27 December 2007

The vocation to Chronic Illness,

I received some questions about the notion of "chronic illness as vocation", and I am aware that there have been a number of visits to the article here in the blog about Eremitism as a vocation for the chronically ill and disabled. While I will write those who emailed me with questions, I thought I should also write a bit more about this idea here, not only because the Review For Religious article on Eremitism which was reprised here was a relatively brief introduction to the idea, but also because as positively provocative as the phrase "vocation to chronic illness" is, it is also easily misunderstood.

What a Vocation to Chronic Illness is NOT

First, therefore, let me say something about what a "vocation to chronic illness" does NOT mean!! In no way do I mean to suggest that God wills our suffering, much less that he calls us to this, especially in the forms of chronic illness or disability! We need to make sense of suffering, and we need to take seriously the sovereignty of God, but we cannot take these two pieces of the human puzzle, facilely slide them together as though they are related as effect and cause, and conclude that God wills suffering. In fact, I don't think we can speak of the suffering human beings endure as positively willed by God in any way, shape, or form with the single exception of Christ's own exhaustive participation in our human condition. (The permissive will of God is another matter, and, except for agreeing that it is real, I am not addressing that here.)

Our Essential Vocation: Authentic Humanity

The conjunction of human and divine often strikes us as paradoxical: expressions of brokenness, sin, alienation, weakness, hatred, untruth and distortion stand in conjunction with wholeness, goodness, unity, power (authority), love, truth and beauty themselves. But, to be less abstract, the human-divine equation, the community or dialogical event we are each called to be often looks to be composed of incredible contradictions: our sinfulness becomes the place where God's mercy/justice is exercised most fully; our weakness and brokenness the place where God's own strength and wholeness (holiness) is most clearly revealed; our fundamental untruth and distortion the place where God's own truth verifies and hallows us, authoring us in Christ as his own parables to speak the Gospel to a hungry world.

There are few images of human sinfulness and brokenness so vivid as that of illness, and especially of chronic illness or disability. It is not the case that the ill person is a worse sinner than others who are well or relatively well. Neither is it the case that illness is the punishment for sin, especially personal sin. Still, it IS the case that the chronically ill bear in their own bodies the brokenness, estrangement from God, and alienation from the ground of all wholeness, holiness, and truth which are symptoms of the condition of human sinfulness. What is expressed in our bodies, minds, and souls, is the visible reminder of the universal human condition. Chronic illness itself then, is symbolic of one side of the truth of human existence, namely, that we exist estranged from ourselves, from others, and from our God. We are alienated from that which grounds us, establishes us as a unity, and marks us as infinitely precious and our lives as richly meaningful and fecund. We live our lives in contradiction to what we are TRULY called to be.

We sense this instinctively, and this is the reason, I believe, personal sin has so often been associated with illness as its punishment (rather than simply as consequence or symptom). We know that this state (estrangement symbolized by illness) is not as things SHOULD be, not as we are meant to exist, not appropriate to persons gifted in their capacity for dreaming and effecting those dreams beyond anything else known in creation. Chronic illness, in particular, is an expression of what SHOULD NOT BE. It is a metaphor for the reality of (the state of) sin; of itself it is paradigmatic of ONE PART of the human condition, that of brokenness, alienation, and degradation. Of course, there is another part, another side to things for the Christian especially, and it is this which transforms chronic illness into a context for the visible and vivid victory of God's love in our lives.

The Image of sinfulness transformed

Authentic humanity is modeled for us and mediated to us by Christ. And above all it is a picture of a life which implicates God in every moment and mood of this existence. More, it is a life which is an expression of the deep victories and individual healing and unity God's grace occasions when it is allowed to reign. Whether to the heights of union with God, or the depths of godless sin and death, Christ's life is an expression of that openness and responsiveness to God which constitutes truly human being, and the supreme example of what it means for God's creative sovereignty to triumph over human sinfulness. Paul expresses the paradox in this way: "My grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness." Jesus' entire life is an expression of the response to the vocation to allow this truth to be realized in human history in a way which makes it a possibility for all of us. It is an image of the unseen (and sometimes unfelt) God whose presence transforms human sinfulness into abundant and eternal life and wholeness. It is, in brief, what we ourselves are called to, and to what those with chronic illness and disability in particular can make manifest with a unique vividness and poignancy.

During the Christmas season, there is another figure who particularly captures our attention in her own capacity to embody the paradox which Paul affirms. Mary, in her own way, is an exemplar of the dynamic of God's power which is made perfect in conjunction with human weakness and even barrenness. The result is a fruitfulness beyond all imagining, a truly miraculous and awesome humanity, which, precisely in its lowliness can, through the power of the Holy Spirit, spill over with the majesty of God's own life in our world. This too is what we ourselves are called to, and what those with chronic illness and disability can especially reveal with special poignancy and vividness.

What a Vocation to Chronic Illness Actually IS:

First of all then, a vocation to chronic illness is a call by God to live an authentically human life. It is a vocation to ESSENTIAL wellness and wholeness. This will mean it is a human life which mirrors Jesus' own, as well as that of Mary, and the other Saints, in allowing God to be God-with-us (Emmanuel). Concretely this means living a life which manifests the fact of God's love for us, and the intrinsic inestimable worth of such a life despite the ever-present values of a world which defines worth (and happiness!) in terms of productivity, earning power, wealth, health, and superficial beauty.

Afterall, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the good news that there is NOTHING we can do to earn God's love, and nothing we NEED DO! God loves us with an everlasting love, and he does so, as Ezekiel tells us,for the sake of his own self, for the sake of his own "holy Name". It is further, therefore, the very good news that with God being for us nothing and no one can prevail against us. God has entered into our human estate, and done so definitively. Objectively there is no dark corner, no place at all from whence God is absent --- for Jesus has implicated God even into the realms of sin and sinful or godless death. In fact, these become the privileged places which reveal God's face to us, the places where he is definitively present. I personally believe we have to say the same, therefore, of illness, which is ordinarily so clearly a metaphor for human brokenness, alienation, and godlessness. For the Christian, chronic illness in particular can become a metaphor for the triumph of God's love in the face of such brokenness. It can become a sacrament of God's presence in a world which needs such sacraments so very badly.

The vocation to chronic illness or disability is, like all Christian vocations, a call not to remain alone and self-sufficient, but instead to rest securely in God and in the esteem in which he holds us so surely. Like all Christian vocations it is a call to holiness, that is to ESSENTIAL WHOLENESS and perfection in and of God's own power, God's own "Godness". This requires we accept an entirely different set of values by which we live our lives from those put forward so often by our consumer-driven, production-defined world. It is a call to find meaning in a life lived simply with and for God, and to carry our convictions about this to a world which is so frantically in search of such meaning.

And, it means to learn to accept the suffering that comes our way as best we can so that He may "make up what was lacking" in the sufferings of Christ and one day be all in all. (Let me be clear that in no way is Paul suggesting Jesus' death was inadequate or did not definitively implicate God into the world of sinful godlessness; however, Paul is also clear that God's victory is not yet total; God is not yet all-in-all. Each of us has a part to play in the extension of Jesus' victory into the concrete and very personal parts of our own stories where God ALSO wills to be triumphant. While Jesus's victory makes God present here in principle, because these realms are personal, we must also allow him in to them. Evenso, we do so IN CHRIST, and in the power of the Holy Spirit, so this victory is an extension of Christ's, not our own in some falsely autonomous sense.)

Christians, above all, do not suffer alone, nor are they ultimately dehumanized by their suffering. On the contrary, suffering, as awful as it still can be, has now the capacity to humanize. This is not because of some power suffering has of itself. Rather, it is because suffering opens us to rely on someone larger and more powerful than ourselves, and to allow meaning to come to us as gift rather than achievement. It can open us in particular ways to the power and presence of God because it truly strips us bare of all pretensions and false sense of self. At the same time then, suffering can humanize because ours is a God who ultimately brings good out of evil, life out of death and barrenness, and meaning out of meaninglessness. This is, afterall, the good news of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. If those with chronic ilness can live up to their calls to allow these simple truths to be realized in their own lives, and become clear to others, they will, in large part, have accepted and fulfilled their vocations.