My wife was in the basement going through an old box filled with personal mementos and yellowed family photographs. She came up the stairs and put an old love letter in front me that I wrote to her in 1973 — the year we married. We were both very young. At one point in the letter I wrote,
“We may be as poor as church-mice but we are rich with hope for the future. This is our great blessing. Both of us have seen people who do not hope: Whether it was a broken spirit, loneliness or disillusionment, something drove them to despair and made them strangers of hope. …”
“…What about our health? Health is like money in that it can be taken away. If either of us were to lose our health, we can be thankful for having known good health. There are thousands of people who have never had the gift of good health; they live with sick or twisted bodies that have never been whole. We have so much to be thankful for but most of all, we have each other.”
My wife asked why a healthy, athletic twenty year old man would make a comment about health in a love-letter? The hope and health comments seemed to be a deviation from the romantic sentiments in the rest of my letter.
Health is uncertain
I think it was because I had been sensitized by my father to the understanding that healthy people can be stricken without warning by illness or disability. He was a robust, strong man who enjoyed excellent health until he suffered a series of devastating heart attacks at the age of fifty and died of heart failure two years later, when I was sixteen. Needless to say, it had a profound impact on me to see how easily and quickly health can be stripped away from people. I was introduced early to the idea that life is tenuous and uncertain.
I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at the age of thirty. Contrary to my earlier youthful words in a love-letter to my wife, I was not thankful I had known good health after it was gone. I was angry I lost it!
Fear overcame me about what lay in store for me. I knew multiple sclerosis is a serious disease that often has a catastrophic impact of the lives of people it strikes. I knew people with MS: often their lives were torn apart as their marriages crumbled, careers shattered, and they were abandoned to a living hell.
Multiple sclerosis devastated my life. It stripped away my health, layer by layer, like pealing an onion, and eventually left me triplegic and in an electric wheelchair.
Looking back over more than twenty years of increasingly profound and crippling disability I must say that I have become one of those people I wrote about who lives with a sick and twisted body. Yes, there were times when my heart broke – along with the hearts of those loved me. There were times throughout the years when it was me (not someone else) who was on the verge of despair. Protracted suffering seemed to isolate me in sorrow – just as my wife’s sorrow seemed to isolate her. At other times we lived two solitudes rooted in the same overwhelming and inexpressible sorrow.
The only way for our two broken hearts to unite was to kneel together before the cross and ask Jesus to console the inconsolable within us.
When people unite their suffering and sorrows with Christ’s Passion, a mysterious solidarity often occurs with other sufferers; solitudes of human anguish come together in mutual comfort at the foot of the cross. Christ’s outreached arms bid welcome to all heavy-hearted people, calling us beyond ourselves and our pain to find our consolation in Him.
What is the purpose of sickness when viewed through the lens of Christian Faith? Bishop Fulton Sheen gave a hint when he said,
“Sickness is seen by Faith as coming from the hand of God, either to detach us from the spirit of the world, or to offer our sufferings in union with Christ’s for the salvation of the world.”
My isolation in sickness and suffering, sometimes to the point of despair, has had the transforming effect of separating me from my attachments to the spirit of the world. It creates a desire of the Spirit of heaven. It has taught me that at the hour of death (mentioned with each Hail Mary) all things of this world, including my decrepit body, will fall away and my spirit will cross the threshold of eternity. It is the same threshold all humanity must cross.
How does suffering contribute to the salvation of the world? I’m not sure. Perhaps Saint Paul’s words give us insight not only in assisting the salvation of the world but the unity of the heavy-hearted with Christ’s suffering that I just mentioned. The Apostle said,
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and God of all encouragement, who encourages us in our every affliction, so that we may be able to encourage those who are in any affliction with the encouragement with which we ourselves are encouraged by God. For as Christ’s sufferings overflow to us, so through Christdoes our encouragement also overflow.” (2Corinthians 1.3-5)