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Over the weekend, I took a deep breath and suddenly was in so much pain, I doubled over. The doctor on call said it was something called “pleurisy” and told me to go to the ER.

My son drove me to the hospital, and, on the way, I mulled over what this mystery condition was all about. Could it be the plural version of leprosy?!? Something that sounds like a fancy French dish can’t be a big deal!

Two stern-faced nurses, one male and one female, started to disrobe me and put electrodes on my chest for the EKG. At least buy me dinner first! I thought.

They put an oxygen tube over my nose, started an IV line, drew blood and wheeled me in for a chest x-ray.

Finally, one of the nurses smiled. “Love your cat socks,” she said. Another one laughed and said, “How great!” and pointed to her jacket, which had a pawprint design on it.

Another nurse, Marielle, asked what I did for a living, and it almost occurred to me to say I’m a professional patient of late, but told her about my writing gigs.

Her parents only spoke Tonga at home, she told me, but she really tries to speak English like a native. Her “friends” corrected her all the time, and she said that she sometimes  confused “was” and “were.”

I was impressed with her because she worked in the ICU of another hospital in our town on weekdays, and at this hospital’s ER on the weekends. She’s already achieved so much, but what makes her feel less accomplished is her grasp of the language.

The nurses focused on my cute cat socks, even though all the while I was thinking, I look and feel like forty miles of bad road. They didn’t see what I saw.

Marielle focused on her perceived language issues, even though all the while I was thinking, she’s young to have accomplished so much in her career. She didn’t see what I saw.

When I got home that night, I prayed for all the nurses who had taken care of me, and that we could all see each other through God’s eyes, healing each other with kindness.

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“It’s no big deal,” my sister says on the phone of her recent hysterectomy. “Of all my surgeries, it was the easiest.” Of course, this is a woman who has had surgery on her eyeball. And endured a double mastectomy. It is not surprising to me that she is stoic. She knows the way of pain.

The way of pain is also Jesus’ way. Imagine, if you will, being tortured for hours by Roman guards, kept up all night, having a crown of thorns digging inexorably into your head…then being loaded up with a wooden crucifix you can barely lift and having to drag it to your own execution site. All this before getting nailed to said cross and dying of exsanguination or collapsed lungs or shock or all three. And yet the gospel-writers never include anything about Jesus hollering curses or demanding morphine or even venting slightly with a few cross words (pun intended). Jesus takes on the worst physical pain — and the pain of all the sins of the world — and still finds time to take care of his mother, forgive a thief and absolve his murderers. Now that is something.

Pain is lonely. It cuts a person off from others. There is no “sharing” pain; each person’s pain is unique. When I broke my ankle many years ago, I felt pretty bad. Then a friend of mine related the story of how she broke her ankle. Just hearing the story made me know that what I was experiencing was, frankly, laughable.

Pain is dehumanizing, reducing most of us to our worst selves. When an animal is in pain, it may hide. If confronted, it will bite. We humans do this too, in our own way. Neither strategy lessens the pain, but the kind of thinking that goes along with pain is seldom rational.

Pain has become something of a dirty word in this country. We will go to great lengths to extinguish it with pills, shots and other tinctures, both of the legal and illegal variety. No one wants to walk through pain. But pain is also salvific: It is perhaps our only means of intersecting our life experience with that of Christ. I will never be able to multiply loaves and fishes, but I can certainly understand how it feels to hurt.

Holy Week is coming up next week, a week wherein we remember Jesus’ suffering and his triumph over death. It seems an opportune time to reflect on the pain in our lives. We all experience pain, physical, mental or spiritual. But what we do with that pain matters. Non-Catholics tease Catholics over the use of the phrase, “Give it up to God.” We use it a lot, for everything from small deprivations to devastating losses. But what that phrase means is this: With this experience, I am touching, in the tiniest way, the way of the cross and the way of Christ. This provides an opportunity for something special — to choose Jesus’ response of understanding, acceptance and sanctification or to allow myself to be diminished.

The way of pain is not the easy way. It is not something to strive for. But when it is thrust upon us, as it inevitably is, it is a place of possibility. And in this place, we are at one with God.

 

 

Do you suffer from lightheadedness? Ringing in the ears? Do you sweat excessively? Do you have unexplained pain in your feet? How about difficulty concentrating? It’s enough to turn anyone into a hypochondriac.

I’m talking about a form I have to complete every time I see my doctor — that is, every six months. On it is an extensive list of symptoms; I circle the ones that seem to apply to me. As always, I struggle with honesty. Well, yes, my back does hurt. But does it hurt hurt? Do I want to open that can of worms, or should I just try not to sleep on my back so much?

It’s rather like examining the current state of one’s soul — as a person is wont to do during Lent. (Am I following through with my Lenten promises? How can I improve?) It also reminds me of the sacrament of Reconciliation. Before I can confess my sins, I have to make a list of them. And it seems like the same old sins keep appearing on this list, just as I continue to report the same health symptoms to my doctor. “Being short-tempered” is my “continuing asthma.” “Selfishness” is right up there with “osteoporosis.” I might as well bring a form into the confessional with me.

What happens when a symptom becomes a chronic health problem? Well, you fight it, of course, with a program of prescriptions and wellness techniques: exercise, healthy eating, etc. But what should you do when the chronic problem is a sin — the same one, time and again?

It is all very well and good to promise you won’t do it again — something I do, and have done for years. And every time I really mean it. And then, halfway home from church, some small annoyance starts my skin tingling, like a form of eczema, and I snap. Or judge someone’s appearance or actions. Or fall prey to depression. And suddenly, it’s déjà vu all over.

Maybe it’s time to look at underlying causes. Is that cough a cold or tuberculosis? Am I being selfish because I don’t feel loved enough or because I am greedy and childish? Do I lose my temper because others don’t live up to my expectations (and why should they?) or because there is something about my life that needs radical change? These are the questions I should be asking, investigating, and diagnosing.

What’s on your list? What symptoms keep popping up to plague your spiritual life? And what can you do about them to effect systemic change? Consider Lent your yearly check-up. And then get to work.

Eight years ago, a mystery disease caused me to drop weight rapidly. Trip after trip to the doctor, test after test, revealed nothing. I got down to 116 pounds on a six-foot-tall frame, a weight I hadn’t been since my wedding day. (And yes, I was too thin then.) But what surprised me most about this period were the reactions of those around me. “You look so good!” everyone said. “You look healthy!” Only my wise sister-in-law refused to be fooled. “You’re too thin,” she told me, and those words made me want to cry. She saw me. She saw how sick I was, how worried. It felt redemptive.

When the body is sick, the soul often follows. After all, if you hate your body, how can your soul be at peace? It is the rare saint indeed whose soul flourishes at the expense of her body — like St. Rose of Lima who disfigured her face with lye so as to be unattractive to anyone but God. Or St. Alphonsa, who stepped into a fire so as to ruin her feet…and her chances at marriage.

But most of us aren’t Rose or Alphonsa. If our body is hurting, mentally or physically, it can be hard for our souls to be well. The opposite is true, too. A soul in unrest can be mirrored in the frailties of our bodies. Body and soul are connected.

My friend Robyn suffered in silence from bulimia for almost 20 years before she sought help. Then, and only then, was her soul able to heal. Today she writes uplifting, nurturing prose for others who might be trapped in the same condition. Her soul has healed as her body has healed, and now she passes on healing to others.

That brings me to today’s salient message: If you are hurting, body or soul, reach out to someone. Don’t hide in silence. Don’t be ashamed. And even if no one in your life hears you, God always will. Don’t give up — even if your physical condition cannot be improved, at least you have an outlet, a listening ear who cares. Even that — just that — can work miracles in soul-health.

As for me, whatever it was that was troubling me eight years ago quit troubling me. I’m now overweight, and just as unhappy with my body as ever. I know this weighs (no pun intended) on my soul. So I am focusing my light within. Hopefully, as my soul strengthens, my body will, too…or at least I won’t mind so much if it doesn’t.

Have a Mary Little Christmas

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