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The voice of illness: Part 1

December 25, 2011
A couple of weeks ago, on Perspectives: The Weekly Edition, we were speaking about the Celebration of Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights. Rabbi Aaron Flanzraich mentioned that it’s no coincidence that Hanukkah begins on the day that has the least amount of light. It’s a celebration of light, in the midst of the darkness. And of course, I was reminded of that beautiful passage from Isaiah 9:2 that we heard in the first reading at the Christmas vigil Mass last night: “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light,” and that it is very often in darkness that we notice the light. This is also part of what we celebrate at Advent and Christmas. It's no coincidence that Christmas also takes place at a time of year when there is more darkness than light.
And it’s often at this time of the year that we are faced with darkness, with suffering. I don’t mean to be a spoil-sport, but it’s true. The thing about being Catholics is that we are OK with suffering and we need to face suffering head-on. And, I don’t know about you, but it’s often at Christmas, when we get together with family and are faced with memories and ‘times-gone-by’ that we have to face pain. It may not be physical pain, but there is a lot of pain out there. I first heard this type of pain referred to by Toronto Deacons Rob Kinghorn and Gary Johnson as ‘the voice of illness.’
According to Deacon Robert Suthers (also of Toronto), the voice of illness is the ‘voice’ that exists inside all of us that asks, ‘Where is God?’ It is not specific to physical illness or disease. In many ways it could also be called the ‘voice of brokenness’ or the ‘voice of woundedness.’ It is in our brokenness and woundedness that deep down inside all of us cry out in search for meaning and compassion.
I am reminded of a poem by Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche Communities, where he says that everyone who has been hurt has a right to be sure that they are loved; And all of us have experienced hurt, so it applies to all of us. In my opinion, this is the best explanation of the voice of illness. It is that voice that cries out for love – to know that there is meaning to our existence, to our suffering and seeks to know with certainty that we are valued. For Christians it’s obvious that all these questions can be answered by asking ‘where is God?’ even if those who are suffering have no awareness or knowledge of God.
As many of you know, I am in the permanent diaconate formation program for the Archdiocese of Toronto. In our second year of study we explored what it was like to work with ex-offenders and with those who’ve hurt children. At that time I recognised that the work cannot be done outside of God’s Grace and mercy. I recognised that perpetrators of horrible offenses are really just clamouring for help – clamouring to be loved and to be accepted, much the same way that lepers were in the time of Jesus. The voice of illness could also be called the voice of suffering. In truth, we are all suffering at some level. We all have our own wounds that need to be tended. At some point, to various degrees, we all cry out, ‘where is God?’ We all seek to be loved and accepted.
As you move from this feast of the birth of the Messiah to the Feast of Mary the Mother of God, let me share with you a series of reflections on suffering and what we call 'voice of illness.' May it help you see those around you in a different light and may you see opportunities when you encounter people in pain. This is where I begin my reflection and where, I am beginning to learn, I must always begin any ministry or diaconal work: from the place of my own woundedness and my own crying out, ‘where is God?’
Read all the posts of The voice of illness: part two, part three, part four, part five, part six, part seven.
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Credit: CNS photo