Again, I have no time to edit or clean up, so here’s raw Neal writing. . .
Over the years, I have known a number of priests who have faced either major illness/physical suffering or death and dying. These specific men I am thinking of were/are great men of faith, competent pastors and preachers, men of sober piety and rugged charity. I admire/d them in life and in death, and am grateful for the influence they have had on my life for the better. Among these men, there was a certain number whom I saw profoundly changed when they entered the medical treatment process, and I would like to reflect briefly on the meaning of that change.
As these men were facing terminal illness or a challenging illness, I noticed — because it was so uncharacteristic of them — that any time they would speak of their illness in private or public they would utilize only medical language to describe it’s meaning and challenges. They would energetically describe the astounding complexity of medical procedures and treatments, prognostications and complications, but by and large, with very few exceptions, they would not employ the language of faith to relate the meaning of what they were undergoing. One priest spoke for twenty minutes to his parishioners at Mass about his condition and never once related it to faith. After Mass, as the people were greeting him and offering their support and prayers, one woman said, “Father, your suffering is powerful. Please bless my children!” I watched his face as he bent down to bless them and he was visibly moved by her expression of faith.
As I said, these men were eloquent preachers, persuasive teachers and men of prayer who prayed with the sick and dying and often spoke openly about their own faith. But somehow when they were thrust into the world of medicine they went mute and lost their “theological” speech. It was almost as if the medical lexicon swallowed up their creed.
Now, I have no intention of judging the hearts of these men or arguing that not speaking a faith language equals a faithless experience. I am also fully aware I may have just missed their expressions of faith, and I realize that everyone faces vulnerable and fearful moments in life differently. Though I myself may hope and pray I would be able to articulate my faith in grave sickness or in the face of death, one never really knows until the time comes. And I single out clergy here only because they are men whose mission is to be a uniquely public witnesses to the faith in the midst of God’s people, and the effect “medicalization” had on them was, for me, remarkably dramatic.
But my bigger point here is to argue, along with lots of data-driven literature, that the general trending within westernized cultures over the last 50-75 years has been to marginalize the role of faith as a prime lens through which illness and the dying process were given meaning. “Medicalization” has reduced illness and death to a bio-medical problem best managed by the interventions of sophisticated technology and has radically sidelined what are its more “human” dimensions, i.e. emotional, familial, social, cultural, religious.
Such a hyper-medicalized mindset constricts a person’s ability to cling to faith at the very time their deepest identity is being threatened by diminishment or extinction. It strips faith of its power to bathe life’s supremely vulnerable moments in faith, hope, trust, sacrifice, repentance, forgiveness, sacraments, redemptive suffering, eternal life or prayer.
Sick with God
My spiritual director years ago counseled me to “practice” speaking faith into my sufferings and trials — not in an obtrusive, oppressive or sappy way, but simply and naturally — so that when larger trials came my way, speaking thus would be more of a habit and instinct than an awkward insertion of God-talk. “That’s not just for you, by the way,” he added. “It’s a powerful witness when people can hear your faith alive in the hard times, and can see that, even though you struggle like everyone, you struggle with God.” Psalm 22 came to mind.
I think here of Archbishop Fulton Sheen, whose powerful proclamation of the Gospel of redemptive illness, and gift of ministering to the sick and dying, is legendary. Here is one of my favorite Sheen texts on the subject that’s full of daring and provocative images, and offers a rich grammar of faith for the infirm:
Think of how much suffering there is in hospitals, among the poor, and the bereaved. Think also of how much of that suffering goes to waste! How many of those lonesome, suffering, abandoned, crucified souls are saying with Our Lord at the moment of Consecration, “This is my Body. Take it”? And yet that is what we all should be saying at the time we suffer:
I give myself to God.
Here is my body. Take it.
Here is my blood. Take it.
Here is my soul, my will, my energy, my strength,
My property, my wealth – all that I have. It is Yours.
Take it! Offer it! Offer it with Thyself to the Heavenly Father
In order that He, looking down on this Great Sacrifice,
May see only Thee, His Beloved Son, in whom He is well pleased.
Transmute the poor bread of my life into Thy Divine Life;
Thrill the Wine of my wasted life into Thy Divine Spirit;
Unite my broken heart with Thy Heart;
Change my Cross into a Crucifix.
Let not my abandonment, and my sorrow, and my bereavement go to waste.
Gather up the fragments,
And as the drop of water is absorbed by the wine at the Offertory of the Mass,
Let my life be absorbed in Thee;
Let my little-Cross be entwined with Thy Great Cross,
so that I may purchase the joys of everlasting happiness in union with Thee.
United with Thee;
Transubstantiate me so that like bread which is now Thy Body,
And wine which is now Thy Blood, I too may be wholly Thee.
I care not if the species remain, or that, like the bread and the wine,
I seem to all earthly eyes the same as before.
My station in life, my routine duties, my work, my family –
All these are but the species of my life which may remain unchanged;
But the substance of my Life, my soul, my mind, my will, my heart –
Transubstantiate them, transform them wholly into Thy service,
So that through me all may know how sweet is the love of Christ.
In addition to Sheen, I have also known many faithful men and women — priests, religious and laity — who have evidenced powerfully in their trials, and in their dying, a faith fully alive and verbal. One such person, a priest whom I have known and admired for years, suffered for a time from myasthenia gravis, a painful autoimmune neuromuscular disease that includes, among other things, fluctuating muscle weakness and fatigue. I asked him if I could share with you an email he sent me recently, which included an excerpt from a Good Friday homily he preached the same year he was stricken by this illness. He graciously agreed. I was deeply moved by his manner of expressing, in such a real and meaningful way, the intimate bond between his faith and his illness. Below is a portion of his email to me. At the end I included a “postscript” he added in a separate email.
This priest will remain anonymous per his request (though if anyone heard this homily they will recognize it!), but his priestly witness cannot be kept hidden.
…That “Gethsemane” experience with myasthenia was spiritually very enriching, but something I never want to go through again. There were times I feared I would not even to be able to breathe at night and I left my door unlocked a few nights in case someone needed to come in. I just hoped I had enough energy to call someone if necessary. Yet, I was amazed at how rich an experience it was.
This is part of my Good Friday homily that year.
I know all too often in my life I have chosen to run from the cross rather than embrace it. I have come to learn that whenever I ran from the cross I did not find joy, but emptiness, resentment that I had to suffer, and envy that someone else wasn’t suffering. I have also learned that any joy I experienced required that I first embrace some suffering. When I did embrace a certain suffering, I began to find peace. I know that this applies not only to the vocation of priesthood, but also marriage and the Christian life in general.
This has come home to me recently in the suffering and struggle I have had with the myasthenia gravis that so weakened me recently. When it struck me the evening of January 31st it quickly left me for many weeks with great difficulty in being able to swallow. My speech was unintelligible because I could not control those muscles in my throat and mouth. It would have been easy to resent the fact that I was suffering so. It would have been easy to envy those who were not suffering as I was. I thank God that not once did I fall into that trap. In fact, to my surprise I found myself embracing the suffering. One day as I was preparing a small lunch it came home to me in a way never before that there were so many people who seem to be affected in a positive way because of my suffering. I have received 3-4 packets of cards made by children from St. Mary School who do not know me, but are praying for me. So many members of this parish and other parishes are praying for me. It became so clear to me that God was using my suffering to bring about so much good in the lives of others and I found myself feeling so grateful and honored and humbled that I could have that kind of a part in the lives of others. Even though I wished I was not experiencing what I was, even though I pray it never happens again, nevertheless I found myself thanking God for the suffering I was undergoing because of the fruit it was bearing in the lives of others.
That, I realized, is what it means to take our suffering to the cross. Do we go and seek out suffering? No! Do we run away from it? No. Do we feel sorry for ourselves when we are suffering? No, not if we are Christian. Like our Master, we do not like having to go through suffering (Father, let this cup pass), but we embrace whatever comes knowing that whatever happens, God is stronger and will bring it to a marvelous completion if we only embrace it with trust in him and love for him (Nevertheless, not my will, but thine be done).
Postscript: What struck me is that Jesus is and always will be a suffering Jesus along with a triumphant Jesus. If I’m suffering that means I’m united to him in his suffering. The suffering is not so great, but the union is mind blowing.