Thursday, May 26, 2011


Three days shy of twelve weeks is the longest period of time I have been off antibiotics since I was first diagnosed with Lyme disease in 2007.  For about nine days now I’ve been discerning some odd happenings with my body to determine whether it is Lyme or something else afflicting me, and last night concluded that it’s time to start treating again.
In the early years I had accumulated a mass of medicine bottles, that is, after the boxes of sharps and medical waste had been cleared away, used bags of Rocephin, IV tubing, latex gloves, gauze, tape, vials of saline and such.  Bottles of supplements, vitamins, probiotics and antibiotics cluttered the small space of my tabletop, along with the date diary I was advised to keep as a record of symptoms’ progress and regress. 
At some point I realized it would be much better for my psyche to clear that table and get a weekly pill box instead.  It was important to me that a monument to the illness not be erected in my living space.  Though it had taken over my life in many areas, I would not permit it to impinge in that way. 
For me, invaluable as I lay ill was instead the display of an icon of Our Lady of Tenderness at my bedside:

When struggling to overcome an illness, it is easy to be overwhelmed and consumed by the “cure.”  It is easy to set and center one’s focus and attention completely upon the aim of achieving wellness.  But it is important to remember that in our times of suffering and struggle, we resemble Christ in His great agony and passion of the cross.  The mother of all tenderness and the Father of all mercies look upon us as Christ in such moments, for we may never so much resemble Him as we do in suffering with trust and patience.
Yes, it is right and good to desire wellness, and we should desire this and try to attain it.  Yet also, we must not suffer the burden of illness wishing it away with disdain, for it is a vehicle and a way to holiness, the suffering of which has been sanctified by the loving God Himself.  And so, to whatever the day has brought us to face, let us say: Amen.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Passion of the Saints

It is always a consolation, I think, to read the words of the saints… especially those who have written so passionately and so well about suffering in this life, its meaning and purpose toward accomplishing an end desired mutually by God and the human heart.  I could not pass up the opportunity today to share with you the second reading from the Office of Readings, an excerpt from a letter written by Saint John of Avila:
Praise to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercy and God of all consolation who consoles us in all our trials and enables us to console others who are being tried, for we urge them on as God urges us on.  As we share generously in the sufferings of Christ, so do we share generously in his consolation.

The words are those of Saint Paul the apostle.  He was beaten with rods three times, flogged five times, stoned once and left for dead; he suffered every persecution men can inflict, his body was twisted by pain and toil.  And all this was his lot not just on one or two occasions, for he writes: We are constantly being handed over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in us.

In all these tribulations he does not murmur or complain about God, as weaker men do.  He is not saddened as those who love status and pleasure are.  He does not beg God to be relieved of them, as men do who are unaware of their true value and therefore will have no part of them.  He does not make light of them, as men do who set little value upon them.  On the contrary, fully aware of the value of these tribulations and rising above his own weakness, Paul blesses God amid his sufferings and thanks him as though he had bestowed a fine reward.  He thinks it an honor to be able to suffer for him who subjected himself to so very much shame in order to free us from the dreadful effects of sin; who exalted us by giving us his Spirit and making us adopted sons of God; and who gave us, in his own person and through his own efforts, a proof and pledge of heavenly joy.

Dear brothers and sisters, I pray God may open your eyes and let you see what hidden treasures he bestows on us in the trials from which the world thinks only to flee.  Shame turns into honor when we seek God’s glory.  Present affliction becomes the source of heavenly glory.  To those who suffer wounds in fighting his battles God opens his arms in loving, tender friendship, which is more delightful by far than anything our earthly efforts might produce.  If we have any sense, we shall yearn for these open arms of God.  Can anyone but a man in whom all desire is dead fail to desire him who is wholly loveable, wholly desirable?

If you long for these festivals of heavenly joy, if you want to behold them and take part in them, be assured that there is no better way to reach them than the way of suffering.  This is the way Christ and his disciples have always traveled.  He calls it a narrow way, but it leads straight to life.  That is why he tells us that if we want to join him, we shall travel the way he took.  It is surely not right that the Son of God should go his way on the path of shame while the sons of men walk the way of worldly honor:  The disciple is not above his teacher, nor the servant greater than his master.

God grant that our hearts may find no rest and seek no other food in this world, save in hardship and suffering beside the Lord’s cross.”

Friday, May 13, 2011

Glory to God

In praying the Divine Office, something that never fails to strike me is the utterance of a sorrowful psalm followed by the glory be. 

For instance, in this morning’s Office of Readings, the opening antiphon reads: “I am worn out with crying, with longing for my God (alleluia).” 

Followed by a selection of verses from Psalm 69:

“Save me, O God, for the waters have risen to my neck.  I have sunk into the mud of the deep and there is no foothold.  I have entered the waters of the deep and the waves overwhelm me.  I am wearied with all my crying, my throat is parched.  My eyes are wasted away from looking for my God.  More numerous than the hairs on my head are those who hate me without cause.  Those who attack me with lies are too much for my strength…  It is for you that I suffer taunts, that shame covers my face, that I have become a stranger to my brothers, an alien to my own mother’s sons.  I burn with zeal for your house and taunts against you fall on me.  When I afflict my soul with fasting they make it a taunt against me.  When I put on sackcloth in mourning then they make me a byword, the gossip of men at the gates, the subject of drunkards’ songs.”

And then: “Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever.  Amen.”

Ant.: “I am worn out with crying, with longing for my God (alleluia).”

As the praying souls of this prayer, we are drawn into the psalmist’s lamentation, indeed we share in his plea for God’s consolation, and by design we follow it proclaiming God’s glory even in the midst of our sorrows.  We are like Job, who in suffering grave loss says, “the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the Lord.” (1:21) 

In praying this way, are we not also alike to Christ? 

In the Eucharistic prayer of the mass, we hear the priest say: “On the night he was betrayed, he took bread and gave you [Father] thanks and praise.”  He was betrayed and gave the Father thanks and praise… for the bread that would be broken at table, the bread that is His body that would be broken.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Reconciling the Spiritual with the Temporal

While there is no doubt that our embrace of God’s will is always an embrace of what is best for us, a cooperation with grace for our greatest good, when it leads us to suffering or sacrifice we are left wondering how to reconcile our losses with the demands of living in the world.  For us with Lyme disease, those losses are many.
Coping becomes first a matter of processing on an intimate level the loss of who we once were.  Physically, for example, our strength is greatly diminished.  Some even suffer a loss of the use of limbs.  No matter how much we exercise or try to recover that aspect of our former selves, there seems to be a clear limit beyond which we can no longer progress. 
Lately my circumstances have led me to assess my current status in this area and I realize in truth the great effort expended in simply bathing.  Afterwards, I have to sit and rest awhile before recovering enough strength to dress, and then there is another period of rest to prepare for drying my hair and doing something with it.    
What once was done without a thought of the cost involved, now requires conscious and attentive direction of the will to be accomplished.  Actions must all be measured in light of a rapidly diminishing energy supply.       
Socially, the time we once might have spent with friends and loved ones is now markedly reduced due to loss of stamina and swift onset of fatigue.  Even conversation takes its toll, demanding a period of convalescence thereafter to regain the energy spent and to calm the head from ringing like a bell tower.  
Conversation itself becomes divided.  There is conversation with healthy people and conversation with sick people.  Unlike the aged who complain, “just because we’re old doesn’t mean we all know each other,” people who suffer chronic and debilitating illness, in my experience, do know one another.  There is a dimension of commonality in this suffering that permits us to see each other with the understanding eyes of the heart.
It is in this way, I think, that we may come to grasp on some level the community that dwells within the suffering body of Christ, the mystical Body of Christ that is composed of us.  And when we are able to see one another with the eyes of this understanding, it is this that begins to provide the answer to reconciling the spiritual with the temporal experience of suffering with chronic illness. 
Though conversations with healthy people may lack the unuttered intimacy of deep understanding of the ill person’s condition and altered state of being, knowing on a primordial level that they too are mortal and subject to infirmity, their efforts toward kindness and sympathy can make up for any lack of real comprehension.  It is with them that we are called upon to be gentle in our attitudes and ways, for they look upon us with some dread perhaps, some sadness, some fear and reach out to us in spite of natural human aversion to illness. 
We, on the other hand, are in the privileged position of knowledge.  We know what it is to suffer in this way and yet, we manage to live.  We pass from day to day in God’s grace with His strength, being made perfect in our weakness through the practice of patience.  It is a power beyond human rationale that we persist in joy and in peace, owing to faith and trust in His plan for us. 
Whenever we are feeling overburdened by the cross of illness and downtrodden by loss, we need remember that our loss is truly gain, for what is temporal will pass away, but what is spiritual endures.  We must remember the loving words of St. Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians: “Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.  For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure…” (4:16-17)

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

"The God of all Comfort"

I went today to attend mass in the small chapel of a local shrine where I was scheduled to meet with the priest after lunch.  Taking my seat near the front, the place filled to capacity as usual and I was surrounded by sniffles and coughs and throats thickly coated with phlegm. 

For the first three years of my illness with Lyme disease, I ignored my doctor’s orders about this situation, remaining firmly planted in the congregation despite all manner of sneezing and wheezing and hacking, contracting every airborne infection in the vicinity due to the compromised state of my immune system, taking months to recover while a healthy person would be sick for a week or two.  I’ve also been through priests’ fingers accidentally touching my tongue in the reception of communion whereby I would promptly succumb to whatever germ was on the fingers and in the mouth he touched before mine.     

The issue is not only the misery of bearing a cold for a few months, but the strain put upon the immune system, and the crippling in fighting capacity with regard to Lyme infection.  It becomes a real setback. 

So today, I left.  A year ago I would’ve stayed, praying not to get sick, unwilling to accept the fact that my particular frailty would bar me from being present at the table of my Lord and from communion with Him. 

In addition to that, there is the sense that no one understands why I am leaving when mass is about to begin, and I am looked upon as though something is wrong with me, rightly so.  The priest passes me on his way to the chapel as I am walking from it.  “You’re leaving?” he asks puzzled. 

I ascended to the rock where the statue of Our Lady is perched and I prayed, distracted by the fluster in my heart.  Eventually I opened the book I brought to read between mass and my meeting, opening to where I had left it yesterday.  I read:  “Janine shivered and wrapped her thick black coat tightly around her.  For over an hour, she peered through the glass door of the auditorium, eager to catch a glimpse of her children as they performed in the school Christmas concert.  Lord, I feel like a leper.  Must I always be on the outside looking in? 

I was there with her.    

The author, Judy Gann, went on to explain that Janine suffers from multiple chemical sensitivity, which would cause her to become violently ill in contact with the fumes of fragrances worn by the audience.  She then reminded me of what I needed to remember, when I needed to remember it, writing:

“In a culture that loathes blemishes, there is little room for those who aren’t ‘perfect.’  The value of those who suffer from illness is often perceived as less, yet that couldn’t be farther from the truth.  In the eyes of God, we are precious jewels.  God delights in us.  He purchased us with the sacrificial blood of his own Son.  His love for us is unconditional – not based on our abilities and achievements – or our health.  When our worth is measured according to worldly standards, we may feel like outcasts – peering into the windows of the lives of others who can do more.  But looking through the eyes of God, regardless of our state of health, we are cherished treasures.” 

Truly, ours is ‘the God of all comfort,’ so called by the title of Ms. Gann’s book.