Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Birth of Our Savior

Years ago I sat with a Buddhist priest who asked me, “What do you want?” At the time I was preparing to continue graduate studies in psychology that I had postponed after the completion of my Master’s degree a few years earlier, so I said, “I want to be a psychologist,” to keep it simple. He said, “That will make you crazy.”

A few years later, I found myself in pain. I was suffering the effects of a bulging disc in my cervical spine which was impinging a nerve that ran from one thumb through the neck to the other. I tried physical therapy, but the results were negligible as I had gone for over a year with the pinched nerve before making my way there, having had no medical insurance. Living near an ashram, I dropped by to check out what yoga could do. Since this was really an ashram, and not a westernized yoga/pilates studio, I was taught a little something more than asanas. Essentially, the yoga I was taught was meant to liberate me from all suffering. This was its goal.  

Before going any further, it is important that I tell you I did these things prior to my Christianity. I do not now visit with Buddhist priests or continue the practice of yoga. But I am mentioning these things to illustrate the tendency of both to direct people away from suffering.

This is radically different from Christianity, and in radical opposition to the Person of Christ Himself, who entered the flesh and the world precisely in order to live, suffer, and die. Today is the eve of His birth into suffering. And we celebrate His coming, why? Because He came to suffer and die so as to free us, ultimately, from suffering and the bondage of death. We celebrate as well because our maker came to teach us that the way out of suffering and death is through it.

For, Christ, who is the Word made flesh, the first word and the last, the alpha and the omega, changed the character and meaning of suffering and death by taking them upon Himself. Through His taking our suffering upon Himself unto death, and His conquering of death by rising again to new life, He has not only claimed for us this possibility should we so choose it, but God has demonstrated for us the way to transcend our suffering, and it is not by way of fleeing from it. It is in taking up the cross and following Him who did not turn away from human suffering, but entered into the flesh and the world in order to go through it.

So, as we celebrate this great mystery of love in the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, let us remember that it is His embrace of our suffering for which we are glad, and for which we follow Him in kind, bearing our crosses with trust and hope in joy and in peace.   

In honor and memory of His birth, I wish you Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Ever Virgin Holy Mary of Guadalupe

"Do not let your heart be troubled, and let nothing upset you.
Is it not I, your Mother, who is here?
Are you not under my protection?
Are you not, fortunately, under my care?"

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Rites of Passage

When I was 16, there came a knock at my door one school night from a girl who was a year older or maybe two, a former friend from whom I’d been separated on the cusp of childhood and adolescence by the jagged break between elementary school and junior high. After that, we lost touch, even though she lived just around the corner from me.
She had been working in the stables of the farm at the edge of our neighborhood because she loved animals and wanted to become a vet. On this night, one of the horses was giving birth, and she came on foot to bring me to see. It was one of those beautiful moments in life that occurs wholly by a response to grace. We had not spoken in five years, yet she thought of coming to get me.
We walked briskly through the night air, over the darkened streets and across the main road, through the fence and up the dirt path to the barn in which this horse was in labor. For hours we stood at the edge of her stall as the foal emerged from the womb of its mother, legs first. And then, we watched as those legs labored to stand, each one giving out in its turn at the effort, the foal crumbling to the hay again and again. 
I am reminded this cold autumn night of that foal’s struggle to be born and to stand on those frail tenuous legs, bearing resemblance to my own passage to new life, this moment that is unfolding over the course of days and weeks in which I attempt to stand again and again… pushing a bit harder and further, each time undertaking something more, mindfully watching for my knees to give way, my legs to buckle, yet remaining steadfast in pressing onward.  
Photo: Courtesy of Shahim Al Nakeeb

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

All Saints

For All Saints Day, I offer you, in the words of Dom Marmion, “the teaching that our Lord Himself gave to St. Mechtilde” on suffering.
“One day whilst she was thinking that her illness made her useless and that her sufferings were unavailing, the Lord said to her: “Place all your pains in My Heart and I will give them the most absolute perfection that suffering can possess. As My divinity drew to itself the sufferings of My humanity and made them its own, so will I transport your pains into My divinity, I will unite them to My Passion and make you share in that glory which God the Father has bestowed on My sacred humanity in return for all its sufferings. Confide, therefore, each of your pains to Love in saying: ‘O Love, I give them to You with the same intention that You had when You did bring them to me from the Heart of God, and I beseech You to offer them to Him again, made perfect by intensest gratitude…’” “My Passion,” added Christ Jesus, “bore infinite fruit in heaven and upon earth; thus your pains, your tribulations offered to Me and united to My Passion will be so fruitful that they will procure more glory for the elect, new merit for the just, forgiveness for sinners, and an alleviation of their pains for the souls in purgatory. What is there indeed that My Heart cannot change for the better, since it is from the goodness of My Heart that all good flows both in heaven and on earth?” (From Suffering with Christ: An Anthology of the Writings of Dom Columba Marmion, OSB)
As I found myself last week in a very cold place that even sweaters and woolens could do little to help, Dom Marmion emerged from the rows of books in the library of the monastery where I was staying. He is an old friend from before my illness, with whom I sat for a while as my limbs stiffened with chill, and finding this passage in the anthology, sipping apple cinnamon tea, I thought of you.


It is good to remember that as we suffer our sufferings of illness, there are nuns and monks living in voluntary poverty for the sake of penance, freezing in monasteries all over the world! No matter where we are, or what we choose for ourselves, what is chosen for us by God is that we enter into His Passion in some way or other, accepting whatever His way for us might be with trust and gratitude, in order that we may reap the abundant fruit such communion bears.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Subtitles

If you have been following from the beginning, then you have noticed a change of subtitle, not once, but now three times. Names and titles are almost always a struggle for me to choose, and in this case especially, because what I am naming has yet to be written. What I am naming has yet to be known.
In composing an essay or a novel, for instance, an author must have some sense in advance what is going to be said, what is going to happen, what the end will be, why and how it will be the end or point of closure. But even then, it is difficult to choose a really fitting title until after the work is finished.
What has happened here is I have set out with one intention to fulfill, one mission to accomplish, and now find myself being led beyond it. I realize it is not only for me that this is the case, but for you and for the ongoing fulfillment of His purpose in having me exist and be someone who is writing any of this at all.
So, He is bringing us beyond the ideological foundation that has been laid here during the past six months, which I have lived and practiced for many years now, and have tried to convey to you over and over again in various ways, tones and voices… that foundation being composed of writings reflecting a Christian attitude and orientation to bearing the hardships of chronic illness.
As we move now into what would properly be called Part 2 of this blog, I will attempt to name it well in calling it, “The Journey of a Soul in Happy Surrender to God’s Will,” which will simply be, the unfolding of a life in continued fulfillment of its purpose.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Beyond the Boardwalk

Lyme disease is extraordinary in its capacity to utterly ravage a human being, to take every worldly thing we take for granted, away. I have seen the faces of doctors contort with dread in the face of this diagnosis. I have known people to lose their spouses, families, and friendships on account of it. Careers and jobs along with income and then homes have been lost to the debilitation rendered by this disease. The multiplicity of symptoms and effects Lyme can produce within a single individual can cause a person to appear mad when presenting their list of woes to medical professionals as well as those closest to them in an attempt to gain some aid, cooperation or relief. The illness is long and is never really cured. Insult is added to injury in bearing the burden of widespread social ignorance and disagreement within the medical community. Moreover, we live wondering what’s going to happen from day to day inside of us, not knowing when we will ever begin to get better, when illness will stop manifesting in so many ways, when it is Lyme or something else that is wrong with us, knowing that even if Lyme is not the root cause, it’s going to make whatever else we get much worse, for as long as we live.

That said, as I have mentioned before, for me, it is one of the greatest things ever to happen. I harbor this sentiment, I believe, in a manner similar to a veteran’s fond remembrance of his or her formation as a soldier. While it was breaking me down, it was rendering me malleable in the hands of the One to whom I had given myself to form me in holiness. Throughout, I have trusted His choice of ways and the spiritual exercises He has called me to engage, and though I am not quite a saint, I am closer in my becoming than I was before illness.

When I began this blog in April, I intended to wade through the days with you, focused on the business of getting through one after the other, offering the support of a fellow Lyme sufferer and a sort of spiritual touchstone by which to grasp and remember the blessings to be found in illness itself, as that which brings us ever closer to Christ. Yet it seems I have come to a place where the days are not what they used to be… they are not what they were in year one, two, three or four as I am now five months into year five. I have heard from others, it was the fifth year that brought them to a place where they could begin to recover a life that resembled something they had once lived prior to Lyme disease, and it seems this is happening for me. So, it may be that I am blogging now, not only to utter reminders of blessings, but to offer hope.

Before this, I never thought I would have a day ever again where I did not experience at some point in it, crushing exhaustion with or without exertion. I never thought I would be able to eat a cookie again, without my brain swelling, the room spinning, and my thoughts dampening. I never thought I’d fit into my favorite jeans again… and that’s a weight gain I’m talking about! Don’t get me wrong, I’m not the image of health I was before infection, but I am now entering a time where I can get by in ways I have not been able to for years. While I still cannot go the length of the boardwalk without stopping to rest a few times, I can actually make it to the boardwalk and walk without fear of getting stranded, unable from enervation to make it back to where I began. You see, there was a time when I could not even have ventured to try. And though my head is still ringing, and my muscles are not as strong as before, my stamina is improving both physically and cognitively which is opening up a new palate of possibilities for the future… hence, the poem of last Wednesday.

For awhile now, I’ve been traversing and pondering this transition toward something new, which I first remarked on in the August post entitled, “A New Season.” Living four and a half years through changing phases of chronic illness, I am tentative in issuing any proclamations of wellness. Yet my life itself is moving toward a change; I am simply following the promptings of the One who is leading me, to whom I have entrusted myself. I don’t know what’s going to happen from here on, but I hope that my journey brings you hope…

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Untitled

Emerging from this cocoon,
this gauze
that has shrouded me for years,
turning me from who I was
into who I am,
I look back,
beyond the beginning of illness
to the past, like a collage,
an old photo album,
a chest full of memories,
artifacts,
diaries…
It is strange,
being on the cusp of something new,
when for so long
and so slowly the movement toward it progressed.

Yet there are fragments of the past that need
remembering, addressing, consulting...  

And there is grace meted out,
to face these things.
To remember, the story of my life.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Therese


"When I was a child, suffering used to make me sad;
now I taste its bitterness with joy and peace."


Friday, September 23, 2011

Padre Pio's Suffering

Today is the memorial feast day of Saint Pio of Pietrelcina. As the meditation for the day, the Magnificat offers the following words written by Padre Pio to his spiritual director:
“Jesus tells me that in love it is he who delights me, while in suffering, on the other hand, it is I who give pleasure to him. Now, to desire good health would mean seeking happiness for myself instead of trying to comfort Jesus. Yes, I love the cross, the cross alone; I love it because I see it always on Jesus’ shoulders. By this time Jesus is well aware that my entire life, my whole heart is consecrated to him and to his sufferings….
When Jesus wants to make me understand that he loves me, he permits me to relish the wounds, the thorns, the anguish of his Passion… But when he wants to be delighted, he speaks to me of his sufferings, he invites me in a tone which is both a request and a command to offer my body that his sufferings may be alleviated.”
Not exactly the norm in terms of what a spiritual director is given to work with! Here, it is likely the case that the director is chosen by God to witness the extraordinary gifts made manifest by God in this humble soul of a man. In and through Padre Pio we gain insight beyond what we ordinarily hear from the learned who attempt to convey some portrait of the divine.   
For instance, in telling us, “while in suffering…it is I who give pleasure to him,” Padre Pio is saying that Jesus takes pleasure in his suffering. Yes, that is what Padre Pio is telling us. Jesus is pleased with Pio’s suffering, not because he is suffering for suffering's sake, but because his entire life and his whole heart has been consecrated to Jesus and His sufferings. It is an expression of the cooperation of the human will with the divine will, an offering made by the human to the divine in response to His unique call to this soul, both a request and a command to offer his body… Padre Pio’s is a love that reflects the divine love itself which in Jesus undertook suffering for the sake of humanity. In other words, there is a human being, named Pio, who has undertaken to suffer for the sake of God, with the same love that God undertook to suffer for Pio’s sake. In Padre Pio we see a human being who has been willing to respond to God and His suffering in the very manner that God responded to human suffering.     
Having lived 50 years of his life bearing the stigmata of Christ in his own flesh, bearing the spiritual wounds of Christ in being privy to see the sins of human hearts, bearing the emotional pains of persecution, calumny and the like, and bearing natural human illnesses to which his body was subject as a man, all offered to Jesus in love, for the love of God and the good of souls, we hereafter are left not only with the memory of such a man and his letters, but even in death, Pio’s body still speaks of Jesus’ love for his suffering, in the divine will to preserve the body from corruption.  

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Soul Kiss

Sunday night I stood before a room full of strangers and spoke of my experience with Lyme disease. It was because a certain priest had found my story miraculous insofar as I did not despair in the wake of bearing such an illness, that he invited me to speak to this group of charismatic intercessors. I had nothing prepared to say, and really, no intention of speaking. I just went along to see what was going to happen.
Well, what happened was, I spoke; not eloquently, but simply to say that God is our strength in weakness. That it would be impossible for me to stand at all without His willing that I be able to do so. That it was Him who moved my legs when I could not move them by myself, that it was Him who inhabited me at my weakest moments animating me with any life at all. That my brain was so profoundly infected at one time that I was unable to compose a coherent sentence and now I stood before them speaking cohesively and comprehensibly.
The key to getting to where I stood before them with nary even a fleeting fantasy of ending my suffering was that I always trusted in Him, and never lost trust in Him. With unwavering certainty, I knew that He knew every moment of trial I endured and I trusted that all of it would be put to good use with none of it going to waste. I knew that He was present with me in every moment, when I was conscious and unconscious, weary and worn out, pressing and pressing my legs to move on that treadmill, blinking through blurry eyes to read prayers, forcing food down my throat, sitting like a zombie before Him in the Blessed Sacrament, etc.
I concluded by announcing that my illness has been one of the greatest things ever to happen to me, for it set me within a disposition to God so utterly docile, so utterly in need, so utterly dependent that we became fused in a way that would otherwise have been impossible. With such an intimate fusion, there is inevitably a kiss that occurs, an ever deepening and eternal kiss so consuming as to absorb the soul in desire that it should never be parted from this kiss, neither from the act of kissing nor the kisser Himself. When it is Christ whose arms embrace us and whose heart is thirsting for us, how can we for even a moment stand to withdraw from His desire whatever it should be?
So, if it is my purification through illness and the benefits my suffering accrues to others that He desires, I say, let it be done to me according to Thy word.     

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Our Lady of Sorrows

Mother and Child
Corpus Christi Monastery, New York
After a couple weeks of working through the approval process with my insurance company, it came down to my IV line being inserted on this memorial feast of Our Blessed Mother when I was first diagnosed four years ago. A surgical nurse came to my home, sterilized the kitchen table and decked herself out in full scrubs to perform the procedure. I sat with my left arm outstretched, looking down at my lap while she prepared the area near the elbow bend with a bit of numbing stuff and antiseptic, telling me of her own experience receiving such a port, how the shock and pain made her faint.

I was not daunted, however, because it was September 15. When the moment arrived and I was told she was going ahead with the piercing, I began silently to pray, Hail Mary… and it was done. No fainting, but a quick gasp. It’s not the pain, but the violence of it that makes one gasp. And the arm itself does go into shock becoming ice cold to the touch and bloodless. But it is nothing, I imagine, compared to having a nail driven straight through a hand, wrist or foot.

“Let us adore Christ, the Savior of the world, who called his mother to share in his passion,” reads the Invitatory Antiphon for today’s feast. Adoring Christ, who in the midst of His passion gave His mother to us as our own, to me as my own, I am grateful. I am thankful that heaven would have it be that my illness was marked in such a way as to bear this particular wound of it on the day our Church recognizes Mary’s presence and her sorrow at the foot of her child’s cross. As she was present with Jesus in His being pierced, so was she present with me in mine. As she wept for Jesus’ suffering, she was also weeping for mine.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Triumph of the Cross

The cross is the bridge that connects heaven and earth.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Grace

From the writings of Saint Rose of Lima...

Our Lord and Savior lifted up his voice and said with incomparable majesty: "Let all men know that grace comes after tribulation. Let them know that without the burden of afflictions it is impossible to reach the height of grace. Let them know that the gifts of grace increase as the struggles increase. Let men take care not to stray and be deceived. This is the only true stairway to paradise, and without the cross they can find no road to climb to heaven."

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Discipleship

From today's Magnificat meditation...

Since God draws some men to him by means of joy and others by means of sorrow, by which of these did he draw the disciples? The answer is found in considering their life. It was passed in our Savior's company in much hardship, ending in great shame and distress. So they were drawn to God more by sorrow than by joy....

And the way to God through sorrow is more like Christ's way in all his life, and in his death. It is, besides, a better sign of God's love, for it is written: "Such as I love, I rebuke and chastise." (Rv 3:19) It is, indeed, true that the disciples enjoyed a close familiar companionship with the divine Master, but it was embittered by the knowledge that for every gift they got they must suffer the death of all self-love. And as fast as God relieved them of one suffering he sent them another just as hard -- for God is always accustomed to thus treat his beloved friends. The disciples found this to be the case, and so must they keep on suffering to the end, according as their heavenly Father arranged for them. Until at last their sorrow was turned into joy, and they were glad to suffer for the name of Jesus.

By Father John Tauler, O.P.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Atonement and Bodily Oblation

During these past seven days, I’ve been reading from blog to blog several thoughts on Saint Rose of Lima, whose feast day was last Tuesday. From this I gleaned that people have a hard time accepting the penances and mortifications Rose self-inflicted, because of their severity, the very fact of being self-administered, and their leading to greater affliction by weakening her such that she was susceptible to illness and fell ill.

For a person struggling to live with chronic disease by no choosing of her own, it is especially hard to accept that someone would bring this misery upon herself. I know I wouldn’t be able to do it. I knew this even before I got sick, as I distinctly remember at the time of my conversion to the faith, realizing the magnitude of my errors and faults, that I would in no way be able to select appropriate penances for myself, not possessing the constitution of a saint such as Rose for self-affliction. So, I put it in the hands of God, asking that He should choose my penances for me, trusting as well that He would provide the grace by which I might bear them.

The desire to atone for sin is itself, a grace imparted by God. It is upon such grace that a saint like Rose would desire to wear a metal ring with spikes pressing inward upon her skull as Christ bore the crown of thorns, and likewise, that I myself would desire to atone in any manner chosen for me by God. God knows each soul intimately, knowing the purpose for which He has called it to exist, knowing the unique portion of the work of redemption each soul is allotted to complete as a member of the mystical Body of Christ, to complete, as Saint Paul says, “what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” (Colossians 1:24) And so, God gives not only the commission but the grace to accomplish the mission.

If anyone clearly demonstrates the relationship between atonement for sin and offering of the body to the cause of atonement and sanctification it is John the Baptist.

Window from St. Joseph, Husband of Mary Roman Catholic Church
Long Island, NY
John is the first Christian penitent, the great model and prototype who portrays for us the heart of one totally devoted to the salvific mission of Christ, one who is set by grace and his own willingness to embrace the task for which he was created for the sake of the salvation of souls. Though not known to have raised a hand against himself or anyone else for any purpose other than blessing and baptizing, we are privy to knowing a couple of John’s bodily mortifications through scriptural accounts, them being the wearing of the camel hair shirt and the diet of locusts. 

John’s martyrdom at the hands of King Herod is his final oblation.  He accepts this as a matter of course, abiding in his mission to “go before the Lord and prepare his way.” (Luke 1:76) John knows, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:30) In this, he states what is true for all who follow, which is to say that we are all to strive toward the increase of Christ in us. For those of us who have been commissioned to a vocation of illness in some part, we may profit toward accomplishing this end by the manner and disposition in which we embrace our cross.

Although the cases of Rose and John appear to be extraordinary, it is no less true that each of us are called to an extraordinary oblation, for every one of us is given a singular work to fulfill in the project of redemption that no other human being is fashioned to accomplish. For many of you reading this blog, it may be that a portion of your work is to be accomplished in the manner that you accept, embrace, and live the fact of chronic illness. This is not to say that you should strive to maintain a state of disease, but that the portion of affliction you are entrusted by God through His permitting or ordaining will be offered as an oblation for His use in fulfilling the great work He has set about achieving in your soul as well as that of its contribution to the broader work of human salvation.  

On this day in which we honor the martyrdom of John the Baptist, let’s consider where we stand in the project of our own conversion, in light of God’s grace and gifts to us for the sake of our sanctification, and render our willingness to follow where He has led us to achieve this great purpose. Though at times we may find ourselves in a desert alone in the midst of our affliction, take heart that before us John was there, and following him, Christ was there, and truly is there with us.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Rosebud

By Pierre Joseph Redoute (1759-1840)
It is only a tiny rosebud, a flower of His design,
but I cannot unfold the petals
with these clumsy hands of mine.
The secret of unfolding flowers
is not known to such as I; the rose God opens so sweetly
in my hands would fade and die.
If I cannot unfold the rosebud, the flower of His design,
what makes me think I have wisdom
to unfold this life of mine?
So I'll trust Him for His leading
each moment of every day
and I'll look to Him for courage
each step of the pilgrim way.
For the path that lies before me,
my heavenly Father knows;
I'll trust Him to unfold the moments
just as He unfolds the rose.

-- Anonymous

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Queenship of Mary

“She knew, better than anyone else will ever know it, that the greatest of all griefs is to be unable to mitigate the suffering of one whom we love. But she was willing to suffer that, because that was what He asked of her,” writes Caryll Houselander of Mary in The Reed of God.
*
Not long before I got sick, I was assigned through an academic internship to spend some time with people who had been referred to my care by their doctors. All of them were sick and most of them were dying. They were all grieving in various ways, various issues they had yet to resolve. Some wrestled with leaving young children behind, while others were much older and coping with spousal bereavement on top of the losses and loneliness they were experiencing through their own ill health.
Among them, however, was one who did not seem to struggle as the others did. And, in my opinion, her situation was by far the worst. Of course, to honor my promise of confidentiality I cannot tell you her story, but I will tell you of my own struggle.
It is difficult to see a person nailed to a cross in any case, but in a case where the place that person is nailed is hell, it is all a body can do to hold back from taking that person and their cross, throwing them over your shoulder and making a run for it. Sure, keep the cross, but can’t we move it somewhere nicer?
I would tempt this woman with the better life she could have if only she would relocate. It was just too much, what she was bearing… too much for my heart. At each visit, she would greet me cheerfully with a cup of tea and a chocolate, or a bowl of soup, mingling stories of fond memories with tales of woe she was currently enduring, her Bible always at hand on the table where we sat.
Clinically, she was no masochist. Moreover, she was perfectly lucid and aware of her situation, much more so than any of the others. She was where she was for a reason, a good reason, and at the time, I had difficulty accepting that. I let her be and stay as she was, but ended our sessions feeling as though I had failed in that, because nothing had changed for her. 
Some months later, bent in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament on the Marian feast day of the Visitation, I was struck with the insight, the admonition really, that in the person of this woman, I had tried to remove Jesus from the cross. That realization sliced right through me when it came. Boy, did I fail! Thankfully, my own failure to recognize Christ so profoundly present in her did not alter the fulfillment of her mission to be His presence in the midst of that place.
I am sorry now that because I couldn’t get past my desire for her relief from that suffering, I was unable to share more deeply with her that cup which Our Lady shared in full with Our Lord, Jesus. This is but one of the reasons why Mary is crowned Queen of Heaven and we honor her today, because “[s]he would not try to take away His suffering. In this she was more than one with Him.” (The Reed of God)
It is the grief and inner struggle every care giver, friend, mother, father, wife, husband, and child is called by God to engage in loving a person who is long suffering and/or dying slowly, to be with them, simply be with them until it is finished.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Prayer Request

For several years now, my friend Frank has been living with one form of cancer or another, fighting the good fight to overcome the malignant cells, and growing deeper in friendship with our Lord through his struggles. In January of this year, he was diagnosed with brain cancer and told he had a few months left to live. He spent that time preparing to meet Jesus face to face, loving his family and friends, and praying for others. Yet that time has come and gone, and he remains among us.

During the last few weeks, however, Frank's condition has changed. Whether it's in addition to the cancer, or whether it has been a misdiagnosis of cancer, it has been found that he is harboring a rare type of infection which is now causing too great a pressure between his skull and brain, and as I write this, he is being admitted for surgery to relieve that pressure.

His daughter has asked me to ask everyone for prayers, so I am asking for your prayers for my friend Frank and his family.  Thank you all in advance...     

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Happiness of the Saints

A gorgeous exposition of the attitude best suited to living in peace with chronic illness by Jean-Pierre de Caussade in today’s Magnificat meditation:

Shall I never succeed with the help of grace in instilling into your mind and still more into your heart this great principle of faith, so sweet, so consoling, so loving, and so pacifying? We ought often to pray: My God, may all your most holy intentions be accomplished in me and never my own; may they be accomplished because while infinitely just in themselves they are also infinitely advantageous for me. May my own will never be accomplished except when it is in perfect agreement with yours because otherwise it can only be harmful to me. If ever, my God, it should happen through ignorance or passion that I persist in desires contrary to yours, may I be disappointed....

When one is illuminated by heavenly light, one thinks very differently from most men, but what a source of peace, what power one finds in this way of thinking and looking at things! How happy are the saints, how peacefully they live, and what miserable blind fools we are not to be willing to train ourselves to think as they do, preferring to be entombed in the thick darkness of this accursed human wisdom... Let us study how to give all our care and attention to the task of conforming ourselves in all things to the holy will of God in spite of interior revolt. That revolt itself must be accepted in obedience to the will of God which permits it in order to accustom us to remain at all times and in all circumstances before him in a state of sacrifice... with a self-abandonment full of confidence.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

A New Season

My illness, at the beginning, made short work of me. I was rendered utterly unable to fight my own battle. I needed nurses and doctors, IV’s and pills, ports and props. Yet, only some distant part of me knew this—that’s how far gone I was. I would gladly have drifted into oblivion, given the lethal nature of my Rocky Mountain co-infection, but it just wasn’t my time.

After the initial crisis passed, I was left profoundly debilitated by Lyme disease, both mentally and physically. When the light of heaven receded and I drew again closer to myself than I had been while in the throes of acute infection, I was left to fight my portion of the battle. It was the part that only I could fight. The drugs were doing their part, the nurses and the doctors theirs, heaven was doing its part, and I had to do mine.

It was a constant siege for a long time, exhausting in itself, even apart from being ill. There was the fatigue of illness and the fatigue of battle. Physical, emotional, and spiritual warfare carried on without end for days and days which became months and months, which became years and years. To this day the battle continues, with a brief lull here and there, though I can honestly say, I can’t remember the last time there wasn’t an infection of some sort plaguing me, literally one after another, two at a time, sometimes three.

But I am here today to speak of a battle just won. For the first time since the initial infection, I have overcome a bout of spirochete proliferation without the aid of antibiotics, using my very own immune system to do the deadly deed. For about nine days I grew worse and worse and worse, the battle raging in me to destroy the flourish of Lyme bacteria, and then began the labor of clearing the field of the dead, which continues as I write, nine days after the crucial turning point, for a total of eighteen days, today.

In the words of Ecclesiastes 3:1: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” Looks as though, I've entered a new season. And for days now, I've had this tune in mind... Enjoy!

Monday, August 8, 2011

Pray


Dominican Nun of Corpus Christi Monastery
Bronx, New York


Thursday, August 4, 2011

On Prayer & Sorrows

Albrecht Durer
"Hands of the Apostle"; 1508
My little children, your hearts are small, but prayer stretches them and makes them capable of loving God. Through prayer we receive a foretaste of heaven and something of paradise comes down upon us. Prayer never leaves us without sweetness. It is honey that flows into the soul and makes all things sweet. When we pray properly, sorrows disappear like snow before the sun. (Saint John Vianney)

Friday, July 29, 2011

Saint Martha


Tintoretto
Christ in the House of Mary and Martha
from 1580

As Martha is about the business of preparing a meal to serve the Lord, Mary is rapt at His feet.  Martha is concerned with feeding Jesus, while Mary is being fed by Jesus.  When Martha expresses her irritation at Mary’s idleness, she is corrected: 

“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things.  There is need of only one thing.  Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.” (Luke 10:41-42)

On the one hand, while we are in the body, it is important to nourish and care for it.  On the other hand, there is ultimately nothing more important than the state of the soul.  In part, this is what Jesus is saying to Martha.  The body can be starving, can be ill, can be in pain, yet none of this in itself would prevent the soul from reaching heaven.  

As people suffering in the body from illness, we are attuned to the body and its needs, its limitations, its frailty, in ways perhaps, those who enjoy good health are not.  For instance, I am conscious of my legs as I use them.  Much of the time, they’re weak.  I am attentive to them as I take each step when they are weak, pushing myself, pushing them to accomplish the task of walking, of carrying me up the stairs, paying attention to whether they’re going to give out as I descend the stairs. 

Yet because most of my time is not spent ascending and descending stairs, I am not too distracted by this and I mainly concern myself with it when I am in the midst of the problem.  The rest of the time, I’m like Mary.  It’s the way I was before I got sick and it’s the way I am still.  But I am grateful for the Martha’s of this world, who balance the scales.  Just as the Lord calls us to perform spiritual works of mercy, which are suited to Mary’s, He calls us also to do corporeal works of mercy like feeding the hungry, visiting the prisoner, and burying the dead. 

In some part too, the Lord, when He corrected Martha, was helping us to understand that her anxiety about getting things done—things good in themselves—was not good.  For, such anxiety saps from the heart the very charity in which such works are meant to be done, if they are to be done as works of mercy.  Thus, Martha’s admonition of both Mary and the Lord, who permitted Mary to sit quietly at His feet while Martha ran around, was an expression of a distinct lack of love, a lack of charity in which a meal for the hungry is meant to be served.

If the work of the body and for the body is to have its merit, it must be subtended by a heart of true charity.  This is good news.  For, in this and through this very tenet of the faith, we are able to offer our bodies and their works to the Lord for the great work that is the work of the redemption and salvation of souls. 

When I am attentive to the work of lifting my leg high enough that I will not stumble in going up the stairs, when I am pushing my legs to walk, when I am exerting myself in any way to overcome the debilitation of this illness, with a simple prayer attached, I can offer my labors in charity, in love of souls, to the Lord who accepts them as sacrifice in union with His cross.

This is a bit of the message that Jesus recalls to us today, on this memorial feast of Saint Martha.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

On Being Useful

In praying over my breakfast, I always add some intention unrelated to the blessing of food, for the benefit of someone else.  Usually, it runs along the lines of hope for the hopeless, comfort for the orphan, light for those in darkness, with specifics named from day to day, like African children whose parents have died from AIDS, for instance. 

This morning, I found myself uttering—I wish I had the strength to do more for You, to serve others more, to produce more—because for the past couple of weeks, in spite of pain, I’ve had more energy than usual.  You may have noticed some of it translating in the frequency of posts here.  But for a couple of days now, I’m back to feeling like a wrung out mop, so the contrast I perceive is clear.

As I wished this, I recalled a message posted on a sign that I passed on my way to mass last Thursday evening:


At the time, I was pretty irritated seeing a church promoting this ideology and missing a key precept of Christianity.  Jesus did more for us nailed to the cross than He did in miracles and healings He performed during His active ministry.  He did more on the cross, with His hands and feet bound, exhausted, depleted, worn down to a figure that barely resembled a man, than He did when He was “useful.” 

And so I remembered what sustained me during those early years of profound debilitation with this illness—the understanding that we do much in offering our “uselessness” to Him who fuses our offering to His own on the cross, perfecting ours and imbuing it with redemptive value.  It is easy to forget, especially after a few days of feeling “useful.”

Friday, July 22, 2011

Mary Magdalene

Rogier van der Weyden (1400-1464)
"Saint Mary Magdalene reading," before 1438
London, National Gallery
Every now and then, the antiphons of a saint's feast day correspond profoundly to the psalms that are prayed between them.  Today in Morning Prayer, the first psalm seemed to me as though it could have been written for Mary, in relation to its antiphon:

Ant.: Very early in the morning after the sabbath,
Mary Magdalene came to the tomb, just as the
sun was rising.

Psalm 63:2-9
A soul thirsting for God

Whoever has left the darkness of sin, yearns for God.

O God, you are my God, for you I long;
for you my soul is thirsting.
My body pines for you
like a dry, weary land without water.
So I gaze on you in the sanctuary
to see your strength and your glory.

For your love is better than life,
my lips will speak your praise.
So I will bless you all my life,
in your name I will lift up my hands.
My soul shall be filled as with a banquet,
my mouth shall praise you with joy.

On my bed I remember you.
On you I muse through the night
for you have been my help;
in the shadow of your wings I rejoice.
My soul clings to you;
your right hand hold me fast.

Ant.: Very early in the morning after the sabbath,
Mary Magdalene came to the tomb, just as the
sun was rising.

We can imagine her throughout those nights between when He was entombed and when she discovered that He had risen, pondering in her contemplative way, the way her spirituality had been formed by her life, her heart, her experiences with Jesus, pondering all that had happened in her since the day she had knelt and wept before Him in sorrow for her sins and He wiped them away.  Pondering all that He had been through, understanding in a way that was uniquely given to her to understand, that He had died in the manner He did, on account of her sins.  That when He took the burden from her, it did not simply vanish as though it had never existed, but He drew it upon Himself.[1]

Yet such is not reserved for Mary alone.  We may follow in her contemplative way, particularly in setting ourselves before Jesus present in the Blessed Sacrament.  Approaching Him on our knees, with our tears, concerns and sorrows, we may do as she did, and experience for ourselves the grace of Jesus lifting the weight of our burdens from us, absorbing our pain, and in its place, instilling His peace.     


[1] For more about this, see Adrienne von Speyer’s Book of All Saints.


Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A Saint's Prayer

As recorded in Adrienne von Speyer's Book of All Saints, a prayer during the time of illness, toward the end of her life by Blessed Angela of Foligno:

My Lord, through the days of sickness through which you lead me, show me that my time is coming near to its end. That it will enter into your time, that the time that belongs to me will cease to be mine in order to become wholly yours.  Lord, you know I have little patience.  I am not happy to be sick.  Even though I have contemplated your suffering for the whole of my life, I have not learned to love it.  And yet, precisely because I do not understand it and cannot bear it, I beg you to allow me to suffer as much as you think is good, to lay upon me as many days of sickness as you see fit.  Do not let my groaning become bitter, but also do not pay attention to it; do not be put off by it.  Show me the full measure of what it is you have laid aside for me. Lord, I do not know how near the hour of death is, how much lamenting I will yet make others listen to.  But now, because there is still time, I thank you for all the graces you have directed to me, for everything you have given to me, and I beg you, perhaps for the last time, in earnest for forgiveness for everything I have done only with reluctance.  I will try, Lord, in this final time, to contemplate the suffering of all those who have suffered for you; but I know that my suffering will seem small compared to the suffering of your saints and martyrs.  And how small indeed when I compare it simply with your own!  Grant, Lord, that this contemplation of the suffering of your friends might become fruitful for all those who, like me, are tired of suffering.  Bless my sisters; bless this whole cloister, the whole Order, the entire Church.  And may you keep your blessing over me until the end.  Amen.   

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Spiritual Warfare

There is little else so powerful as prayer of God's praise from the suffering, prayer steadfast in faith and trust in His divine wisdom.  It confounds Satan, who says to God in the book of Job that he is certain Job will turn on God once his flesh is touched by illness. (2:4-5)

Catholics have a long history of martyrs for the faith whose example can inspire in us the courage to abide in union with God, no matter what be His will for us.  The martyrs teach us that it is possible to persevere in friendship with God through any type of suffering.

Yet as for Job, there may be for us those times when we do waver, and grow weary in prayer, attributing our fatigue to a privation of His aid and grace.  For, we know our weakness apart from Him.  At such moments we are given to recall the words of Christ on the cross: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?  But we must also remember that when Jesus uttered these words, He uttered them in prayer.

So today I encourage you, whatever the state of your heart, to confound evil and pray to God.  

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Pain

I recently woke with the thought that it’s hard to wake up in pain every day.  With consciousness comes the awareness of pain burning, stabbing or aching, escaped for awhile in the respite of sleep, that is, when pain permits sleep.  Yet the difficulty is not so much the physical suffering as that it’s not easy on the heart or the mind to wake up in pain day after day.

I then thought I would write something about pain.  I thought of Nietzsche, who suffered the effects of syphilis not entirely unlike those wrought by our familiar Lyme spirochete, referring to pain as a dog, his faithful companion.  I thought of Saint Paul boasting of his weaknesses in telling of the thorn given him in the flesh to torment him so that he might not become too elated from the visions of heaven to which he had been privy. 

Reading many translations of that passage, which in changing the word “elated” to “proud” or “conceited” slightly augment the meaning that comes across, I will share here a version found online from the Bible in Basic English:

“And because the revelations were so very great, in order that I might not be overmuch lifted up, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, one sent from Satan to give me pain.” (2 Corinthians 12:7)

Paul goes on to say:

“Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’  So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.  Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ: for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:8-10)

Who can argue with that?

Then, I happened to read in Magnificat, prior to Mass that day, a brief biography of a saint, Blessed Joseph Kowalski, priest, religious and martyr (1911-1942):

“In 1941 [Nazis] arrested Father Kowalski and sent him to the Auschwitz death camp.  In secret he celebrated Mass, heard prisoners’ confessions, and led recitations of the rosary.  Once when a prison guard noticed Father Kowalski clutching something, he struck him, knocking rosary beads from the priest’s hand.  The guard ordered him to trample upon the rosary, but he refused.  On July 4, 1942, another guard mockingly invited Father Kowalski to bless some tortured prisoners, telling him, ‘Souls are escaping you, priest… give your sheep your last blessing as viaticum for heaven.’  Father Kowalski thereupon knelt, made the sign of the cross, recited the Our Father, and sang the Salve Regina.  The Nazis drowned him in a sewage tank a few hours later.” (Monthly Vol. 13, No. 5/July 2011)

The One who taught us to love our neighbor as ourselves encourages us in this to consider the sufferings of others, not so as to compare and contrast our pains to make ourselves feel better that we suffer something more or less, but to remind us that we are all part of One Body that suffers.  We are not alone.  And in directing our attention to the broader scope of humanity, expanding our perspective rather than focusing solely upon ourselves, our own pain mysteriously dissipates, somehow diluted in the very act of considering another person’s cross, for we in this are drawn into the great heart of God which knows all and sees all. 

Dwelling in the heart of God, our pain is softened.  For, “[i]n fact, love either removes the harsh character of suffering or makes pleasant our experience of it.” (St. Francis de Sales)

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Hope

This evening as I knelt in prayer I recalled immediately something I had learned earlier today about the operation of the immune system in relation to the spirochete. The cells sent to destroy the spirochete cannot differentiate between the bacterium and the tissue it has invaded so the tissue is destroyed as well, whatever it might be, muscle, bone, nerve, organ... I responded to this memory saying, my life is not mine but Yours, Lord. Meaning, come what may, thy will be done.

I then remembered the many You Tube videos I'd watched earlier today seeking something inspirational to post, yet the majority of what I saw conveyed the darkness particular to this disease. A darkness that comes across especially in haunting images of acute distress. In recalling one woman whose condition moved me most deeply, I realized once again in the midst of my prayer, the utter miraculousness of faith itself in light of such suffering.

The almighty power of God is present when we who suffer kneel before Him, revering Him, worshiping Him, praising Him, though He permits our suffering. Without the aid of grace, it would be humanly impossible to do this. In terms of spiritual warfare, it is a powerful blow that we strike to the darkness that can impinge and if given the chance, overtake us, in times of illness.

Because He promises that those who seek Him shall find Him, my search did yield one video that stood in contrast to the rest. One which also depicted the realities of Lyme disease, but was filled with light and true hope, hope that does not set all store in medicine, but that hopes in the One who can and will heal us ultimately, be it in this lifetime or thereafter.

As an introduction, here is the message written by Lisa Buffaloe attached to the video, "When the Healing Comes" by Lisa Bevill:

"This song is dedicated to all those who are suffering with chronic illness. Lisa Bevill was diagnosed with Lyme disease in August of 2008 and knows first hand the crippling and debilitating effects that Lyme can bring. The individuals pictured in this video are Lyme sufferers across the country with individual stories to tell about their struggles and triumphs.

I wrote this song out of frustration that total healing hasn't come. However, I will remain faithful to the Lord because I know my ultimate healing will be complete one day. Until then, I will continue to daily press into the Lord.

I hope this helps you with the pain in your life and will give you strength through your walk. If you have Lyme or any other life-threatening disease, or long-term illness, or just emotional pain, I pray this song will bless and encourage you to daily choose Jesus and His promises. Take one day at a time and remember to breathe!"

Friday, July 8, 2011

Compassion

Yesterday I had to go to a lab and have some blood drawn.  Among others sitting in the waiting room with me were an elderly woman and her daughter, also an older woman.  The frail mother was bracing herself from the cold of the air-conditioning, wearing a sleeveless blouse, and the daughter was tersely informing her that no one else was cold, that she was the only one who was cold.  Meanwhile, I was freezing too.    

I saw the old woman shrink down in her seat, and I wondered, does this daughter have no compassion?  Could she not put her arms around her mother to warm her?

When her name was eventually called, the daughter sprang up and strode across the room toward the phlebotomist as her mother raised herself up with the aid of a walker over which she was bent at an almost perfect 90 degree angle.  Apologizing to me as I drew in my legs for her to pass, she rolled forth in the path left behind her daughter. 

Apologizing… not excusing herself as she would if her daughter had not over time browbeat her into the mindset that she must be sorry for the inconveniences she causes. 

Admittedly, I don’t know their story, but it is easy to imagine such callousness from someone who has never suffered infirmity to a debilitating extent herself.  And this is in some part what our Lord can do with suffering for us.  I mean, for those of us who have suffered in this manner, we have been given a way into compassion.  That is, into the heart of God that suffers for our suffering and that looks down upon each of us with eyes that penetrate the depths of our experience. 

Through our own portion and share in such suffering, our recognition of others’ sufferings and comprehension of their pains, we enter more fully into the wholeness of the humanity exemplified to us in and through Christ.  We enter more fully into the life of Christ and thus are converted evermore fully to His holy image.  And indeed, we see His image in those around us who suffer, and are compelled to console Him when we see it.

That is, when we witness such a scene, we are compelled to think immediately of Jesus and His suffering, and are reminded of His very presence in this person whom we see suffering.  We are compelled to apologize to Him for the mistreatment of the weak by the strong and to pray for conversion in the hearts of those who do not understand what they are doing in callousness. 

And so, once more, it is a matter of God drawing us to Himself and shaping us once more in His own image that is the good of suffering.  Though we may not be grateful for the pain itself, the fruits that it brings are ripe when we find that we have been endowed with the grace of compassion.