EDMONTON — Suffering and poverty have great potential to bring a person closer to God. Ask Maria Kozakiewicz. She has known both since she was a child in Poland.
When she was younger, she even prayed to be poor. "I must say it was fulfilled to the letter when we came here (to Canada)."
At only one point — when she had finished her doctorate and began teaching at Grant MacEwan College — was money not a problem. "I noticed I was becoming shallower and I was becoming more interested in things that I could buy."
Kozakiewicz gave her testimony of faith May 14 to about 60 people at a charismatic prayer breakfast at the Chateau Louis Hotel.
"Poverty does one thing to you: You rely on God more," she said.
As a child, she was sickly and had few friends because she did not often leave the house. At an early age, she learned the value of suffering.
"We believed that any form of suffering or humiliation is a treasure and that you should treasure every unpleasantness."
Suffering, she said, can be offered for the benefit of many people - those who have died and those in future generations. "It's not our coin; it's a coin of heaven."
After moving to Warsaw when she was nine, her family had hard times. Her mother and one of her two sisters became quite ill. "My father struggled to keep us all fed and clothed."
During that period, the family attended Church infrequently. Then her Great-Aunt Helen — a woman of strong faith and "enormous theological knowledge" — came to live with them. Within a few months, she too became ill.
"Aunt Helen did not critique us. She simply gave the example of Christian illness."
Kozakiewicz said she believes her great aunt offered up her sufferings for the family. And after her death, every family member returned to God and the Church.
Likewise, her grandmother had cancer and came to live with them. "I was very grateful for this experience," Kozakiewicz said of the year she and her sisters nursed their grandmother.
"It was the greatest gift of God. She gave us the experience of Christian death and we learned to curb our youthful selfishness."
Then, there was Uncle Chester. Arrested in 1940, he spent the Second World War in Nazi concentration camps and did not come home after the war.
As a child born in 1947, Kozakiewicz prayed for him to be found. After 11 years of prayer, a letter came informing the family that he was alive and in the United States.
Chester's heart, however, was hardened against God. He had lost his faith and was strongly opposed to the Church.
Years later, he had terminal cancer and his sons phoned to say he had less than a week to live. Kozakiewicz asked them to have a priest bring the sacraments to him, but they said Chester would kick the priest out of the hospice.
Kozakiewicz, however, used the Internet to locate the church nearest the hospice and phoned the rectory. She spoke with a young priest who listened to the story. "He said, 'You pray; I go.'"
The priest did see Chester and the man accepted the sacraments when no one was in his room. Later, Kozakiewicz told Chester's sister the story. "That explains it," the sister said. "Over the last few hours of his life, he was transformed. He was so happy."
Kozakiewicz's own return to the faith came when as a teenager, she and her future husband decided to get married. Her parents were not supportive and one day, while walking past the neighbourhood church, she decided to drop in.
A parish retreat was taking place and she went to Confession. "This was the turning point of my whole life. It made me unbelievably happy."
After that, she resolved to tell her parents they were going ahead with the marriage.
"Our wedding was the simplest and cheapest on earth," she recalled. Her mother made her dress, she picked some flowers from the garden, the couple headed to the church on the bus "and off we went. We've been married for 45 years now and are quite happy."
Her advice to parents is to ensure that there is lots of religious art in the home, especially above the TV and computer. "When children are small, they need to be able to connect to something visual."
Also, establish religious traditions, especially for major feast days. "I cannot overestimate the tradition. Tradition will carry you over those holes in the ground that you must cross in times of need."
The traditional, humble prayers of the Church, she said, "are deeply theological and very nourishing."
When pregnant with her two sons, she prayed with them and entrusted them to God, the Holy Spirit and Mary. That helped to forge spiritual bonds with them.
For Kozakiewicz, faith is the cornerstone of a happy life. "You can live without talents, you can live without a good job, you can live without many things. But you can't live happily without God."