The Use of Illness

The Roman Catholic spiritual tradition is so steeped in the concept of conversion that it is often something we do not up front squarely address, assuming it to be understood. However, let us here up front squarely address it so we all understand it as it shall be meant throughout this weblog.  

In Romans 8:28-29, Paul writes, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family.” 

The first statement begins to assure us that illness and suffering work for the good of those who love God, that is, for those who are in union with God, those who seek to know and abide in God’s love and wisdom. Paul’s second statement clues us in to God’s plan for us, in and through which all things work together for good. We are called according to His purpose and His purpose is that we whom He foreknew -- which means all of us since not one of us has come into existence apart from His knowledge -- are called to be conformed to the image of his Son. Why?   

To become perfect in our humanity, for Christ is the model and exemplar of human perfection. When we are conformed to the image of His Son, we have reached the pinnacle of human being, excellence, grandeur and beauty.    

It is true that we already bear likeness to the image of God, for we have seen it written in Genesis 1:26 that He created us in His own image, according to His likeness. Yet, in choosing to gain full knowledge of evil in the garden of Eden, we departed from perfect union with God who has no part in evil, therein embracing suffering, disease and death. As a result of our decision, the image we now bear is one of marred beauty. 

Our understanding of sublime beauty begins with knowledge of Jesus. For God took upon Himself the flesh of humanity, subjecting Himself to suffering and death, though without sin, that is to say, without dissent or departure from the truth and wisdom of God. In His love for us, He deigned to suffer human weakness for our sake and to die for our sake that we might through His suffering, dying, and rising from death come to claim life eternal in union with Him who is Life. The suffering and death of Jesus Christ have transformed the meaning and value of human suffering, for His having taken these upon Himself has sanctified them. 

To say that suffering and death have been sanctified by Christ is to say that when we choose to suffer and die in the manner of Christ, in a disposition of heart and mind alike to Christ, we may ourselves be made holy, attaining the life for which we were created. Through this we enter into a life sublime, a life of such excellence, grandeur, and beauty as to inspire awe, for we enter then into the very life of Christ.

“Christ enables us to live in him all that he himself lived, and he lives it in us. ‘By his Incarnation, he, the Son of God, has in a certain way united himself with each man.’ We are called only to become one with him, for he enables us as the members of his Body to share in what he lived for us in his flesh as our model.” (The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 521)

When in faith and trust we take up cooperation with God’s plan for us, illness itself may become a means of conversion. That which debilitates and may decimate the body can by a movement of the human will and the grace of God become that which purifies the heart, mind and soul, becoming an occasion of conversion to the image of the Son.