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The voice of illness, part 6: In my life

December 30, 2011
I have been blessed not to have had any major experiences with illness, death or suffering, although, as all of us, I have had my share of pain. I’d like to conclude with four insights that I have learned about suffering.
First, I remember an experience I had several years ago at the L’Arche Daybreak Community in Richmond Hill. We were filming a story for S+L Magazine and hosting a concert by singer/songwriter Jennifer Martin who had suffered an illness which had left her partly paralysed. After her healing, she dedicated her music and her ministry to address our human brokenness and in particular, spent much of her time working with the disabled community. To the concert came Jennifer’s young friend, Gillian, a 10 year-old girl who had Rett Syndrome, which had left her unable to walk or speak. To an outsider it was not apparent that she could communicate at all. I had very little experience with severely disabled people and although I went into the whole experience with an open mind, I also had a bit of a reluctant heart. What I found was incredible! I met this little girl and although she could not communicate – I don’t even know if she knew I was there – I loved her. Within me welled an incredible love that I cannot describe except to say that I wanted to care for her. Meeting her changed my life. I am not sure if I am called to work with the disabled community, or how good I would be at that, but I know that each one of them is loved in a special way by God and they deserve to know that they are loved. I am able to do that because Christ has first loved me and I am just as broken; in many ways, probably more broken.
Two years ago, the mother of a friend was in the hospital for three weeks waiting for a procedure to be done. She had to wait in the hospital because she was unable to eat and so required intravenous feeding. I went to visit her and despite her unfortunate predicament, she was joyful, almost glowing. She is a remarkable lady. She shared her double room with another lady whom I never saw – the curtains were drawn. But this lady was in a despair that I cannot explain. I could not understand what she was saying – she was crying out in a different language – but her voice of illness was so clear. I don’t know what her problem was or why she was in the hospital. I never found out her name, but I will never forget her despair. She was very clearly crying out, 'Where are you God?' And she was afraid. I learned that night that our voice of illness is a voice of fear and the only way to confront fear is with love. That is what Jesus did and that is what all of us who do pastoral work are called to do. That’s what all of us all called to do: to love. When we truly love, we are being present and authentic to each other.
Also two years ago, I was home in Panama for a quick week-long visit. It was very interesting being back in a third world country since beginning my diaconal formation: the poverty and suffering is a bit more noticed on the streets. One afternoon, I was on my way to lunch with a friend and we were slowed down by a traffic jam that was caused by a bus that was not moving. As we made our way around the bus, we realised that the bus could not move because there was a man standing in the middle of the street, in front of the bus, yelling at the bus driver. From the quick look I got, I sensed that this man was probably homeless and likely with some mental health issue – I don’t know for certain. His clothes looked like that of a homeless person and he seemed to be screaming incoherently. As we passed him, I realised that although he was wearing pants, his genitals were exposed. I am not able to describe all the thoughts that flashed through my mind – but I wanted to go to him, to tend to him. I don’t know his situation but he needed to be treated with dignity. Of course we did not stop, but his image will remain forever with me. I also know that, had I experienced this a few years ago, I would have perhaps derided him and mocked him. He was the man of Psalm 22: “I am a worm and not human,” whom all who see mock and turn their heads. He was the disfigured suffering servant that Isaiah describes: One whom no one wants to look. Had I been able, would I have helped him? I don’t know, but I do wonder how often we must act (in prayer and love) first and then ‘sit with.’
Lastly, also a few years ago, I did a S+L Radio interview with author Karen Zizzo whose son Stephen was healed of cancer when he was seven years old. When faced with her son’s illness, Karen describes how all the doctors, in their seeking to be realistic and to not give them any false hope, inadvertently were taking away all their hope. It was because of their faith, courage and support from their friends, family and priest that they were able to hold on to hope. She is very clear that if she learned anything from that experience it is that we should never take away people’s hope.
Yes we need to listen and be present, but at the same time, we must offer comfort and right teaching when appropriate. We should always give hope! I am inspired by this notion, as I truly believe that the work of the Church is to give hope. If we are not giving people hope, then what are we doing? If after a homily people do not feel hopeful, then what’s the use? Our motto at Salt + Light Television is 'Your Catholic Channel of Hope.' That’s our goal: to give hope. If I produce a program that, despite the issues and realities, does not offer people hope, then what I am doing? I am contributing to the despair and fear of the world. If a deacon walks out of a hospital room and has not left a little bit of hope, then the voice of illness has not been heard. Those people who compliment hospital chaplains and deacons for such good pastoral care are probably reflecting on the fact that they were loved, treated with dignity and given hope. Sometimes that can be done by merely sitting with someone and being present and listening to them. Sometimes it involves using words and actions.
Read all the posts of The voice of illness: part one, part two, part three, part four, part fivepart seven.
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Credit: CNS photo