Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Kayla Mueller's Encounter with a Suffering God

Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Kayla Mueller's Encounter with a Suffering God

Article excerpt

When Kayla Mueller's death was confirmed Feb. 10, statements from political leaders, including President Barack Obama and former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, offered litanies of the good works performed by the 26-year-old captive of Islamic State militants.

After she graduated college in 2009, Mueller worked with humanitarian aid groups in northern India, Israel and Palestine. She returned home to Arizona for a year, spending her time at an HIV/AIDS clinic and volunteering at a women's shelter at night.

In 2012, the war in Syria and its resulting refugee crisis compelled Mueller to travel to the Syrian-Turkish border, where she worked with Support to Life and other humanitarian organizations. Her local Arizona newspaper chronicled her work with Syrian children. The article describes her playing, painting and drawing with children in refugee camps, and recounts an incident where she was able to reunite a man with a 6-year-old family member after a bombing.

"For as long as I live, I will not let this suffering be normal. [I will not let this be] something we just accept," Mueller told the reporter at the time. "It's important to stop and realize what we have, why we have it, and how privileged we are."

In August 2013, two months after that article was published, Mueller was kidnapped as she was en route to catch a bus to Turkey after leaving a hospital in Aleppo.

Since the announcement of her death, a common refrain has been that Mueller did more in her 26 years than many do in a lifetime. That certainly is true. But I also believe that Mueller was able to grasp a deeper understanding of God than most people do diming their lifetimes.

That truth became clear in the statement released by Kayla Mueller's family soon after her death. It begins quoting a letter that she wrote to her father on his birthday in 2011:

I find God in the suffering eyes reflected in mine. If this is how you are revealed to me, this is how I will forever seek you.

I will always seek God. Some people find God in church. Some people find God in nature. Some people find God in love; I find God in suffering. I've known for some time what my life's work is, using my hands as tools to relieve suffering.

Mueller was 23 when she wrote those words. To encounter God in joy, peace and love is its own spiritual gift, but to see God's face in the eyes of those who suffer unspeakable violence and desolation is a charism that is rare at any age. I'm not sure that even great spiritual writers like Dorothy Day and Elie Wiesel came to such a realization about God in their early 20s.

In what little writing we have of hers, Mueller demonstrates that she truly understood the Gospel that Jesus was trying to preach to all of us.

From what little we know of her life in captivity, it is clear she tried to practice one of Jesus' most challenging teachings: "Love your enemies." She did not treat her captors with hostility. The Guardian reports that Mueller, in fact, "tried to teach her guards crafts, including origami."

"She did ordinary things in extraordinary measure," said Kathleen Day, head of United Christian Ministry at Northern Arizona University, where Mueller was a student. …

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