Author Avatar



Share post:

My daily life revolves around the sick. Seeing visitors
flock into hospital wards to bring comfort, food to loved ones. To see them washing their family or friends in the ward, to see young people gathered around the beside in fervent prayer, praying for a miracle for a cure, asking God to bring back home
their loved one is a source of joy and pain for me.

Joy to celebrate their faith, their commitment. I am sure that more young people come to hospital to visit sick relatives than young people attend church. I often ask myself how many of these folk do go to church and I am humbled
by their strong faith, or at least a bold display of their faith.

Pain: my pain is to see so many people on many occasion pray desperately for someone whom I know, medically is beyond further help, and then to see them die. It is part of my pain to remember my own mother
struggling in ICU with people around the world offering masses for her and then to watch her slide progressively into multi organ failure, fungal septicaemia and finally death 19 days after being shot. My sister plastered the ICU room with Jesus of Divine mercy, Sr Faustina, a miraculous medal
given to her by Mother Theresa was carefully taped to her chest during her ICU stay.

A young mother had her faith seriously challenged and rethought out when she lost two of her daughters in a car accident. She always asked our Lady to keep them safe whenever they went out. The
night of their untimely fatal accident was no exception. A lit candle by our Lady’s statue in her home, asking her for protection, was the only light left in her life when the terrible news of the accident reached her ears. Where had Mary been, what are we praying for, where is Christ the healer

Why do bad things happen to good people? Was the question Rabbi Kushner tried to answer in his book: with that same title. His son died of an inherited disease: Tay-Sachs which afflicted his child at the age of 10 and led progressively to death. It is a good start, in trying to
understand sickness and death in the context of a believer. It lacks the revolution of Jesus Christ and the insight that Jesus brings us.

With all these questions and my daily life, I have moved towards illness rather than cure. Illness is what the patient has right now, it is
where he or she is at. The cure, medical, spiritual, miraculous is to come later. I have to start where people are at.

So I would like to look at illness as a pathway to God. By courageously limping, staggering or crawling along this pathway, for many: spiritual cure and perhaps a
physical cure awaits them.

Illness in many ways carries many difficulties for the patient, and it touches nearly every dimension of their lives. Relationships with others change. The relationship that a patient has with himself, or self image changes. Illness forces a patient to
re examine, or reject a relationship with God.

Too often the damage that illness traces in the lives of people make them demand of God, WHY? or a cry for help: Cure me.

If illness is to be a way, a path then in a real way, illness still mirrors the same path that we
tread in health. Perhaps we are not conscious of this path to God in health, and that illness seems to light it up, or take away all illumination if we reject God or get angry with God’s silence or apparent inactivity.

If illness is a path, then we too must remember that it is the
patient who walks that path. The patient remains free, illness never drives its victim. No matter how sick we are, barring the comatose, delirious or demented state we have the freedom to accept, reject, to offer and to refuse.

What does illness do spiritually for the afflicted.

It recalls the basic facticity of our existence and reminds us that we are not eternal. We are reminded that in essence life and health is a gift, and we cannot prefer a long or short life, we cannot choose riches or poverty. Illness presents us with the brisk reminder that we are created. The
whole environment forced upon us by illness is one of dependency. We become dependant on nursing staff, machines, doctors, cleaning staff who may bring us our food. Being reminded of our fragility in illness we place the I of my being before the You of almighty God. The I has now become
dependent, there is little chance of now doing it my way, but every chance of engaging in God’s way.

Illness suddenly removes myself from the driving seat of my life, I am no longer the master of my destiny. In fact the whole reason for my existence is questioned. I begin to
discover that I have a body, because the body demands an attention that hither-to was ignored. We only become aware of some things in life when they begin to fail or give us resistance. How many of us thought of the door as we came into this room tonight. It would only have grabbed our attention
if it had jammed or would not open with a key.

I begin to realise that the Ego I have, is not just an “I” before my projects, dreams, work and plans. It is not just the “I” before others, it is also an “I” in front of me, my body which is given to me and now does not function as
it should. This rude awakening makes me realise the “I” is in fact a body. In illness the flesh speaks, and no longer just the spirit. The silence of our internal organs is broken. The word was make flesh in the Incarnation and dwelt amongst us, dwelt in us. The Word of God spoke in the flesh,
in illness the flesh to speaks the Word. We are often insincere when we speak in health, we use subtleties play word games, hide our feelings, look for approval, hunt for praise. Illness makes us speak a truth. The voice of our organs find it difficult to speak a language of subterfuge. The
speech of illness is honest, direct and true. We are called to trust, to have a certain amount of faith in the medical staff, in our body.

This then is the spiritual invitation to which falling ill invites us.

This is the first step of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Our Blessed Lord becomes flesh, gives up his equality with God, becomes poor, releases his power and takes on the humility of being limited. God places himself in the trust of Mary, Joseph, the social milieu of that time.

The first stretch then along the path of illness, is the
acceptance of the illness itself. Acceptance of a depressing diagnosis is not easy. Denial, Anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. These were Kubler Ross’s steps in accepting a fatal situation in the dying patient.

We have to accept illness if we are to walk the path that
illness stretches out before us. The patient has to admit to themselves that he or she is diabetic, hypertensive, asthmatic, HIV positive, arthritic, a cancer patient. It is only in a state of Grace that one can admit that one is a sinner. If we want to walk the path of God, we need to confess
that we are weak sinners. Falling ill translates that spiritual maxim directly into the flesh. I am weak, I am asthmatic, I am HIV +. It is the first step of Jesus’ ministry: Jesus has to confront Satan in the desert, to be tempted for 40 days.

During the initial stages of
illness the patient may be overcome with guilt. I smoked too much, I did not eat wisely, I did not take enough exercise. Is God punishing me for past sins ? Whether illness comes from inside or outside, the first step of illness and its acceptance is the automatic self interrogation, examining
of consciousness to find out personal culpability. If the diagnosis and prognosis is grave, we have to confront the difficulty of family members, our loved ones are confronted with the choice of being honest, of having the courage to start the journey of saying good bye and not clutching
comatose relatives in ICU saying, “hang in darling, you are going to be OK, I know you, you are strong, you’re a fighter”. Some of the most important things we need to say to people are often reserved for moments of no return or no feedback. Why else do people divulge their private lives to
people who cut their hair. Not speaking our love or gratitude in such a way that reveals to the dying person that we know they are dying, prevents closure and saying good bye. Grief is more intense when we have not said goodbye emotionally. So the temptation to lie and play games confronts us in
the first part of the journey of illness.

The ministry of Jesus begins after the acceptance of the presence of his adversay, acceptance that he is the Son of God, acceptance that he too can be hungry, thirsty and in need. Walking with Jesus in his daily ministry of what the Church
calls ordinary time, is the moment for each Christian to discover a living, working, loving and praying relationship to our Lord.

So too illness at this stage: is the beginning of the ministry and journey with doctors, X rays, endoscopies, Biopsies. It is the time of the illness
when the body is touched, the body is interpreted, when the sick person begins to have a say and also is invited to listen. In the light of the diagnostic procedures one discovers the significance of illness for one’s life. We live the 5 senses during this time of illness acutely. The sight,
touch, smell, taste and feel are more exercised in illness across the board than at any other time. From the taste of tablets, to the smell of disinfectants, to the sounds of machines, nurses, trollies, and a plethora of unfamiliar voices, to the touch of so many hands, doctors, nurses and

So too in the spiritual life: to celebrate the incarnation we need to apply the 5 senses in our reading of scripture. To see, touch, feel, smell and taste the areas where Jesus walked: to imagine the situations with the same vividness is to enter into the Gospel and
ministry of our Lord. During the ministry of Our Lord, he came up against opposition: be it from the spiritual world of demonic possession or the religious world of pharisaisism. Here too in illness we are faced with the forces of darkness and those of light. The bad X ray, bad blood result, the
cytological report of a query malignancy. All along these results evoke decision of acceptance or refusal from the patient. In the spiritual realm we might ask ourselves at any stage of our Christian journey:

What have I done for Christ? What am I doing for Christ? What do I
wish to do for Christ?

These three questions arise: What have I done with my life, what am I doing, and what do I wish to do from now on?

There is a repetition that gets carried out during hospital stays: Regular BP checks, regular blood glucose monitoring,
regular hand over nursing rounds, regular temperature charting, the giving of tablets. It is done like clockwork and seems boringly repetitious. But they are life monitoring procedures. These and many others are done every 15 minutes in ICU. Yet on the path of health: I found mass once a week,
boring. I found finding the time to read scripture boring, I found more energy to buy books fiction and non-fiction that spoke to me more of the world and less about God. The thought of browsing in the catholic bookshop for spiritual reading paled in significance to Ster Kinekor, Exclusive
Books, Facts and Fiction. But now on the path of illness, and seeing this repetition am I forced to aknoweledge a wisdom hitherto veiled from my eyes. Is not the repetition of prayer and its routine not as important as the repeition going on around me in the hospital ? The repetition of Jesus
walking from town to town in his ministry, the repetition of forgiveness 70×7. His insistance that we knock on God’s door like the importunate widow asking justice from the judge who won’t get out of bed. The repetition of the shepherd who keeps counting his sheep until the day he notices one is
missing and goes after it. Perhaps it was the repeition of counting that eventually saved the life of the lost sheep.

If cure and recovery take place: the road of illness ends at this stage and we return to the path on which we walked in health, perhaps a little wiser, with our
values re structured and less concerned than previously about the minor details in life that seemed to occupy so much of our emotional energy. If recovery becomes more remote we continue our walk with our Lord into his passion.

The passion of Christ is ultimately the gift or
surrender of himself to his accusers. So many times he escaped them, but it was his decision when confronted to hand himself over. It was in torture of the innocent, the spilling of the innocent blood that Jesus becomes the Lamb of God, that John in his gospel can speak about that which silenced
Kings. The power of the cross converts a pagan murder accomplice, and out of his mouth comes the ultimate truth of who Jesus is. “In truth, this was a Son of God”. The gift of Christ himself gives us the gift of his body. Something we celebrate at every mass. His body and blood become the
everlasting gift and covenant in the Passion.

In illness we can lock ourselves up in bitterness and become a prisoner of our illness, or we give ourselves as an offering. This offering transforms our very bodies into gift. The gift of our suffering for others, the gift of our in
activity for those who cannot bear silence or cannot stay still and persevere. The shadow of the cross looms large and this side of the grave we cannot get out of this life alive. Jesus examines his life on the cross and can look back with joy which urges a shout of triumph: “It is consummated”
“Father into your hands I give my spirit” don’t we hear the echo in this of the parable of the man who with joy places the ten talents doubled into the hands of the master. It is finished.

Some one has said that Nothing so much concentrates the mind as the threat of death, and
that there were no atheists in the trenches. It is also a moment for forgiveness: Father forgive them for they know not what they do. Jesus remember me when you come into your Kingdom. Imminent death is the call for Pardon, to both give it and receive it. The dying thief asks for it and the
dying Jesus gives it. There are two deaths that stand out in my memory. The first was when I was a medical student and witnessed the death of a man who had just been anointed by a priest. It was the first person whom I had seen with smile on his face in death. The second was a man who knew he
was dying, at one moment, he struggled upright thanked me and a colleague for what we had done and told us that he was going: he lay back that instant and breathed for the last time.

The resurrection is difficult to live this side of the grave, and I think is a reason why Easter
is treated as a greater feast than Christmas. We never send out Easter Cards nor do we buy presents for Easter. It is easier to identify with Calvary and Bethelehem than with the empty tomb, for the shadow of our own tombs are stretched our before us. The certitude of healing is difficult to
grasp when one is ill. Often healing may not be complete and one is left with a struggle to re-integrate into society after physical damage or limitation. Our illness may impose a stigma – as epilepsy does. Paraplegia with all its attendant trials push back the contemplation of the resurrection.
I often feel that we are like Mary Magdalene or rush to the empty tomb lookinf for Jesus. She too cannot understand the resurrection. It somehow remains hidden in our hearts as seeds that only take root after death. We live in hope and joy having witnessed the resurrection of Jesus. The final
journey into the doorway of death results in a narrowing down of our environment, we may want only a few significant people until there may be just one person we wish to see. A stage arrives when we are before the Lord and it matters not what goes on around us.

The value and force
of the resurrection of Jesus lies at the foundation of all Christian joy and hope. On Tuesday evening the gospel of the day was taken from the final chapter of Mark’s gospel for the feast day of the Conversion of ST Paul. Jesus lists the attributes associated with believesrs. Drinking deadly
poison, picking up snakes, laying hands on the sick and they will recover. Now either there are very very few believers or Jesus is telling us to look past the words and see that the mark of a believer is one who is not afraid of death, and so will not fear poison, will not fear snakes, will not
in fact fear illness. For as St Paul’s asks what can separate me from the love of Christ ? Rom 8:35

I cannot offer you Jesus the Healer with the snap of the finger for those who believe ? If it were possible, Jesus would never have prayed as he did in the garden of Gethsemane.
Jesus asked us if we thought healing the exterior was more difficult than the interior, when the paralytic lay before him. The Focus of Jesus was not on the body, but on his soul, but to prove to us he could heal the soul which we could not see, and was therefore impossible to man and only
possible to God, Jesus healed the man externally.

We must pray for healing as though everything depended on God, but we must also live our illness as though everything depended on us. If we ignore the path of illness and the spiritual richness available to us through the
invitations that illness proposes then we risk by passing Christ the Healer who too walked this road, and who walks our path of life as he comes to greet and embrace us, at a time that we know not.

AJANews no. 27 – January 2005

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *