I woke up wanting to go to mass today because it was the World Day of the Sick and the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes. Years ago, I had been in Lourdes, in need of physical healing, but rather found something I had not expected–grace. I had been at my beloved Taize in France, a small community that brought me much joy whenever I visited in the early and mid-1990s. I was so blessed by that precious community. I had planned on visiting a number of sacred sites on that European trek and Lourdes was on my radar but not really on my heart as a must-go place. I had to pry myself away from the sanctuary of everything-Taize so that I could head to what I knew would be a very commercialized Marian site.
As a child I had seen the story of St. Bernadette, the oldest of nine children born to poor parents in Lourdes, France. She was 14 years old when the Virgin Mary appeared to her. I remember a couple of scenes from the movie–pawing at the ground to seek the miraculous waters and the final scene of her death. What stays with me from my visit to the shrine was that Bernadette was never promised joy in this life, but only in the next. I struggled greatly with what I saw in Lourdes…as I struggle now in my illness to understand what people want from God. I saw parents dipping their severely deformed child in the water and wondered if they really expected the little one to come out recreated as “perfect”. I remember going into the waters myself, rising, and feeling no change in my physical ailment. Help my unbelief, Lord.
I was staying at a guest house where pilgrims were welcomed. The priest there wanted to ensure that I was just not another young person taking advantage of cheap lodging. He engaged me in a conversation one night. He wanted to know what I thought about what I was experiencing at Lourdes. I struggled in French to explain what I probably could not even articulate in English. Did the family who submerged their daughter without a face into the waters really expect her to emerge with sparkling eyes instead of slits and new lips instead of just a hole? God is not a magician. Perhaps, I suggested, it was the parents who needed to go into the water and ask for hearts that could love such a child. That might be the better miracle. The priest was surprised by my answer.
We spent an hour or so talking, with me trying to formulate in my mind why I thought a good God might not cure a disease while wanting to desperately heal us of all our brokenness. The priest had not expected this conversation with me. Even though decades have passed, I hold that conversation dear, despite not being able to remember all our words. I cannot exactly remember why the next day, when he took me to the train station himself, we had spoken about Moses in Exodus 17 and more importantly, why I have held fast to the verses 8-13 of that chapter all these years, but today, I still cling to them. Our conversation changed that priest and it planted something deep in me. He went from being annoyed that I was lodging within his walls to blessing me as I went on my way. His last words to me as I got out of the car were that I should remember Moses. Moses carried the weight of the battle on his shoulders, both literally and figuratively. When his outstretched arms would begin to give out, the battle below would shift to the favour of the other side. It is not until Aaron and Hur hold up his arms that they defeat the enemy.
In my illness, I have been told many trite things in an attempt to comfort me. I manage most of these with an element of grace but sometimes I find it hard. I have tried to stop managing other people’s distress. My own is enough most days. Some people have not had to pick apart their ideas and beliefs the way that I have over the years. What do I really believe? What are the key components of my faith? What do I need to understand? There is a battle of sorts to be waged when life does not turn out the way it should. I have said that I do not like that war-mongering language much but I propose it here in the sense that I have had to wrestle with a superficial way of looking at faith in order to stand on a solid foundation. Like Moses, I can only succeed at beating the Enemy when I have help holding my arms up. I am grateful for the people who have been able to listen to the dark places I have gone, as I dig deep into my belief system.
As I lined up with the elderly parishioners today, I discreetly held out my arm for another woman with cancer who took it for a moment and she rested her head on my shoulder in gratitude before standing tall. I know she can become a bit unsteady on her feet and I wanted her to know she could just reach out if she needed to. I can be Aaron as much as I can be Moses. We all get through it together, I figure. United we stand steady longer.
Looking well is a blessing, but at the same time it allows people to stay in denial. This week, I got together with a former employer who I have known for 30 some years. We had not seen each other since September and I could hear the marvel in her voice as she told me I looked so great. We went to some of the hard places together. I have had an amazing year and my gratitude for that can overwhelm me. Neither one of us would have expected me to be sitting across the table at her, tanned and glowing, coherent and very alive. She is so happy that I chose to live so fully this year. We spoke of the importance of staying in the moment, and she figuratively held my arm up, insisting that I remain steady in the present and wait for more information before I let the demons begin to nip at my feet. I had been telling her that if I start to wonder what will happen next that I fall from peace.
While my own health is on my mind, life around me does not stop either. On this World Day of the Sick, I was dealing with two pieces of news concerning loss. There are no words sometimes when the unexpected happens and our lives are hurled over the steep cliff of sorrow. One moment all is well, and then, well, all is hell. Lives are ended and dreams are shattered. All we can do then is to lift up the arms of the one on the minefield and hope that we can let them reach a place where they can stand on solid and safe ground. Deaths tend to trigger thoughts about my own dying.
I think sometimes about what that means to my family and loved ones–people in my outer circles even. I cannot prevent them from falling into that dark abyss. I try to give them great memories to cherish once I am gone. I remember telling someone who was helping me get my papers in order for my medical leave the news that I would now not be returning to work at all. She later told me that she sat at her desk after reading my email, stunned with sorrow. We have never even met and yet through our phone calls and laughter she became someone who cared about me. She has since been an Aaron for me, reminding me to be gentle with myself. We continue to have occasional emails back and forth. She became such a blessing to me and I am mystified by that but so appreciative of her words and assistance.
What have I learned that might be helpful for onlookers on this World Day of the Sick?
- First and foremost, in difficult times, a healthy relationship with God and a strong friendship with Jesus is a gift. Mary has also been a blessing.
- It is best to have someone by your side to remain steadfast. The people who have helped me the most are those who are real with me, who can hear my pain and my struggle and not try to fix it with cliches.
- My why-not-me question means I do not have a sense of entitlement because I have done all the right things in life. God does make the rain to fall on both the good and the bad. I have had an amazing life but like St. Bernadette was told not every moment of it will be without its pain.
- Believing in miracles is fabulous–I see them daily still!!! However, I learned a long time ago at Lourdes, that the miracle can look very different than what we long for. Grace is a gift as amazing as a cure. The healing that can happen sometimes is more than we can ask or imagine. Healing and a cure are different concepts.
- Holding out your hands for long periods is tiring. Even someone as holy as Moses did not get immediate outcomes in order to win the battle. He had to sit down and ask for help. Aaron and Hur were a great support but let Moses do what he needed to do. They followed his lead. They could then celebrate together.
- In the end, God will decide the outcome. We just need to be faithful in paying attention to what is being asked of us and how to provide that.
This post seems like random thoughts all thrown together that make sense only to me. If you have made it this far, congratulations!! I hope that you found something that is of benefit.
Who helps hold up your hands in times of trouble?
Have you ever had a brief encounter with someone that stayed with you for a long time and changed your perspective?
Our Lady of Lourdes, pray for those who are sick and dying today. Comfort those who mourn. Bless those who hold up our arms when we are weary in the battle. Amen.