Saturday, November 28, 2015

Book Review: "Chiara Corbella Petrillo: A Witness to Joy"

Unusual - that is the word that keeps coming to mind for this book. It may not sound like a compliment, but I assure you that it is. I knew that Michael Lichens, Sophia Institute Press's new editor, had worked hard to bring this Italian bestseller to English audiences; and I now understand why. Chiara Corbella Petrillo: A Witness to Joy is unlike any account of redemptive suffering and God's superabundant grace that I have encountered. Like me, you may have read brief online accounts of Chiara's life: Chiara carried her first two pregnancies to term, knowing that both of her children had developmental abnormalities that would allow them to live only a short time outside her womb. She then welcomed a third, healthy child into the world; but she heroically postponed cancer treatment to do so, and she succumbed to the disease a year later, in 2012. This book is the definitive telling of her story - written at the request of Chiara's husband, Enrico (who provides the Foreword), by the couple that the Lord allowed to intimately share his and Chiara's journey.

This book is unusual because, despite the presence of suffering, it is - from start to finish - a love story. It communicates the young romance that blossomed into a deep, ever-abiding love between Chiara and Enrico - two young Catholics who had put Christ at the center of their lives. Against the backdrop of Assisi and Rome it tells the on-again, off-again, nature of their courtship - the honest struggle Chiara and Enrico faced to move past their own baggage and fears to make a mature commitment to one another on the day of their marriage. This is a couple who took seriously John Paul II's Theology of the Body, with each spouse manifesting Christ's love for the other in their mutual surrender to each other and the absolute joy and love with which they welcomed each of their three children. This book is a story of Divine love - of Christ the Bridegroom's love and the unfathomable mystery of finding union with Him upon the marriage bed of the Cross.

The authors make no attempt to paper over Chiara and Enrico's pain, or seek to soften it with platitudes. They relate Chiara's darkest night and that fleeting moment, a year before her death, when the pain became so intense that she questioned how God could exist if he allowed her to suffer like that. And yet, even in that dark moment, she and Enrico experienced a Presence, a Love, that transcended the excruciating pain. Their story is not well-wishing but testimony - the lived experience of two of our contemporaries: 
"The cross cannot be avoided; because of this, Jesus made it his. Standing before the cross is truly difficult. But you make it much more difficult by refusing it, [because] then he will compel you to take it up" (p. 61). 
"I quit wishing to understand, otherwise I could go crazy. And I am better. Now I am at peace; now I take whatever comes. He knows what he is doing, and up to now He has never disappointed. Later I shall understand" (p.122). 
"Thinking of Jesus' phrase, 'my yoke is sweet and my burden is light,' [Enrico] asked, 'Chiara, is this yoke, this cross, really sweet, as Jesus said?' And Chiara, smiling and turning her glance from the tabernacle to her husband, said in a weak voice, 'Yes, Enrico, it is very sweet'" (p. 152). 
"We are born and we shall never die" (p. 147).
This book is unusual in the way it stays with you. I have found myself thinking about the way I show my love for the members of my family and striving to make it more visible. I have been thinking about the day of my own death and the difficulties that may precede it; and I pray to be focused on the Beloved more than my pain. I think about Jesus, and the way that He loves us fragile, little creatures. Chiara Corbella Petrillo: A Witness to Joy is an unusual little book, highlighting the enormously unusual life we Christians are invited to live in the midst of the world.

My thanks to Charlotte J. Fasi for translating this work into English.

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