Three weeks ago I underwent knee surgery to repair ACL and meniscus tears. After six days of recuperation, I returned to church and work, although I expect to be on crutches for a total of six weeks. Several days later, I contracted what I thought was the flu, although I tested negative. It was probably some exotic virus or a virile bacterial infection. Regardless, I found myself housebound for a second week, with a spent body and fuzzy brain, and unable to talk. I could do nothing more than stare at the vapid television or into the expansive white of the winter outdoors.
As interim priest at a lovely church located in a resort area, I am being housed in a VRBO-like condominium. The living area – kitchen, living room, dining room – is upstairs. Both bedrooms and bathrooms are downstairs. The condo does not have a “handicap” entrance, which means I have to navigate two flights of stairs to get to the couch – one from the parking lot to the entrance, and the second from the entrance to the living area. To get from the car to the front door requires me to cross a parking lot tundra of ice and snow.
I am not complaining, just miserable. I do not have a bad attitude, I am just taxed. Which, of course, makes me think of Laura, my wife, who died a long time ago following a neurological disease that caused her constant and severe pain. She spent a year, two, three in pain, with little respite. At the time, and as a new priest still youngish (any Episcopal priest under fifty is considered “young”), I watched Laura suffer and wonder about how a person in pain or suffering engages spiritually. Centering prayer, meditation, the Daily Office, reading Scripture, praying for others? What might one do to fortify the soul against the body’s attack? What might God ask of the person whose task in life has been reduced to pulling one additional tug of breath into the lungs? Is spirituality possible? Will engaging the spirit ease suffering?
I wasn’t the one suffering in those days, just the one watching his companion suffer. I naturally and egotistically assumed I could instruct her regarding the spiritual side of suffering. These days they call it, man-splaining. Laura naturally ignored my great advice, smart on her part.
Almost two decades later, I find I’ve spent countless months and years learning how to engage my personal faith spiritually, particularly during life’s trials: Laura’s death, betrayal by friends, rejection by family members and/or parishioners.
I remember receiving a spiritual epiphany during one particularly difficult time. A parishioner with a psychosis was repeatedly ignoring my personal boundaries. I suffered emotionally in a way that was severe and real. The epiphany came during Holy Week. One morning, while praying, I had an instant, inescapable, and unspeakable feeling that the upcoming Good Friday, only several days away, was to be mine. Put another way, I realized that, in my situation with this parishioner, I was going to be the one who died, albeit metaphorically. I was to be crucified with Christ … And lest that sounds terribly self-centered, narcissistic, and egotistical (or just one of those), that, in fact, is what happened. The advance intuition or voice of God or whatever it was – gave me the strength to face my Golgotha. And, as they naturally do, life and grace followed death, only later. Much later.
Physical pain is different from psychological or spiritual pain. Physical pain is like severe hunger. When you are hungry, all you can think about is food. When you are in pain, all you can think about is how to end the pain. For those who might be suspicious of me, I am aware that there can be a place beyond hunger and perhaps beyond pain (how could I know?) when one slips into or leans into or yields to that hunger and pain …
Some traditions invite a suffering person suffering to embrace their suffering. Christianity often fails in this regard. Instead, we tend to offer two-dimensional prayers for healing. But leaning into one’s dying, to remember that dying, too, is part of living – that, too, is part of the tradition. I’ve offered this spiritual solace to those dying, despite never having been on that road. How can I be sure my advice is sound?
In one version of Hinduism, they speak of a way for a person to face what he or she fears the most. Peter Matthiessen outlines this in his book, The Snow Leopard, by telling the story of a fellow who stumbled upon the decaying body of his mother. The fellow was naturally stricken with grief and overcome with horror. Remembering the instruction of his guru – to embrace all that one fears, to treat all of life (and death) as inseparably related and thereby holy – he made a pillow of his mother’s remains and lay there for seven days. The practice invites the practitioner to embrace one’s mortality.
And I know – I just know – that I have failed miserably to embrace my own physical maladies with that type of intensity. Still, I close my eyes, invite the presence, feel the presence, and am grateful for each new breath. Will that be enough for my deeper self, my languished unconscious self?
At the end of the day, what I do know is this, and what I recall is this: Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. Or, as spoken by Jesus elsewhere, I will never leave you nor forsake you.