Is God Present in Illness?
Quickly you discover there is no lack of interpretations of why illness has come to inhabit your life. These range from kindly suggestion to hurtful opinion. In my own case, having been side-swiped by acute pancreatitis, I was told by one person that God gave me the illness because he wanted me to be a saint (not said in jest). Another person told me that it must have happened because I didn't have enough sweetness in my life (presumably because the pancreas manufactures insulin, which regulates blood sugar).
Most of these interpretations were distressing. Some of them were plain bad, both as expressions of faith and as descriptions of my experience. At a point when I was the most vulnerable, both physically and spiritually, I found myself inundated with opinion, conjecture and interpretation—most of which did not fit my own sense of how faith comes to bear on illness, suffering, disruption, and loss.
So in the long months of recovery, I began to search for a way to read my illness and my body on my own. I wanted to allow myself—and other people like me—the chance to study the narrative, or the story, of what had happened, and to bring that into prayer and reflection. The quick and ready interpretations that are so often handed to someone who is ill overlook the specific reality of each person, and the particular experience of being sick and weakened.
Each person, each illness is a particular story—a story told through a particular person in his own context, in her own time and place. Each story is full of sacred meaning. Discerning the meaning, listening for intimations of divine presence in the midst of confusion, disorientation and pain requires what the Benedictine tradition calls "listening with the ear of the heart."
I am a poet as well as an Episcopal priest. One of the things that reading and writing poetry has taught me is that there are multiple layers of meaning in a poem, a good book, a movie, a life. When I began life with pancreatitis, I started looking for a structure that would bring together poetic sensibilities, my prayer life, and living with the long term effects of my illness.I started applying a process called lectio divina, or holy reading, to the experience of being ill.
Lectio divina is a centuries-old way of looking at scripture. It has several steps, and it invites us to listen to our own lives in a way that is attentive and creative. As with any process, lectio divina is but one way of trying to discern meaning and faith in the midst of living with illness. It's not the only way; it is a way that has been beneficial for me and for others.
Applying this process to the experience of living with illness invites you to reflect on different aspects and dimensions of being sick. First, you simply let yourself know what you have been through—whether the onset of the illness came through a sudden and unexpected eruption or through a surprise discovery in a regular check up. You allow yourself the opportunity to register what you have been through. Then you reflect and pray about what you recall and discover. Lastly you create a specific prayer in word or some means of creative expression—painting, drawing, movement, clay—whatever allows you to embody the prayer and is also consistent with the limitations of your illness.
Living with illness raises the most basic questions of the faith journey: who am I? Who is God? How is my identity changed by these limitations and sufferings? Is there any meaning to be found in the midst of pain? The process of lectio divina—regular practice of reflecting on the illness, meditating on moments in that ongoing experience of living with illness, and creating prayer from our meditation— allows us to be in conversation with God about our bodies, our deepest feelings, our fears and our hopes. It allows us to bring all of our embodied life in illness to the merciful and gentle presence of God.
Illness is without a doubt disconcerting, disturbing, perhaps cause for despair. Illness can also serve as a means to awareness. Reflection on the ability of the body to heal, to keep going in the face chronic ailments, to repair after chemotherapy and radiation, may lead us to become aware that this body truly is a gift of God.
An example of listening with the ear of your heart from Broken Body, Healing Spirit by Mary Earle.