Sickness and nakedness

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I am terrible at being sick. I realize that is not unique. Who likes being sick? But I mean that I am terrible at it as a Christian. It is one of my great failings in discipleship.

Over the last few weeks, my whole household has been going through what has become an annual visitation of the plague. At least three separate illnesses have overtaken us, one right after another, so that there’s been little to no break. Nothing life threatening, of course. An upper respiratory thing, a stomach bug, and a case of the Flu (and yes, before you ask, we were all vaccinated – it didn’t help).

It has been terrible, but far less than a life threatening crisis. Yet I find that I have been less and less faithful throughout the days of illness and recovery. In the beginning, I said little prayers, asking for God to relieve the sickness, but as it has dragged on, those prayers have faded, along with my reading of the Daily Office and my now defunct new year’s promise to pray the rosary daily. As I have felt worse, I have become more irritable with family and friends. I have also become more singularly focused on myself, constantly aware of my own “feeling bad,” and obsessed with finding comfort and distraction. I have ignored theology and Scripture, preferring instead to watch countless amounts of junk television.

In short, I have become a spiritual bum.

This is not how a Christian is supposed to face sickness.

In the Visitation of the Sick from the Book of Common Prayer, the priest at one point invokes the Lord while addressing the sick person, asking Him to “make thee know and feel, that there is none other Name under heaven given to man, in whom, and through whom, thou mayest receive health and salvation, but only the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” In the same rite, the priest calls upon the Lord to “sanctify… the sickness of this thy servant; that the sense of his weakness may add strength to his faith, and seriousness to his repentance…” Sickness is not any fun, but it holds within it a great opportunity for a Christian. In the weakness of our sickness, we may come to realize our dependence on God alone. Our sickness may become a tool that God uses to make us holy, cutting away all that holds us back from faith and strengthening our sense that true health is only to be found in Christ.

I have said these prayers many times by the bedside of sick people. I have counseled people going through tremendous physical strain to rely on Jesus to make it through. Yet, when I encounter even the slightest discomfort in my own life, I run in the opposite direction.

Sickness is a clarifying agent. It is the sort of thing that holds a mirror up to us and shows us who we really are. It is easy to be pious when all is well. When our bodies are not working properly, the true condition of our souls becomes apparent. I have seen people walk through terrible illness with true grace and dignity. I have also seen people fall apart, allowing their fears and insecurities to rise to the surface. In myself, I have seen far more of the latter than the former.

Sickness exposes us. It unmasks the lie we live under that says that we are capable of caring for ourselves, by our own steam, with no need for anyone or anything else. Sickness is a kind of nakedness. I hide from God when I am sick for the same reason that Adam and Eve hid from God when they found themselves naked in the garden. The only way that we can maintain the illusion that we are good enough without God is if we never see ourselves accurately. When our wounded reality is revealed, we try to hide in the shadows, not wanting to admit the truth.

As this latest round of sickness slowly starts to dissipate, I find that what I need more than ever is to form a new set of prayer habits. I do not mean by this that I need more devotions to say. I have many of those already and I was quick to discard them when I needed them most. Rather, what I need is the habit of being exposed in prayer for the fraud that I am. I need a regular, constant reminder before God that I am wounded, selfish, and totally incapable of my own healing. I need the shock of that to set me free from complacency and to focus all the attention of my soul away from my own comfort and towards the heart of God.

When sickness comes again, as it always does, I want to be prepared to receive the only medicine that will actually do me any long term good.

Photo taken from the window at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, PA. All rights reserved.

The gift of grieving

Screenshot of Edward Herrman and Kelly Bishop from Episode 5 of Season 6 of the original series, from Wikipedia.
Screenshot of Edward Herrman and Kelly Bishop from Episode 5 of Season 6 of the original series, from Wikipedia.

“Gilmore Girls” was a staple in our household when it was airing a decade ago.  It was a coming of age story, filled with lots of quirkiness and charm but grounded in an unvarnished view of the challenges of human intimacy. I was skeptical going into the recent reunion show, “Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life” on Netflix. Having been disappointed by just about every attempt at rebooting a show after a long hiatus that I have ever seen, I was pleasantly surprised to find that this was different. It had the expected fan service–the call backs to obscure moments in the original series and cameos from almost everyone who ever even walked by the set–but it was something different and special all on its own. It was still a coming of age story and a story of complex relationships, but now it was also a story of mourning.

Edward Herrman played Richard Gilmore in the original series. Richard was an important character but not absolutely central. In fact, Herrman’s name in the credits of the original series was always introduced with the words “special appearance by,” as if to underline the tangential nature of his character. However, Herrman died in 2014, meaning he would not appear in the reunion show. His absence would have to be addressed.

From all reports, this show was percolating in the mind of creator Amy Sherman-Palladino for many years. She knew what she wanted to do with it long before Herrman’s death was a factor. She could have easily dealt with the absence of Richard by saying he was off on a fishing trip or that he had run off with his secretary. She chose instead to make the death of Richard a central aspect of the show. Far from just a quick moment of sadness, the absence of Richard Gilmore colors the entire four episode arc. He is arguably more central and more important here than he ever was in the original series.

Grief is like this. It is not a momentary endeavor, an interlude of sadness in an otherwise productive and happy life. Mourning is a lifelong discipline. It colors and changes us. As a priest, I have been at many bedsides of the dying and seen many people mourn. Grief is as unique as a snowflake. Every person experiences every loss in a different way. The losses do not recede with time the way that people say that they will. Instead, they slowly work their way into the fabric of life, changing the way we love, the way we trust, and the way we see the world.

My maternal grandmother died in 2003. She was just shy of 78, not tremendously elderly by today’s standards but old enough that no one would have said that she died without ever getting a chance to live. She was a complicated woman whose life was not always easy and whose choices were not always good, but to me she was always a figure of pure love and support. Her absence from my life, even after all these years, still feels something like the soreness in the gums at the place where a tooth has fallen out. Something is missing that belongs there, something that could easily be overlooked when it was still there and functioning but that is immediately apparent when it disappears.

Recently, my good friend and colleague in ministry, Fr. Brewster Hastings, died quite unexpectedly. I had no idea how important he was to me until he was suddenly gone. He had been my spiritual director, my mentor, and at times even my confessor. He walked me through a good many difficulties. I did not thank him enough. I did not appreciate him nearly enough. I am quite certain that I will still be feeling his loss in a decade.

We live in a society that tries to deny death. Part of that denial includes the denial of grief. We see it as something to get over or get through. We try to psychologize it. We expect it to get better. We tell people that it will get better. But it doesn’t get better. And here’s the real kicker, it shouldn’t get better.

Grief is not a bad thing. It is not a problem. It is one of the truly great gifts of human life. It is a hellish gift, to be sure, but it is a gift all the same. What the constant throb of grief reminds us is how important life is and how unfair death is. We act sometimes as if death is natural. We try to make friends with it. We comfort people by saying things like, “It was just his time” or “she lived a good, long life and she’s not suffering anymore,” or worst of all, “God called him home.” None of these sentiments tell the truth. Death is an aberration. It is completely without dignity. It robs us every time, whether the person in question lived a long life or not. God is not the author of death. God never intended for us to die. Death is the outworking of sin in the world. It is the warping of God’s plans and intentions.

Grief reminds us that death is our foe, not our friend. Grief can also give us clarity about what is important in life. In the new Gilmore Girls series, the grief experienced by Emily, Richard’s widow, completely changes her, making her realize that many of the things she once thought were important never really were. Living in the shadow of Richard’s memory eventually gives her an odd kind of courage to be kinder to people and to let go of many things that simply do not matter. In a strange sort of way, his death becomes a sacrificial offering for her. It allows her to live more fully, not because she gets over him but because she finds in the pain an untapped potential for beauty and human connection.

The grief I have known has had a similar though as yet less complete effect in my life. I cannot say that I have become a totally different person, but I have grown more sensitive to things I would not have noticed before, things like the difficulties of life for people as they age, the loneliness of widows, and the often unnoticed humanity of the very sick. Like all suffering, grief has tempered my soul. It has made me love more deeply even as it has made me more aware of my own failings to live up to love’s promise.

As a Christian, of course, grief takes on a whole different dimension. It is a reminder of the fact that the very love of God is borne out of grief. So God loved the world that He sent His only Son to die for us. His death on the cross is the ultimate example of fashioning love out of grief. When I encounter the crucifix, there is a dual feeling that often runs through me, a sense of shame at my own sinfulness and a corresponding joy at the fact that His death has lifted it from me. Sometimes in those moments, I suddenly realize anew that Jesus died for me and that I never really saw what I had before. In those moments, I become a Christian for real. It is a religion of bitter sweet love, a piety of grieving happy tears.

And of course, bound up in all of this is the promise of resurrection and the hope of the life to come. Those who have died are not gone, though they may be gone from us. I pray now for Fr. Brewster and for my grandmother and for all those who are on another shore. I pray for their repose in Christ. I hope they pray for me. I learn over and over again, every day, to trust them to God’s care. That too is a gift.

Edward Herrman was a faithful Catholic. I think he would have liked how “Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life” portrayed the loss of his character. There is another shore where Herrman and Fr. Brewster and my grandmother all see a horizon that I only catch glimpses of now. May their souls and the souls of all the faithful departed rest in peace. And may we who grieve never take the gift of our grief for granted.

The Word of God for those who have no words

An old picture of my boys from a couple of years ago.

It is no accident that my sons, Langston and Micah, are named after a poet and a prophet. I have always found my solace in words. For as long as I can remember, I have been a writer, a reader, and a talker. I’m not good at sports. I’ve never been able to draw. I still count on my hands sometimes to do math. But words have always been both my paint and my canvas.

When I imagined being a father, I dreamed about both sharing my words with my children and having them share their words with me. But that has not been my experience. My boys are eight and four now and they are both on the autism spectrum. While there is great variety in how autism manifests itself, for my children it has come in a form that is probably best described as non-verbal. They both have some words at their disposal, but the number is very limited. They cannot have a conversation. They cannot follow most stories. They cannot read. They live inside a world that is largely wordless.

There are many ways in which the communication challenges that my children face are frustrating for them and heartbreaking for me, but none more so than in the realm of faith. I consider it my most solemn duty as a parent to teach the Christian faith to my children. “Fathers,” says Paul, “do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). My children have trouble understanding the most basic things I say. How can I instruct them in who God is and what He has done for them? “Faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ” (Romans 10:17). But what good is that preaching if they can’t understand it?

As Catholic Christians, we are fortunate to have a few more tools at our disposal than we might otherwise. The Word of God is to be found not only in the words of a preacher or catechist but in every facet of the Catholic life. My wife and I try to surround our children with the things of God. There are icons and crucifixes in our home. There are songs that we sing. Many prayers can be learned in a rote fashion – the only way that my children ever gain language – and so my oldest is now able to make the sign of the cross and recite the Lord’s Prayer with some coaching, even though he has no awareness of what he is saying.

And of course, in the sacramental life of the Church, the grace of Our Lord is given as a gift to all of us, regardless of our capacity to understand it. I had the privilege of baptizing both of my boys as infants. Like all the other babies I have baptized over the years, they could hardly have been cognizant of what was happening, but that didn’t matter because God was at work. It wasn’t about them getting it. It was about Him giving it.

Yet the sacraments come with their own challenges for my family. The height of the Catholic life is the Mass, but my children are hardwired by their autism to screaming fits and other behaviors that many people find distracting or even outrageous. I cannot help my wife to wrangle them during Mass since I am usually up front leading the service. They rarely make it past the peace.

Moreover, my children have never been able to attend Sunday School. What happens when it is time for them to be confirmed? How will they be able to take on the baptismal promises as their own?

How do I bring my children who live in wordlessness to know the God who makes Himself known only through His Word?

“Is not my Word like fire?” says the Lord in the mouth of the prophet Jeremiah. “And like a hammer which breaks the rock in pieces?” (Jeremiah 23:29). The Word which God speaks is not just an ordinary word. We hear it in ordinary words, but its power is far greater. This is a Word that doesn’t just point us towards God, it actually is God. It doesn’t just act as a symbol for our minds so that we can contemplate God, it actually delivers God to us. It is the Word that became flesh and dwelt among us, assuming all manner of human weakness in that act of self-emptying love. God’s Word can break the rock of my children’s autism into pieces. He can speak to them in a thousand ways that I cannot, because He has been one like them. He knows what it is not to be able to communicate. He knows what it is to be cut off from the world.

I wish I could say that I have the answer to these questions. There are, of course, programs that help to make liturgy more accessible to children like mine. There are good people trying to work through this. But it’s hard. It’s messy. It’s uncertain. I pray for guidance every day. Ultimately, it is a question of faith, not theirs but mine. Do I trust God enough to find a way to give His Word to my children even when I am unable to do so? In their baptism, Christ claimed them as His own and marked them as such forever. I know that some day my children and I will share words. We will worship God together in a shared language of prayer, whether on this side of the grave or in the life to come. There will be no wordlessness in the Kingdom.

The air is Catholic

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Recently, I had the rare experience of having a Sunday off. Since my wife was away, I had the boys to myself and decided to take them into the backyard to play with the hose. This is a more trepidatious procedure than you might at first imagine. Both of my boys, ages 7 and 3, are autistic. Among the many difficulties that are part of that is the fact that they will not necessarily come to me when I call them. Since they also often do knuckle headed things like swallowing rocks or running out into traffic, I have to be all over them when we are outside of the house. And since there’s two of them, I do not often take them outside when I am home alone with them since they could run in opposite directions. But on this particular morning, I decided it was worth the risk. I set up a barricade that kept them either inside our screened in porch or in the backyard and watched them play. While my oldest made the water from the hose shoot up and around in all directions, I helped my youngest draw circles on the porch floor with blue and yellow sidewalk chalk. It was an unusually peaceful time with my boys, and I allowed myself to drink that in. I smiled when they laughed. I smelled the sunscreen I had rubbed on their faces and the grass clippings from the previous day’s mowing. I breathed in the moment, trying to hold onto the feeling, allowing my lungs to fill with warm summer air.

It occurred to me later that there was something essentially Catholic about that experience. That may sound odd since obviously a man need not be a Catholic or even any kind of Christian to enjoy a Sunday morning with his children. Yet what I experienced was not just the joy of the moment itself but the way in which that joy is connected to the whole of God’s good work in the world. I felt a profound sense of connection. The sweetness of the air and the sounds of my kids playing were somehow tapped into the mystery of salvation. There is an endless continuity between that moment in time and the crucifixion and resurrection of Our Lord.

A lot of Christians, including many liturgical Protestants, have been taught that the word catholic means universal. That is true up to a point, but it is not quite as accurate as it is to say that catholic means according to the whole. That is what the Greek words that make up our word catholic, κατά and ὅλος, mean literally. When we say that the Church is Catholic, we mean that she is whole, she is full. When we say that we are Catholic, we mean that we share in that wholeness and partake of that fullness. And that means that our entire experience of creation is part of the deal. The boundaries of our faith are far more expansive than what we might otherwise imagine.

One of the things that is often hard to communicate when evangelizing is the fact that Christianity is a way of life far more than a set of theorems. To be sure, there is a rich and vibrant intellectual life in the Catholic tradition that builds off of the foundation of basic doctrine. Nevertheless, having all the basic doctrine boxes checked will not make you a Christian, nor will reading every word of the Summa Theologica give you a Catholic mind and heart. People today want sound byte answers to their questions about life, faith, God, and all the rest, but what they need is to live inside the heart of God. This is why I think that some of the best evangelism today comes not from having the slickest pamphlets with the best answers but from being forthrightly and unabashedly strange. Consider this:

Undoubtedly weird to see eucharistic adoration happening in a public place, yet by allowing the sacred to invade and inhabit the every day, we begin to wake up to the reality that everything is being made holy by the presence of Christ in the world. In a Catholic worldview, the whole world participates in the life that God has given and restored in Christ. The air is Catholic. The trees are Catholic. The act of walking down the street, of buying a slice of pizza, of feeling the sun on your face is Catholic.

The beauty of the Catholic faith is that it brings together all that is true and good into one whole. It integrates and it elevates. There is truth and goodness to be found in a marketplace, and in a classroom, and in a church, and in the backyard with the children on a warm summer day. The Catholic faith takes each of those goods and binds them together through the heart of Jesus so that they all flow forth with His life. In the light of Catholic truth, every moment becomes eucharistic.