Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Illness, The Mystics + Finding the Way to Humility


“Sometimes the most grateful pilgrim is the one whose road has been the rockiest.” James Martin, SJ

One pattern I have seen in the lives of many of the saints I admire, adore, and aspire to emulate are that they had some form of chronic, often debilitating, and always painful, illness. In this small thing we have something in common. I don’t think this is true because my illness is divine, or that my pain is sacred, only that there is room to grow towards divinity and the sacred in my pain.

I know, from experience, that pain is a crossroads. We are given the choice to take the path to bitterness, anger, resentment, and withdrawal, or the road to openness, humility, “dying to self”, and surrender. I can say, quite often, in the course of the day, I do both. Even though I struggle to do the latter more than the former I can see that the way to a deeper faith and relationship with God is in surrender and humility.

I believe that the reason there are so many mystics with early, persistent, and lifelong illness is because when given the option of whether to seek the devil (to use a word sort of colloquially for the baser, least of our human qualities) or the divine, they were able to transform their pain into the humility necessary to really know God. I see, more and more, the path to knowing God is only through abject, repeated, and complete brokenness. One thing chronic illnesses give you plenty of is brokenness.

This week, and beyond that this month, has been a struggle towards something greater to be gained from my pain–in a time, for me, of Lenten experience–I have found a great deal of desert and a whole lot of devilish temptations of my spirit. I have found a great deal of brokenness. I try to think of the saints who made their way to grace by way of lifelong pain, physicalized but also psychic. I try to live up to the task of seeking better than my “self”–seeking God in the worst of me.

As I write this, my hand aches through my fingers and shooting up my arm, under my elbow and creeping toward my shoulder. It delays the process of this post, and in it, increases in my frustration. The pain radiates further from my shoulders into my neck, down my spine into my hips, and through my hips throbbing into my knees towards my toes. It feels like someone is compressing my body from the inside, like large fists tightening over every inch of me.

I seek the words of others who have done this better, as a means to some variation of a better me. I am on my knees, not asking for relief from the pain, but for a stronger soul to bear it. I hope that these others can guide the way. Pain is not, like self-flatulation, the origin of divinity–but it can be a conduit. And for those who have taken the riskier path, “It has made all the difference,” (the latter excerpted from Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken“).

Quotes from those I honor the words of, who suffered and suffer from chronic pain/illness:

“The stone that the builders rejected, has become the cornerstone.” Psalms 118
“Suddenly, it was so obvious! God was in the midst of the suffering. I suppose I had “died to self” more than I had realized. While I knew that God hadn’t caused the suffering to make me receptive to those things, my openness seemed an outgrowth of my experience during the past few years…Was it possible that the suffering was helping make me a better Christian, a better disciple?” James Martin, SQ, My Life with the Saints

“It is encouraging to see that trials which seemed to us impossible to submit to are possible to others, and that they bear them sweetly. Their flight makes us try to soar, like nestlings taught by the elder birds, who, though they cannot fly far at first, little by little imitate their parents.” Teresa of Avila,Interior Castle

Suffering, pain, and things that test us do not have to come in the literal package of physical pain. Most recently, my humility, my cross, my challenges have been very much physicalized…which led to emotion pain, and psychic struggle. The wars of the soul can come in many forms. What are your battles for divinity in the pains of human reality? What are the graces that help you get through?

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