Perhaps not surprisingly, I have found myself thinking about sickness lately. From colds, to Covid, to cancer, it’s likely you know someone who is sick, are caring for a sick family member, or are sick yourself.
Being sick is miserable and caring for someone who is sick is no picnic either. It is hard to watch our loved ones suffer.
The Catechism counts illness and suffering among the “gravest problems confronted in human life. In illness, man experiences his powerlessness, his limitations, and his finitude” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1500).
The way we respond to sickness can tell us a lot about ourselves. The Catechism describes two different responses: “Illness can lead to anguish, self-absorption, sometimes even despair and revolt against God. It can also make a person more mature, helping him discern in his life what is not essential so that he can turn toward that which is. Very often illness provokes a search for God and a return to him” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1501).
While possible reactions are not limited to these two, I tend to fall into the first category. I often respond to illness by wallowing in self-pity and self-indulgence. When I contemplate saints who suffered terrible illness without complaint, I feel as though I fall very short.
Can I really live my sickness or that of my loved ones in the presence of God?
If I remain wrapped up in myself, sickness is simply misery. But if I am open to receiving the grace of God, it’s a very different story. Take today’s readings for instance.
On today’s feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, we hear about his reaction to being struck down and left blind, weak, and clueless. How does Saul (later known as St. Paul) respond to his illness? He allows himself to be led by the hand and, under Ananias’ care, recovers his sight and regains his strength.
Ananias’ role in this healing is remarkable. He responds to God’s call to care for Saul, who just before had been “breathing murderous threats against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1). Ananias goes so far as to call Saul “my brother” (Acts 9:17) and nurses him back to health, despite having many reasons that might justify doing otherwise. Ananias exemplified Christ’s own compassion toward the sick and his ministry of healing.
“Moved by so much suffering Christ not only allows himself to be touched by the sick, but he makes their miseries his own: ‘He took our infirmities and bore our diseases’ (Mt 8:17; cf: Isa 53:4)… By his passion and death on the cross Christ has given a new meaning to suffering: it can henceforth configure us to him and unite us with his redemptive Passion” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1505).
Though we may sometimes feel abandoned in our illness, Christ is not indifferent to our suffering. On the contrary, he has made it his own, and, through his own suffering and death, Christ has transfigured it. When we respond to illness with a desire “to freely unite [our]selves to the Passion and death of Christ” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1499), suffering takes on a new meaning. It can be an opportunity to become more like Christ and to participate in the saving work of Jesus. This in no way downplays or dismisses the difficulties and challenges of being sick, but rather elevates them and transforms them into something greater, something which contributes “to the good of the People of God” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1499).
Let us allow today’s readings to prompt us to examine our own attitudes towards sickness and suffering, especially if we find ourselves in the position of caring or being cared for.
How can we, like St. Paul, allow ourselves to be taken by the hand? How can we more readily and gratefully accept help in our illness? How can illness serve to draw us closer to God and make us more Christ-like? How can sickness make us more mature and help us to recognize what is essential? How can we be more open to the grace of God which can offer us the strength, peace, and courage to overcome the difficulties that come with sickness?
How can we, like Ananias, respond to God’s call to bring his healing to others? How can we lovingly lead our sick loved ones out of anguish, self-absorption, or despair? How can we imitate Christ in our compassionate care for the sick and suffering?
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I recently learned that a medical condition (that I have suffered from for most of my life) might be greatly improved or even completely healed via a major diet overhaul. Although I may one day be able to reintroduce some foods back into my diet, it is difficult for me to face giving up many of my favorite foods for several months, years, or even forever.
On reflecting and praying about my reluctance and fear about this daunting task, I realized that my personal struggle with my physical health is analogous to the human soul’s struggle with concupiscence and sinfulness. My body has been growing progressively sicker over nearly two decades, with symptoms that none of my previous doctors had been able to explain. But I have been so sick for so long that there were times (usually in between the worst flare ups) that I convinced myself everything was manageable, or even that it was all totally fine and normal. But during the worst flare ups—whose pain or duration I could never anticipate and for which I never had any warning—I would be in so much pain that I could sometimes barely function.
In a similar way, mankind clings to sin. Why do we hesitate to put aside the things that keep us from God? Why is it so hard for us to simply reject our sins and turn to a deeper relationship with our loving Creator? Like me with my medical condition, I think we can become so used to our vices—to how it feels for our souls to be sick from repetitive sins—that we convince ourselves that turning back to God and casting aside our sinful habits is too difficult and would not make us any more joyful or free.
Choosing the healthier or holier life is difficult. Establishing good habits always seems to take more effort than establishing or sliding back into bad ones. Of course, it does not help that temptations abound in the temporal world; inflammatory foods are the easiest and cheapest things at the grocery store and are laced throughout restaurant menus. Likewise with temptations to sin: the ubiquity of screens and social media, which can create barriers to personal relationships and wipe out our daily prayer times; the constant push to place religious devotion with devotion to ‘things’, the pressure to ignore the natural moral order in favor of the self and the self’s pleasures.
Because we are a fallen race, we often seem incapable of rejecting short-term pleasure in favor of long-term gain. I know my health will drastically improve if I permanently remove the inflammation-triggering causes from my life, but somehow the very process—the sacrifice itself and the initial withdrawal I will surely feel as I miss that old diet—seems like too much to bear. How can I ever survive without donuts after Mass sometimes? How can I possibly stop eating cheese? Maybe I can just take a pill instead and keep on living my life how I want to. It’s like this with our vices, too: How can I give up this behavior or this selfishness that is rooted in my heart? I know I should put down my phone and pray, but I’ll do that in five minutes (or thirty, or sixty). There isn’t really any need to change my lifestyle to be a stronger follower of Christ, is there? And besides, wouldn’t my hundreds of Instagram followers miss me if I stop posting photos five times a day?
Entering into a deeper relationship with God demands radical changes of us. I eventually realized that my physical health is also tied to my spiritual health. God gave me this unique body, fearfully and wonderfully made in His own image, and it is my responsibility to care for that gift by treating it well—by seeking to heal it in the ways that are available to me and to which God has slowly led me over the past ten years. If I know that my soul is sick—and that more stuff, more screen time, and more licentiousness are not going to heal me—should I not put my sinfulness or woundedness into the hands of the God who will heal me?
Maybe it will take years for my body to heal. Maybe there are some things that I will never eat again, while others I will be able to tolerate on occasion or even fully reincorporate into my daily diet. But, in physical as well as spiritual health, I won’t ever find out what it feels like to be healed unless I commit to getting rid of the things that are holding me back.