Write In Between

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Ideas on the Care of the Sick and Infirmed -- Part 1

Part 1: Spiritual Nurture

“I was ill and you cared for me.” (Mt. 25:36. NAB).

My adult life has twice been punctuated and profoundly humbled by illness and infirmity for months at a time. Touched by pain—physical, psychological and spiritual—I have sought to lead a full life despite these trials. Each time, my Catholic faith in prayer and sacramental graces, coupled with the loving service of many people renewed me with strength, peace, and courage. Looking back, I understand that there is an unexpected kind of blessedness that comes from such times.

As a recipient of spiritual and physical blessings, I hope to provide some insight into the needs of persons who are ill or infirm, as well as share a few practical suggestions for their spiritual nurture (part 1) and physical support (part 2, coming soon).

Twelve summers ago I had four surgeries to diagnose, treat, and recover from an early-stage breast cancer. Back then I was 36 with a husband, and three small children, ages 3, 6, and 9. My family and I needed an enormous amount of spiritual and physical support to get through those difficult months. By God’s grace, we received it.

This summer, I was hospitalized again to have my right hip removed and replaced after years of deterioration. Once again, my devoted husband has been caring for me along with “the kids” who are now 15, 18, and 21. This time around, the need for physical support was somewhat less than our circumstances warranted twelve years ago, but the spiritual needs were still there. I am now weeks into my recuperation and regaining my strength day by day.

Through my medical difficulties, I have experienced much of what the Catechism of the Catholic Church (paragraphs 1500-1501) aptly describes concerning the problem of illness:

Illness and suffering have always been among the gravest problems confronted in human life. In illness, man experiences his powerlessness, his limitations, and his finitude. Every illness can make us glimpse death.

Illness can lead to anguish, self-absorption, sometimes, even despair and revolt against God. It can also make a person more mature, helping him discern in his life what is not essential so that he can turn toward that which is. Very often illness provokes a search for God and a return to him.

I have spiritually prepared for each of my surgeries in the same way. First, I honestly prayed that I would not have to suffer at all. But, if the lab reports proved that I had to, I prayed that God would give me to graces to suffer well in thought, word, and action…by staying close to Him. Second, after the diagnostic process confirmed my condition, I put dates on the calendar not only for surgery and but for the Sacrament of Penance, and the Sacrament of Anointing. Attending Mass as often as possible prior to surgery was also a goal. Finally, I asked everyone I knew to pray for myself and for my family.

Then, it was time to take Jesus at his word, when he said, "Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for your selves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light." (Mt 11: 28-30 NAB). In my weakness, I had to trust Jesus, the Divine Physician, to provide for my care and to be a shelter for my fears and tears that accompanied my medical woes.

If you have a loved one facing similar circumstances, gently remind them about the presence of God and the power of His Grace. If need be, lead them as tenderly as you can to prayer and the sacraments. Sometimes, in the midst of a healthcare crisis, we can become so exhausted by the medical demands, and the fact that “normal life” still is going on around us, that the spiritual life gets overlooked. (Some people have never heard of what help prayer and sacraments can be to their health!) In my case, I was devoted Catholic, but still a very busy mom—I needed help from others to just get away and find a little peace and quiet in order to pray and process my situation with God.

Don’t be afraid to pray—not only for your loved one—but also with them! Offer to go with them to church. Help them make that call to visit with their local priest. If they resist, don’t pester them, just leave the door open. Lovingly, let them know that you are going to Mass for them, and that you’d be happy to do just that. And smile at the privilege.

Here are a few examples on how others supported me spiritually…

~A few came forward to watch my children for short intervals during the week so I could attend daily Mass alone, without a toddler on my lap, as I would normally do at Sunday Mass with our family. This was wonderful preparation for me. (It also gave me much needed time to privately shed a tear or two away from inquisitive children.) In fact, one day it led to a fortunate meeting with a cancer survivor whom I had never met. She sat in the pew next to me and struck up a conversation after Mass. That moment led to a wonderful friendship that lasted for years beyond that troubled time.

~I remember being surrounded by loving friends who stood silently around me in prayer as my Pastor blest and anointed me with the Sacrament of Anointing. They did this also during Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament when it was offered.

~Others invited me to their homes to pray the rosary with them. Unbeknownst to me, someone contacted my loved ones in my old hometown urging them to pray the rosary for me too. As a result, my mailbox was full of notes and messages from out-of-town friends and family who sent me powerful encouragements—telling me what a privilege it was to pray for me. It let them “do something” tangible on my behalf.

~On the day of my surgery, many people went to Mass to offer up their prayers and Eucharist for me on that day. Still others prayed and lit votive candles in church in my name.
~At the hospital, the Catholic chaplain brought communion to my bedside. (I signed up for such visits when I was admitted to the hospital.) And when I came home, we contacted our parish church. An extraordinary minister of the Eucharist visited me when my pastor could not.

~In between multiple surgeries, my husband arranged for a weekend retreat for me.

~Still others called to say, “anything on your mind that needs prayer today?” This was a real gift because, honestly, there were many days when I felt empty, or simply too tired to try to pray. I just needed to be. Sometimes the person calling was brave enough to offer to pray with me over the phone. They took the lead, after politely requesting my permission if they could pray with me. I was so grateful that they took the risk to ask.

In conclusion, I found that the grace of the sacraments, and the loving prayers and actions of others, and the intercession of Mary and the saints, carried me through those times. They brought me face to face with the love of God, transforming my suffering from the inside out. I started to understand the unique blessings that could only be found through suffering.

This is echoed in John Paul II’s Apostolic Letter, Salvifici Doloris:

Suffering is, in itself, an experience of evil. But Christ has made suffering the firmest basis of the definitive good, namely the good of eternal salvation. By his suffering on the Cross, Christ reached the very roots of evil, of sin and death...

To the suffering brother or sister Christ discloses and gradually reveals the horizons of the Kingdom of God: the horizons of a world converted to the Creator… free from sin… built on the saving power of love. And slowly but effectively, Christ leads… suffering man…through the very heart of his suffering. For suffering cannot be transformed and changed by a grace from outside, but from within. And Christ through his own salvific suffering is very much present in every human suffering, and can act from within that suffering by the powers of his Spirit of truth, his consoling Spirit.
(John Paul II, Salvifici Doloris - On the Christian Meaning of Suffering, 1994, paragraph 26.)
Photo credit.
©2008 Patricia W. Gohn

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  • I am looking forward to reading parts 2 and 3. Thank you for these thoughts.

    By Anonymous Claire, at 12:19 PM  

  • Hi Pat

    My husband was very sick in the first 6 months of this year. He said that receiving the Eucharist daily form a hopistal volunteer whom we know form our local parish helped him a lot. Our latin mass priest also came and gave my husband the anointing of the sick for which he was grateful. Thank God he has recovered as I was worried I would lose him.

    What kept me going was praying for him and to be honest myself as I am not very good with illness or coping.


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:44 AM  

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