Learning from Illness

dad2A wonderful recent photo of my Dad and little Andrew Palmer by my niece, Jenni Palmer.

An interesting feature in the Gospels is the number of people with physical and mental illnesses (‘unclean spirits’) that Jesus encountered during his ministry.  One can imagine that these encounters made a constant impact on Jesus, eliciting his compassion and attention.

In a large parish like Holy Comforter in Vienna, there are bound to be a good number of folks, young and old, living with a variety of illnesses. Lately it seems that our numbers have been unusually high. In my own family, my father is currently fighting a battle with Acute Myelogenous Leukemia and complications from a weakened immune system.   On a recent visit with him at his home in Florida, I drove him to his oncologist’s office for a scheduled chemotherapy treatment.  I was struck by the number of patients who had an adult child accompanying them.  As my eyes met the eyes of some of my fellow “boomers,” there was a clear recognition, a knowing without words, that our parents were in a very tough place.

As my father and I sat side be side waiting for his treatment, he suddenly turned to me and said, “You know, when I was in the hospital a couple of weeks ago, there was nothing for me to do.  I couldn’t go anywhere and decided to do some sacred meditation on a text from John’s Gospel.”  “Really?”  I replied.  “Which one?” “I have come that you might have life, and have it abundantly,” (John 10:10b) he replied.  He went on to explain that this life, this “eternal kind” of life, is the unique gift of God to us in this present world, not simply reserved for the world to come.  “It’s a whole new quality of life not determined by time, physical age, or death and it’s centered in a conscious relationship with God here and now. Jesus represents the breaking-through of this reality.” He said this with such conviction that it took my breath away.

What I am learning anew from observing my father and from my fellow parishioners, is that confronting the unknowns of illness is difficult.  We have an extraordinary and elaborate immune system and we are learning more about its mysteries all the time. But the immune system is not infallible, and we develop cancers and other diseases when the immune response is insufficient to prevent the disease. We go through the stages that are associated with the onset and development of illness–shock, denial, anger, discouragement, acceptance, and that process calls us to reconcile our new situation with our faith.  Even as we make use of every means available for healing and cure, we come to a new perception of our life in this world.  No matter the illnesses we face, the fact remains we are still men and women and children of God (and we should look upon those who are ill precisely in this way).

Jesus said, “I was sick and you took care of me” (Matthew 25:36).  The paradox involved in this attentive care is that when we are present with those who are ill, holding them in our hearts before God, they become the true bearers of wisdom and grace, not vice versa.

Thanks Dad, for your courage, honesty, and love.