the attacks by the Sabeans and Chaldeans who had stripped Job of everything, even though Job had initially interpreted the situation in this way.
Donne realised that his suffering was not a punitive measure with the Divine signature on it, which helped him advance through the tangle of his fears, guided by the light that had always been there. “Although a servant so unruly as I might be afraid to die, at a master so merciful as You I am not afraid to come,” Donne says, aware that he stood on the threshold between life and death.
The Anglican priest’s struggle took a different turn in the weeks when fever nailed him to his bed. If at the beginning of his illness, he expressed his desire to “grapple with God,” he ended up surrendering himself into God’s hands, regardless of what the future would bring (which would ultimately record his healing). Donne dissolved all his painful questions about life and death in the certainty of a love that provides meaning and hope.
Love stories don’t only live on book pages
Love is the lens through which Devin views the entire score of an experience he considers the toughest of all he’s lived through. Even on the day Teresa passed away, the words with which Devin announced the sad event breathed gratitude and trust, not despair. “One of God’s lights has gone out in this world. Teresa Mendes passed away this morning. (…) She showed me so much love and she showed me God,” said Devin in June 2015. He mentioned that Teresa was the most amazing person he had ever known and that he would always be thankful for the blessing of having had her in his life, even under those circumstances.
A year later, Devin renewed his gratitude for being a part of Teresa’s life for three years. In a social media post, he emphasised that God was the one he had leaned on in those last four years—the same God in whom Teresa had put her trust during her prolonged suffering.
What’s truly astonishing is that Devin never once mentioned being disappointed by the One who didn’t intervene to change the course of events. I asked Devin if he ever doubted God’s goodness as things spiralled towards an unwanted conclusion. “Never,” came the reply. Although he doesn’t know where he found the strength and courage—in the right dose for each day—a certainty was solidified in the midst of his experience: “I knew God was always there and that He was good. I still know that today.” Devin states that he navigated each stage relying solely on God, fully aware that he didn’t possess the resources to handle it alone, that He granted him peace and strength whenever he felt he couldn’t go on.
Devin is convinced that his prayers were not ignored by the One who watched over a relationship in which beauty and pain were almost constantly intertwined. Some prayers, requesting Teresa’s soulful peace and comfort in the agonising stages of her illness, received an immediate response. Others, related to healing, God will answer in His time, in His terms, when He brings Teresa back to life for eternal health and youth. “God is good, and in the future, we will understand this much better,” Devin wrote to me.
In response to the question of whether he had ever considered ending a relationship that would inevitably bring him profound pain, Devin replied that leaving his beloved was never an option. “Love doesn’t choose between leaving or staying. Love stays and learns how to live in the conditions life offers.” Perhaps, in the end, this is the composite sketch of authentic love.
When love is the Answer
As humans, we yearn for the bright tones of happy endings. However, life offers no guarantees that the future will flow gently along the path of untroubled happiness, nor does it deliver definitive answers to the piercing dilemmas and pains of the past. There is only one certainty, succinctly echoed by Devin in his correspondence: “God is so good!” Some may challenge this conclusion because suffering has pushed them into the solitude of an igloo where no one, not even (or especially not even) God, is welcome. Others may deem the idea that divine love still pulses through the tissues of a humanity submerged in suffering as naive. But for the protagonists of this relationship severed in its dawn, the love of God was the knot that tied together all their feelings, hopes, and fears.
The love story between Teresa and Devin did not have the happy ending they had hoped for together with their families, or the multitude of friends and acquaintances who prayed for them as hopeful news intersected with discouraging updates.
In one of her last posts on the Facebook page that hosted all the public details of her battle with cancer, Teresa posted a Bible verse revealing that her hope was tied to something more certain than the long-awaited healing: “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Psalm 73:26).
According to Devin, all the elements of heavy suffering pass through the axis of love. Teresa’s love revealed God to him, and God’s love enabled him to endure each day as the prospect of parting became increasingly clear.
When he speaks about his former fiancée, Devin does so with the same unmistakable shades of love. She loved God, he wrote, and she loved people with a “beautiful and fearless” love.
In this entire picture, it seems simpler to distinguish human love from the love of a God who remains silent when a sign, an answer, a miracle is sought.
The truth is, just as Teresa and Devin didn’t receive all the answers, neither do we. We possess nothing more (and nothing less) than the assurances of a past in which God stepped into our world to absorb all the suffering we could heap upon Him, and the promises of a future in which tears will be permanently wiped away. And in the nebulous space between them, the image of the One who was made sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:21) is taking shape, bearing in His body all the splinters of our pain. His life and death are offered as the Answer to all our spoken and hidden questions until the time comes when we will see Him as clearly as we are seen by Him.
Teresa’s story, as her fiancé firmly believed, did not conclude on that June day. If everyone’s life is just a chapter in a vast volume by a great Author, then the final chapter of her story has not been written yet.
Though we don’t know all the details about this ending, the fact that the Author Himself consented to become a Character in the drama of suffering guarantees that its radiance will surpass everything ever experienced or imagined.