Wednesday, January 03, 2007

In Sickness and in Health

I started the new year by getting really sick. Massive headaches, sinus pressure and congestion, high fever, chills and shakes, night sweats—the whole litany of woes. Not the best way to begin a new year. Turns out I have a rather hefty sinus infection. Though I usually try every natural remedy before I submit to drugs, I find myself now on a two-week course of a combination of antibiotics. There's something about breathing and sleeping at night that helps one make such decisions.

There’s an ancient tradition (more a superstition, I guess) that the way you begin the new year is the way the whole new year will be. That is at the basis for the widespread merry-making on new year’s eve: people think that if they’re having fun as the new year begins, they’ll have fun all year. St John Chrystostom reproached the people of his day for doing that, so the idea has been around a long time.

I dragged myself down to our customary new year’s midnight Liturgy just so I could begin the year by receiving the Holy Eucharist instead of lying in bed and blowing my nose. It wasn’t easy, but I’m glad I went. After all, those who are consecrated to the Lord have made a commitment not unlike a marriage—for better or worse, in sickness and health, etc. I don’t know why the plague suddenly dropped on me, but I offered it for whatever reason He had in mind when He smote me with it (or rather, when He graciously invited me to take up my cross and follow Him!).

This sickness has given me cause to reflect a bit upon the fragility of the balance of our lives, both internally and in relation to our responsibilities. The human body is a marvelous thing, and we’re probably unaware of the many ways it protects us from disease and sickness, but it seems like it doesn’t take a whole lot to knock it off balance and throw us into a tailspin. It has its own ways of fighting illness, which we sometimes aid and sometimes interfere with by taking medications. (I try to take an absolute minimum of drugs.) Sickness is a real leveler of pride and self-sufficiency as well, for we see how little it takes to reduce us to a state of near-helplessness and inability to deal with our discomfort. But I think it is spiritually beneficial for us to feel that from time to time.

It also showed me how orderly my life usually is, and how the whole thing comes crashing down with the onset of illness. My usual rhythms of prayer, liturgy, work, etc, were all impossible to maintain. Work piled up, I missed some Offices and other prayer times, and I just sort of aimlessly got up from one chair into another, wondering when my head would clear, feeling restless and rather frustrated at being unable to do anything at all.

I realized how much spiritual effort goes into prayer, for it was quite beyond me to pray very much during the worst of the sickness, though I did frequently call upon the name of Jesus. To pray requires a level of discipline, attention, and fervor that is generally unattainable when one’s brain is fried by fever. It is at times like these when we realize that our relationship with God is not merely what we can and must do in his service, but more profoundly an awareness that without Him we can do nothing, that we are in his hands—our life, our death, our struggles and sufferings. Providence decrees what will or will not happen to us, and we can only try to respond with a “Thy will be done,” knowing that there is nothing to fear when we have given our lives over to the Beloved.

So, as I’m crawling out of the pit of illness and getting ready to return to my usual prayer and work schedule (hopefully with some nice strong antibodies built up against the next attack!), I think of those words of covenant fidelity: in sickness and in health—but in our relationship with God it goes one better. It is not “till death do us part,” but rather “till death do us unite,” for it is only the passage through death that will consummate our union with the Lord for all eternity—where there is no pain, no sorrow, no sickness, but only everlasting life!