Now you might think all this involvement with illness would be depressing; but I haven't found it so. Indeed, I have been buoyed, literally raised up, by many of the most seriously ill people I have encountered. Their illnesses seem to have focused their minds and hearts on what is truly important. Let me pass along a few examples:
On one of my recent chaplain days at the hospital Dear Diane had a doctor's appointment of her own that morning and couldn't join me until later. And so I was alone when I entered the room of a woman who suffers from several forms of cancer. After I introduced myself she told me she was a "believing Christian" -- as I recall, she later indicated she was a Baptist -- and then thanked me for stopping by. We spoke a while about her illness and then she said (these might not be her exact words, but they're close enough):
You know, one of the blessings I've received from my illness is the understanding and firm acceptance that our stay here on earth is purely tentative. It's a little like being on probation, isn't it? We are such fragile creatures, but God, and only God, can make us strong enough to face the end of our stay here with faith and really with a kind of happiness. I find that wonderful, but very strange at the same time.She is a perfect example of the surprising benefits and joys of hospital ministry. I'm not convinced that I bring very much lasting comfort to those I visit, but they certainly do educate me about the human condition.
Something else Diane and I have discovered as we make our rounds at the hospital relates to the love and care provided by family and friends. So often the patient's spouse will be there when we enter a room. Many of the patients we visit have been married 40, 50 or 60 years and the love between husband and wife has an almost physical presence. More often than not the spouse will be the one with the questions and concerns, the one who asks us to pray with the patient, the one who seeks signs of hope. This obvious care and concern, this open manifestation of faith, tends to have a positive effect on the spouse who is ill. The patient who has a caring, loving spouse and a devoted family seems to be the happier, more hopeful patient.
Interestingly, these same hopeful patients are those who often have the most visitors. Here in our large retirement community strong friendships seem to form rather quickly, resulting in informal but equally strong networks of solidarity formed to help and care for those in need. On many occasions we have entered a hospital room to find two or three friends and neighbors visiting the patient, seemingly very pleased to be there. They, too, usually join us in prayer before we leave the patient.
I should be used to the miracles God works in the lives of those who suffer because I witness them so frequently. A few weeks ago a parishioner approached me after daily Mass and said she wanted to discuss the meaning of suffering. Now I know that this woman suffers from the early stages of Alzheimer's and has experienced many severe problems. As you might expect, her life has undergone significant changes.
At first I tried to get her to talk about her own situation, but she'd have none of it. "Oh, no," she said, "I'm fine. I just want to know what suffering is all about. Someone told me it's a bad thing to suffer, and that didn't sound right to me."
I agreed that what she'd been told wasn't right. "How can suffering be bad," I asked her, "if Jesus instructs us to take up our cross in imitation of Him?"
And so we talked about the Cross, about how we can come to discern God's plan in our lives, about how the key to that discernment is the Cross of Jesus Christ. We shared our joy that Christ, the Word of God Incarnate, has taken on our weakness, our humanity, and done so through the mystery of the Cross. I mentioned to her that one of the "joys" of accepting the suffering in our lives is that we can become, through this, a source of hope and salvation for others. With this her face brightened into a wide smile. And then she asked, "Do you mean, I can just climb up on that Cross with Jesus, and be with Him, and just suffer right alongside Him?"
As I have said already, those who are ill, those who suffer have become my best teachers.
Pax et bonum...