23 August 2008

Personal Questions on the Vocation to Chronic Illness

 I have received several questions, some of them followup, during an email correspondence. Since they may reflect questions others are asking I have decided to post them here.

[[Sister O'Neal, you have written about chronic illness as vocation and explained the sources of your interest in your profile. Is your interest more personally motivated though? You write a lot about the God whose power is made perfect in weakness, and you adopted that as your motto for perpetual profession. That make me think your interest is more personal than I have read up until now. I hope this is not too personal to ask about, but I understand if you choose not to answer.]]

Well, there is no doubt it is a personal question, and one I have not dealt with on this blog on purpose; neither is it one I will deal with again probably unless it raises significant questions for readers and I think saying more can actually help them; but yes, my interest in chronic illness as a vocation (or better, my conviction that there is such a thing) has a personal basis as well as the other reasons I have mentioned.

Since I was a young adult I have suffered from a medically and surgically intractable seizure disorder (epilepsy). For some years it went undiagnosed (or inadequately so), and for many more years (25 or more) it was life-threatening on a regular basis. It also resulted in injuries, some of which led to chronic pain because of Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy --- a condition characterized by neuropathic pain which results when soft tissue injuries do not heal quite properly. Today, the seizure disorder is relatively well, though not completely controlled (seizures are triggered by some types of external stimuli which are more prevalent today than in the past), but the chronic pain continues as a daily reality. Evenso, I take Rx pain relievers (which I believe is the only responsible thing to do here), and the med I now take for seizure control has a happy side effect of helping diminish neuropathic pain as well! The bottom line is that I function well in spite of these things, and am (Deo Gratias!!) graced by God in ways which cause other things than these to dominate!!

My real interest in the idea of God's power being perfected in weakness is first of all a function of my interest in Pauline theology which I began to develop in 1971 under John C Dwyer's tutelage. There is no doubt that Paul's Christology is kenotic, that is, it is centered on the self-emptying of God in creation which culminates in the Christ Event. Kenosis translates into asthenia or weakness. Our God is one who limits himself in order to create and enter definitively and exhaustively into our world. Further, redemption is effected only through Jesus' complete self-emptying in obedience to the will of God; obedience is an openness and responsiveness to God, a complete dependence upon him which implicates God in those places from which, by definition, he is otherwise excluded: the realms of sin and death in particular. It is above all the story of a God whose power is made perfect in weakness: his own, Jesus', and mine or yours as well; undoubtedly I was predisposed to hear this message with a particular keenness.

But it was not only Paul's theology that captured my imagination here. Throughout the Gospels we are confronted by a message where the values of God are not those of this world, where the poor are truly rich, the alienated and marginalized assume places at God's right hand, etc. These kinds of paradoxes intrigued and excited me; they still do, because they spell out the possibility of a life which is prophetic precisely because it does not measure up to, but rather criticizes ordinary worldly standards of productivity, status, value, etc. Still, in Pauline terms what they mean for me practically is that weakness in my own life has been capable of becoming the place where God's power is perfected, not because he delights in this kind of weakness or its attendant suffering (I sincerely believe he does not), but because he enters into our situation exhaustively and heals, transfigures, and redeems it. It can indeed become the place where his own power (love) is perfected in our world. Thus, 2 Cor 12:9 became not just the summary of Paul's gospel, but the summary of my own personal story as well.

Most importantly, it was the isolation occasioned by illness that demanded I confront unhealthy withdrawal, and eventually, to move through it to the legitimate anachoresis (withdrawal) of the eremitical life. That left me sensitive to legitimate and illegitimate forms of anachoresis, as well as to appropriate and inappropriate motivations for embracing the eremitical life, but it helped me to let go of the inappropriate and embrace the appropriate. (Yes the desert vocation involves contending with demons, and they are mainly our very own!!) It also forced me to confront my own essential poverty apart from God and learn how infinitely valuable and precious I am as one made in his own image. In light of his regard for me, and especially as one who (in Christ) is his counterpart --- called to assist in the coming of the Kingdom despite my weakness and personal inadequacies --- I am chosen as God's own bride and dignified beyond all counting by his love. What I discovered was that the call to eremitic life was in every way a call to wholeness, love, and joy. Additionally, it is a call to koinonia in solitude, not to an isolation masked in piety. There is withdrawal (anachoresis), yes, but there is a more profound connectedness or relatedness than is often apparent to those not living the life. In particular, for the diocesan hermit there is community on so many levels beginning with God that it is hard to describe the richness of relationship(s) within the solitude.

So, yes, my reasons for being interested in chronic illness as vocation stem from my own personal medical history as well as my experience as a hospital chaplain and work in neurosciences or clinical lab. Sometimes we witness to the power of the gospel in our weakness. As I have written before, I don't for a moment believe that God willed my illness nor desired the anguish and other suffering that accompany it, but I am convinced beyond all doubt that he willed to teach me how sufficient his love (grace) for me was in ANY situation. My own circumstances became a means to an end despite the fact that God did not will or send them. I came to hunger intensely for God's love, and for the capacity to return it very early on in my life; I also came to be aware of others' needs for it although I could not have explained that coherently at that point. And of course, God filled that hunger, even as he also sharpened it, and he commissioned me, as he commissions each of us, to bring that love to others in genuine compassion and service!

The story about how this all came to be is a complex one and unimportant in this context. What is important to say is that in my emptiness, weakness, brokenness, hunger, anguish, and pain, I met the God who brings meaning, strength, wholeness, satiety, joy, and delight out of all these things. The vocation I discovered is the vocation to witness to THESE latter things, to AUTHENTIC HUMAN EXISTENCE and the God who makes them possible in spite of and through the weakness and brokenness that besets us. God does not will the illness, pain, etc, but he does will their redemption, tranfiguration, and especially their transformation into a life of essential wholeness and compassion. THAT, afterall, is what a vocation to chronic illness is all about.

The reason you do not hear about the personal reasons that brought me to an understanding of this vocation is that while illness or injury remain problematical on a daily basis (this is mainly true of chronic pain), they do not define who I am. Especially I am no victim. Instead, my life is defined in light of God's grace and who that has made me; I want very much for that to be clearer to readers of my posts than these other things. God wills that I live as fully and lovingly as I can in spite of them. He has (with my cooperation) brought wonderful people into my life who have assisted in this including doctors, directors, teachers, pastors, friends who accommodate me in various ways, et al. In all these cases they have helped and challenged me to grow beyond an identification with illness and pain, and into an identification with God's grace, fullness of life, and growing personal holiness. Unless that is clear in what I write, live out, or otherwise proclaim, the suffering itself is meaningless and certainly not edifying; on the other hand, if the effects of the grace of God which transfigures both suffering and life IS clear in my writing and living, then there is rarely any need to focus on the suffering, and doing so would be a disedifying distraction!

[[Do you think it is important for people to know how to suffer? Do you think you have a responsibility to teach people how to suffer or to speak about your suffering?]]

While I think it is important for people to learn to suffer, and while I think suffering well is one of the things we are least capable of today, I am of the opinion that the way to teach (model, or witness to) that is NOT by focusing on suffering itself. In particular, speaking about my own situation is rarely necessary (or helpful) except when it is important to remind someone what is possible with the grace of God. For instance, occasionally a client will wonder if healing is really possible, or if it is possible to transcend a given set of circumstances. In such a situation I will refer to my own illness or pain. Here my own suffering is important, but only so long as it does NOT dominate my life or define me, and only in order to underscore the possibility of healing, essential wholeness and humanity along with the capacity to be other-centered and compassionate in spite of negative circumstances. God's grace ALWAYS heals and brings life out of that which is antithetical to these things, so what one wants to witness to is the transformation of one's life as one moves from faith to faith and from life to more abundant life. His love ALWAYS transfigures our reality, not least because he is WITH US in ways which remind us of how precious we are to him, how much he wants for us, how much he longs to share with us, etc.

Even in situations where it is helpful to speak of one's suffering one needs to recall that it's a lot like a single microdrop of skunk spray: a very little goes a very long way and "scents" everything in its path --- for a very long time!! Also, if you think about the stories of suffering that really inspire and move you, they are ordinarily the stories where courage, patience, joy, wholeness, dignity and selflessness predominate and the pain or suffering is recognized but allowed to disappear into the background. They are the stories where humanity triumphs (and this means a person living from the grace of God); they are not exercises in navel gazing or detailed and repetitive accounts of one's pain. Suffering well is, after all, about courage, about affirming life and meaning in spite of destruction and absurdity, and especially, it is about LIVING AS FULLY as one is able. There is no way to do this if one focuses on the suffering per se. This kind of focus is ALWAYS self-centered and can be temptingly and distractingly so both for oneself and for others; it is ALWAYS a bid for attention to self (even when appropriately used this is the case). It is also focused on the thing which God's grace helps overcome rather than on the effects of that grace (or the one who gives it). Neither of these (self-centeredness, or a focus on evil) is generally edifying, and can be quite disedifying except in certain limited circumstances. The question is always what does one want to witness to; viz, what do you want others looking at, God's grace and the possibilities for hope and wholeness or one's own self, brokenness, and suffering? For these reasons if one MUST refer to or focus on these latter things one must ALWAYS do so rarely and briefly.

What I am saying is that in "teaching" (I would prefer to say assisting or encouraging) people to suffer well, as far as I know, the only way to do that is to teach them how to live, how to pray, how to give themselves over to God's grace, and especially how to cope so that life and not pain per se is the focus. In my experience, a sure way to FAIL to suffer well (or to fail to inspire someone to bear their own pain well) is to focus on the suffering per se. By the way, "teaching" someone to suffer well presupposes one DOES that oneself, and I wonder how many of us can say that is honestly true of us? It is another reason to focus on life, on hope (both of which are the result of God's grace), and on placing oneself in God's hands so that he may redeem and transfigure the situation as far as possible. We need this encouragement and focus on a continuing basis as much as anyone we might witness to.