A Catholic Monthly Magazine

Enjoying Ill Health

By Fr Kevin Bates sm

A much-loved member of our Australian Marist community, who died quite some years ago now, used to provide us with great amusement through his tall tales of the real or imagined past, and the seemingly endless library of his illnesses and injuries.

One of the worst insults you could offer him was to tell him how well you thought he was looking! We used to remark that he “enjoyed ill health!!”

In more recent times, as my own body is getting older, I have more and more people asking how I am, and more and more I’m in a position to share the excitement of my own collection of infirmities! Then, of course, I need to listen to theirs. It sure helps pass the time!!

Being crook is no fun, of course. There are the symptoms of whatever it is that ails one, the aches, the stiff muscles, the shortness of breath, the awareness of a diminishing capacity to do what once was easy.

Then perhaps there is fear, panic, frustration and even anger. It’s quite possible to become quite self-absorbed and if we are not alert, our health can become our main life-project!

At times of serious illness this is very understandable. However, there is more to this suffering caper than sitting around wondering what will go wrong next.

From the moment of our birth, every breath we breathe is a gift, freely given by a heart of utter love. It stands to reason, then, that every breath, even on our suffering days, has a purpose, holding lessons for our learning and opportunities for our growing.

In a world where a person’s value is so often measured by tokens of success, in the social, economic, political, sporting or business arenas, a person who holds none of these tokens still has a mission and a place among us.

This person has no wealth on display, no outstanding physical beauty, no rare talent, no power, none of success’s normal trappings. Here is someone who is simply suffering.

However, through a gentle touch, a moment of kindness, a loving word, the suffering person and we may glimpse how he or she can shine anew as an icon of grace for us.

Moreover, this person can be a prophetic voice in a world that feels awkward and fearful when faced with apparently useless suffering.

The suffering one proclaims the value of a life once given, life that is now being surrendered back into the arms of the birthing love of years gone by.

Healing, robust health may never bless again this ageing body. Nor may work, easy conversation and humour surface as they once did. Memories may be muddled and even family members may seem to be strangers.

Somewhere inside, there still lives a story worth remembering and telling. There is a heart that has shown love in livelier days. Here is someone made in the image of God and who still plays her or his part in the revealing of that Divine Face among us.

Such a one, if you recall, is in good company with the one who becomes our Saviour in his own darkest hour, as he too cries out in pain, frustration and feelings of abandonment. 

The suffering self has much to teach me in terms of patience and trust. I also learn more clearly that I am a small part of the great human and cosmic drama, a tiny, precious part, and am still able to show Love’s face through my suffering body and spirit.

I speak of love not through any talents, beauty or achievements, but simply through the fact that I am an image of God, irreplaceable and unique.

Somewhere deep down, in what’s left of my memory and consciousness, I may even be able to grasp this for myself and actually take a moment, however transitory, to enjoy ill health!   

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