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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