Sunday, December 13, 2009

Thoughts On Being Sick

With an immune system that's survived countless years of exposure to classroom germs, I thought that by now it would easily fend off the common cold. Not so. Evidence four days of hacking, wheezing, coughing, sleeping, dozing, wandering around the house in search of a banana, drinking any juice within reach, and shuffling along in a bathrobe. Thankfully, I'm on the recovery side of it all, sitting up and taking nourishment as they say. But it does make one pause and appreciate the precarious balances of life.

Years ago, there was a National Geographic video that I'd show my frosh science classes. It was called "The Incredible Machine" and dealt with the human body, presented in only the way that National Geographic could present it. In one scene, they show a man's feet pounding down the beach in slow motion, and the narrator says something like this: "With each step we take, we teeter on the edge of catastrophe." That stayed with me, and it's probably true in more areas of our lives than just the physical one.

But it's a physical part of our lives that asks (requires?) the most of our attention and that largely defines many aspects of our identity at any one time. When everything is fine, things are great and we hardly think about the details of how and why we are healthy and feeling well. When things are not fine, the details all of a sudden become very, very important. Everything comes under scrutiny, if not be choice, then by the SOS of pain. For us, the physical seems to become more and more important as we become older. Oddly enough, for most of the saints, the opposite is true. What's that all about?

One of the Brothers described a time when his back was so painful that he couldn't bend over to pick something up from the ground. When he was in a room with other Brothers, he dropped something and immediately another Brother bent down, picked it up, and gave it to him. He blurted out: "How in the heck [this is a clean blog] did you do that?" He wasn't really looking for an answer, but the situation compelled him to ask that question because it was so important in his life at the time. Of course, the other guy just stared at him, smiled, and moved on.

The story of the Brother give substance to the conviction that real life consists of the "stuff" that we encounter on a daily basis, which is also where God's providence dwells. It has to do with our health, our relationships, our problems and challenges, our joys and pleasures, and all the rest of who we are. If Christianity means anything, it means that a profoundly new reality is enmeshed within the thinginess of who and what we are; what theologians would call an incarnational spirituality, and perhaps it's that part which in the saints takes root more and more. The stuff of ourselves and our world is different because of Jesus Christ and the Paschal Mystery, although that's not an obvious thing, either to ourselves or to others. But for those who have been brought by faith and experience into that new reality - or at least to a greater sensitivity to it - it seems to be more obvious all the time. And so we sometimes ask the kinds of questions that make others stare at us, smile, and move on. But perhaps the questions will prod an awareness of those things that deserve attention, just as the Brother who picked up the item and heard the question was led to reflect on the grace of being able to bend over when others couldn't.

It all reminds me of a fine quotation from C.S. Lewis: "God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts to us in our pains." That last piece about "our pains" to my mind deals more with the fact that important things become so much more clearly defined in difficult times (unfortunately). Witness a movie I watched while I was laid up: Steal a Pencil for Me. It was a real-life story of a love that formed inside of a concentration camp and the horrors of World War II. Or the story in a wonderful but obscure little book called Father Arseny, about a priest who lived in Stalin's Siberian Gulag for many years and survived, even flourished, because of his faith, humility, and charity.

I still must be sick, because I'm rambling. (No comments, please.)

For now, it's enough to know that health is a precarious thing deserving attention. And maybe the great company of saints can still teach us something about how even health can become relative when one taps into the deeper dynamics of God's grace within the human soul.

For now, I'm just happy to be getting better.