My back has been acting up a little lately. I have to be careful how I move, how much and in what ways I lift things, where and with what posture I sit. It reminds me of the much worse first experience I had with back pain.
I was thirty years old, living and going to graduate school in Berkeley, California, and working at a group home for disturbed adolescents in Napa. I had broken my leg while on a weekend vacation, and I was trying to keep up my hectic schedule despite this. I would commute the forty miles between work and school, park on the Berkeley streets and hobble to class on my walking cast, assisted by a single crutch. With my free arm I was carrying all my books. When class was over, I’d hobble back to my car and drive home.
One day while I was limping my way across a busy intersection my back spasmed so badly I literally could not move. I stood there in the middle of the traffic, unable to go forward or back, while cars zipped around me. Finally a young man emerged from an apartment building bordering the street. He had been watching me, he said, and did I need help?
“Just get me to the sidewalk,” I responded. “I need to lie down for a little while, then I think I’ll be fine.” He helped me off the street and assisted me in lying down on my back. I assured him I would be okay in just a few minutes, and he returned to his home. An hour later, when I still hadn’t moved, he came back and asked if he could call an ambulance for me. Not seeing what else I could do, I let him.
After an overnight stay in the hospital I began a long, grueling, excruciatingly slow healing process. It was three days before I could get out of bed and a week before I could walk around the house. Every movement had to be carefully planned out, and it took forever to do anything. Of course I couldn’t work, couldn’t attend classes – couldn’t do much of anything at all. I was terribly behind in my assignments, and I began to run out of money.
There came an afternoon I was sitting in a chair in the living room and bent over to grasp the shoelaces to tie them. A wave of pain washed through me, my back in spasm again. I crawled to the floor and lay there weeping in pain, fear and frustration.
After my tears had subsided some, I found myself gazing at the filthy mess underneath my refrigerator. It was driving me nuts, and there was not a single thing I could do to make it cleaner. Suddenly I saw myself as if from a distance, and I burst out laughing. Here I was lying on my kitchen floor completely incapacitated and what did I think about? Cleaning under the refrigerator.
A moment of profound peace came over me, and I knew myself to be in the presence of the Holy. Lying there, cheek against the linoleum, I felt myself totally blessed. So what if I couldn’t move; I was loved. So what if I didn’t have the money for the rent and didn’t know if I would be able to finish out the semester at school; I was of irreplaceable value to my creator.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Jesus says. “Blessed are the mourners, the meek, the hungry and thirsty, the peace makers, the pure in heart, those who are persecuted.”
Blessed are the empty. They shall be filled.
We teach people the wrong things in our culture. We teach control, taking charge, getting ahead, not selling ourselves short. Getting a good job, the right relationship, a nice house – it’s all up to us. We teach self-reliance, and we blame anyone who cannot make choices that put them in control of their own destiny.
But we don’t teach dependence on God. And then we are surprised when no one has the time to listen for the comfort, the satisfaction, the inheritance or the realm of the Holy One. We should be teaching the Beatitudes.
Laurie Gudim is a religious iconographer and liturgical artist, a writer and lay preacher living in Fort Collins, CO. See her work online at Everyday Mysteries With others she manages a website for the Diocese of Colorado highlighting congregations’ creative ministries: Fresh Expressions Colorado