It’s amazing how much you can learn by being forced to lie still in your bed for two days.
That nasty Christmas virus went through our household and I got it just before New Year’s. The timing was fortunate as I had several days to rest and recover.
More like a mini flu, the only way I could find any relief from the headache, fever and nausea was to lie perfectly still in my bed with the lights out, the TV off and a pillow over my head. No noise was tolerable. This went on for two days.
In the past, a sickness like this would turn me inward, driving out all thoughts of God, and everything else. It’s as if a trap door opened under my feet and I fell into a cavern, oppressive and suffocating.
I’ve never before had a guide before to lead me out. This time I did.
For the last two years I have been taking communion to a homebound woman who suffers from a disease of the inner ear that causes severe and relentless vertigo. We have since become the best of friends, sharing intimately from our spiritual and daily lives, delighting in all the interests we have in common and learning about new ones. During our weekly two-plus hour visits, we laugh, pray, ponder, wonder and even cry a bit. Every once in a while we have marathon visits that we call our “sleepovers.”
Jackie is my guide. She suffers from the kind of nausea and headaches that I endured those two days; for her they are a daily occurrence. My two years of immersion in her life and the subsequent mental note taking reaped their reward during my recent sickness.
I thought of Jackie often as I experienced my symptoms. I wondered how she could bear it, day after day, and still wish to live. The pain, the repetition (and the boredom of the repetition), the seeming hopelessness of it all. I had always thought of my friend as heroic; now I had a real taste of what she coped with and admired her courage all the more.
I prayed for Jackie, linking my nausea and headache to hers. I thought of how she would sit for hours in her special rocking chair, eyes closed, just thinking of Jesus. I knew, in a sense that I had to do the same.
It was then that I finally turned on the TV and began watching CatholicTV and EWTN. Unlike other TV shows, these programs were quiet and peaceful. Even though I was too ill to process what was being said, just being in the presence of the Word of God was comforting, slowly seeping into my heart, settling over me like a warm blanket.
I began to understand just how vital these media outlets are for the homebound. How blessed is this generation to have these resources at our disposal, but it all depends on our support. I intend to write letters to each and send a grateful donation.
But the Lord had more to teach me. Words are just the beginning. It’s the presence that matters.
While I couldn’t take in the words I was hearing, I could sense His presence, penetrating the darkness, lifting me outside of my suffering just a bit.
I realized that having the presence of family and friends was vital as well. I longed to have my husband, son and daughter come and sit with me and just be there but of course, they couldn’t understand that. We all think we have to offer words of comfort, bring soup, toast, water or medicine. We don’t know what to say or do sometimes and it feels awkward. I felt too ill to talk or listen. I just needed the bodily presence.
I began to understand how acute loneliness is to those who are ill.
It made me recall a conversation I had with Sr. Joyce Rupp, a well-known author and spiritual leader. We talked about her fourteen years of service with hospice and I shared my interest with her in someday volunteering. Expressing concern over what I should say or how to offer comfort, she said that just being there, being a presence in the room was enough.
Now I understand.
Thoughts of Jackie and her plight expanded to all homebound people. I knew that by thinking of them, I could unite my little (and quite temporary) suffering with theirs. I didn’t have to say it in words; the inner groanings, musings, and pangs of the heart are more than enough when joined with the Holy Spirit.
And that was the biggest lesson I learned during my brief confinement: prayer is so much deeper than words! Words can be the starting point but true prayer digs down to that small, sacred space inside where all is quiet and still; a place of loving safety where I can be intimate and honest with Jesus. I don’t always have to understand what is happening in prayer; in fact, grasping to understand means I am still controlling the conversation. True prayer requires trust; I have to let the Spirit lead it. God is beyond my understanding thus, prayer must be too. When I accept that truth, the Spirit then can lead me to the inmost communion with Jesus.
Sickness, aging, the inability to live a vibrant healthy life: these are very common problems afflicting millions of people. Many suffer alone, in silence, often in fear and despair. I watched helplessly as my own mother was consumed by it.
Who would ever think that such suffering could lead to a deeper union with Christ? This is what His life was all about. I am not saved from my suffering; I can be saved by it, if I allow myself to be carried along on the journey. Having suffered so much Himself, Jesus is right there with me, in the middle of it all, extending His hand, wrapping me in His grace, leading me step by step through the mire.
For the first time, I was open to going on the journey. Yes is such a powerful word. Didn’t Mary teach us this by her example?
Jackie’s example in courage and love showed this to me. I am so glad I took such copious mental notes!
Copyright 2013 Susan Bailey
About the Author
Susan Bailey is the author of River of Grace: Creative Passages Through Difficult Times (Ave Maria Press), and Louisa May Alcott: Illuminated by The Message (ACTA Publications), part of their Literary Portals to Prayer series. Along with her blogs Be as One and Louisa May Alcott is My Passion, Susan writes for the Diocese of Worcester newspaper, The Catholic Free Press.