Ten years ago I would not seriously have considered writing an article on participation in the sufferings of Jesus. I would have considered myself insufficiently initiated, having never experienced an intense form of bodily suffering.
Now, however, I have been decidedly initiated: afflicted with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS, often referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
ALS incapacitates. It interferes with the communication between brain and those nerves that direct muscles to function. Unable to function properly the muscles slowly atrophy and disappear. Limiting itself to the voluntary muscles, the disease does not touch the heart. It destroys the muscles of hands, arms, feet, legs and neck. It destroys the diaphragm needed for breathing. It destroys one’s ability to speak and swallow. David Perlmutter, M.D., a prominent cutting-edge neurologist, writes: “ALS is a chronic degenerative disorder of the body’s motor neurons that leads to death within two to five years of onset” (David Perlmutter, M.D., Grain Brain: The Surprising Truth About Wheat, Carbs and Sugar – Your Brain’s Silent Killers. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2013). The onset of my disease occurred in August 2008.
The only medication approved by the Food and Drug Administration. to treat the disease is Rilutek, an expensive drug that most doctors claim will extend life about three months. Since the illness does not destroy the vital organs, including liver, heart, stomach, kidneys, and lungs, “life” appears to mean ability to breathe unattached to a respirator. When I pointed out to one neurologist that a person could live without the use of his voluntary muscles, his response was: “If that is your religion.”
What is part of my religion, and I think should be part of any Christian’s, is the sense of being able to speak freely to God about one’s problems, including health issues. In my case I tell God that I have a terrible disease and request that He heal me: through a miracle, through natural means, or even by protecting certain “vital” functions such as the ability to write, use the computer, and speak. This last healing would make it possible for me to continue religious writing. I ask the Father to heal me in the name of Jesus who endured an horrific death out of love for Him and fidelity to Him.
I thank God for the capacities I still possess, including the ability to spoon-feed myself, get up from the table, and walk short distances outdoors with the assistance of a supportive arm. I thank Him that I am still alive and can attend daily Mass and do some religious writing. I thank Him that I was able to continue to work as a college professor and department chair for five years from the onset of my symptoms to the time of my retirement. I thank Him for the support of generous people, including most especially my beloved spouse and my live-in sons, also the staff at my college.
I thank God for drawing good out of evil and allowing me to join my sufferings to those of Christ for my own spiritual benefit and that of my brothers and sisters within the Mystical Body of Christ.
I tell the Father that I know He did not cause me to be weighed down by ALS I am a casualty of an imperfect physical universe moving slowly toward perfection and spiritualization, a universe being helped along in this movement by human research made possible through His gifts.
I dare to speak openly and frankly with my Father, my Abba, my Dad. I point out that he is God and not a god. He does not need to draw good out of evil in order to grant us human beings what is required to make our lives full and complete, both physically and spiritually. He can grant us what we need by drawing from the infinite resources of His abundance. He has infinite resources, unlimited abundance at His disposal.
Nevertheless, I submit myself to His holy will. I recognize that His knowledge is unbounded and His wisdom infinite. By contrast, my knowledge and wisdom are finite and puny.
Submitting myself to God’s will is made much easier by the fact that He is Love Itself. He is the supremely loving Father who runs out to embrace the prodigal son and celebrates his return home. He is our Dad who invites us to hop up into His arms like a child and to find in those arms total security. He will not allow us to experience any everlasting harm unless we positively choose it. Who would not be comfortable in the embrace of such a Father?
With audacity I request of my Dad that I might live to a ripe old age, and that I might retain my mind and sufficient physical strength to be able to pour myself into research and writing or any other activity He would have me devote myself to for His glory, for the establishment of His kingship in the world, for the buildup of the Church, and for the benefit of my brothers and sisters. I pray that, when the hour of my demise arrives, He dispatches an angel to fetch me and bring me to Paradise that I might spend eternity with Him, His Son, and the Holy Spirit, not to mention Mary and Joseph and all the angels and saints.
I tell my Dad, however, that my prayer for healing is not just for myself but also for numerous acquaintances that I identify who are equally suffering from horrible diseases.
Prayer Need Not be Complicated
For me, prayer usually involves the use of words. But authentic prayer need not. Jean Baptiste Vianney once observed a farmer praying in his small church. Hours later the man was still there praying, so he enquired about the man’s activities. The farmer replied that at times he looked at the Good God and sometimes the Good God looked at him. The Curé of Ars pointed out that prayer need not be complicated.
Sometimes we might like to use words but cannot seem to find the proper ones. In such a case we would do well to let the Holy Spirit assist us. He “comes to help us in our own weakness. For when we cannot choose words in order to pray properly, the Spirit himself expresses our plea in a way that could never be put into words” (Rom 8:26).
One thing I have never done in prayer is request suffering. Some saints, such as Teresa of Avila and Paul of the Cross, may have longed for suffering but not me. I don’t see the pursuit of suffering as a healthy part of Christian living. Christ prayed to be spared the suffering and death of crucifixion. But He prayed with acceptance. He prayed “aloud and in silent tears, to the one who had the power to save Him out of death” (Heb 5:7). Sadness and great distress overwhelmed Jesus and He said to Peter, James, and John, “‘My soul is sorrowful to the point of death. . .’ and. . .He fell on His face and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass me by. Nevertheless, let it be as you, not I would have it’” (Mt 26:38-39).
I have never offered myself as a victim soul. Nevertheless, I tell God that whatever is mine is His to be used in any way He sees fit for the good of humankind. I pray for the salvation of all human beings, even those whose lives don’t seem to offer much hope of salvation: Judas and Hitler, Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, and Saddam Hussein. Since God is eternal and outside time, I pray that He might help with His grace these men who have already died. I pray that if they are in purgatory, they might be ushered into paradise according to His knowledge and wisdom, justice and mercy. I pray for every man, woman, and child who was born and died in the past, every man, woman, and child alive now who will die in the future, and every person to be born and die in the future. I pray that all will freely choose salvation. In a special way, I pray for members of my extended family who lived or died in less than ideal fashion.
If I have not asked God to inflict suffering upon me, neither have I inflicted suffering upon myself beyond fasting and normal Lenten-style penances. I don’t recommend doing so. But there are plenty of examples in Church history of people who have. St. Pio of Pietrelcina was required as a Capuchin novice at Morcone in 1903, under the formidable novice master Padre Tomaso of Montesantangelo to severely flagellate himself with a chain. “Padre Tomaso. . .reportedly ordered the novices to whip themselves until their blood ran onto the floor of the choir” (Ruffin, C. B., 1991. Padre Pio, The True Story. Huntington: Our Sunday Visitor). St. André Bessette, the first male Canadian to be canonized, was found as a teenager “wearing a tight iron chain around his waist” (Henri-Paul Bergeron, C.S.C., 1982. Brother André, C.S.C.: The Wonder Man of Mount Royal, R. Boudreau, Trans. Montreal: St. Joseph Oratory). St. Jerome tried to soften his bad temper by pounding a stone against his chest.
Quite in contrast to seeking extra sufferings or imposing them upon myself, I have taken every means I can think of to eliminate or stop the devastating disease that is mine, including homeopathic remedies. In my opinion, God wishes us to seek relief from catastrophic illness. He does not want us to wallow needlessly in sickness and suffering. “Jesus left no doubt whatsoever that the health of people’s bodies was an integral part of God’s purpose as health to their souls” (Valladares, James, “Sacrament of the Sick,” The Priest, August 2014, p. 12).
Nevertheless, Jesus invites us to embrace unavoidable suffering as He did. “Take this cup away from me. But let it be as you, not I would have it” (Mk 14:30-36). Jesus’s invitation is actually presented as a condition of discipleship. “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mk 8:39). “Cross” here may refer first and foremost to a person’s vocation with the hardships that it inevitably contains. But it also includes the sufferings that are part and parcel of the human condition. These have to be embraced. Freely accepted bodily suffering is a powerful witness to the reality and life of Jesus.
It is not abnormal in the midst of physical and mental suffering to feel abandoned by God. Jesus experienced that himself. “My God, my God, why have you deserted me” (Mk 15:34). Although Jesus is quoting these words from Psalm 22:1, they represent His feelings. Jesus, however, did not lose hope in the Father, and neither should we. God permits suffering, but He never abandons. He gives us the grace we need to cope with our situation. “Come to me, all you who labor and are overburdened, and I will give you rest” (Mt 11:28). If people give good gifts to their children, “how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask Him” (Mt 7:11). With God to help us, sickness should not cause us to fear. “God himself has said, ‘I will not fail you or desert you, and so we can say with confidence: ‘With the Lord to help me, I fear nothing’” (Heb 13:5-6).
Suffering, instead of being feared, should be seen as a happy privilege. There are trials and tribulations in every human life. Some are far greater than others. But no life is without suffering, disappointment and loss. When these come, and they are inevitable, they should not be allowed to crush us or to drain joy out of life. God has likely not caused them. He has permitted them to assist us to grow spiritually, especially in patience. He has allowed them to help us grow in holiness and grace.
Joy In the Face of Suffering
The attitude that God calls upon us to have in the face of suffering is joy. We should attempt to treat suffering as a fortuitous privilege. Jesus suffered, and we are privileged to share in those sufferings. James writes, “My brothers, you will always have your trials but, when they come, try to treat them as a happy privilege . . . your faith is only put to the test to make you patient . . . so that you will become fully developed, complete, with nothing missing” (Jas 1:2-4). St. Paul found joy in his imprisonment and other hardships. As a member of the Body of Christ, he saw himself as united with Christ in his sufferings gladly endured for the benefit of the members of the Church. The sufferings of Jesus in His temporal, earthly form are decidedly over, but they continue in His Mystical Body. Christ suffers in His members, for they are He.
Many Christians over the millennia have joyfully embraced suffering in close union with Christ, allowing the Savior to continue His work of redemption. St. Paul is certainly prominent among them. “It makes me happy to suffer for you as I am suffering now, and in my own body to do what I can to make up all that has still to be undergone by Christ for the sake of His body, the Church” (Col 1:24).
On a practical level, for a sick or incapacitated person, being joyful in the Lord means not being angry with myself, the world or God for my pains and incapacities. Such anger is ultimately anger with the Loving Creator. Being joyful in the Lord means being patient with caregivers and cheerful with friends and relatives. It means keeping your sense of humor. It signifies remembering that we do not have any kind of right to good health. Health is a pure gift. Children are born with all kinds of abnormalities, physical, neurological and mental. Down syndrome babies did not request to be born that way. Even they should be thankful. Today, the vast majority are aborted. We should be grateful to God for the abilities we still possess and the pleasures we still experience, even in the midst of our illnesses. Life is an adventure. Each day is different with its unique joys and sorrows to be embraced in its totality. That does not mean we enjoy pain and suffering. No, we oppose the evil of sickness while embracing a life that unavoidably includes it.
Thank You, Lord, for Your Kindness
On a personal note, consciously attempting to be joyful, I frequently am spontaneously so, even to the point of cracking jokes, sometimes about myself and my condition. Nevertheless, negative thoughts frequently flood my head: “What is the point?” “What is the use of living?” These, however, are followed by more positive, willful thoughts: “Thank you, Lord, for your kindness, your goodness, your love and your mercy.” “Forgive me for my sinfulness and guide me in my life.” “Help me to become the person you would have me to be through your love.”
Virtually every day I am asked how I am or how I feel. My usual answer is: “Joyful in the Lord.” Most people are satisfied with that response. But if someone wants more details, I provide them. My brief answer is not a declaration that I am free of physical pain or discomfort, or a denial that I am losing ground physically. It does not mean that I never feel sorry for myself or am never depressed. What it does indicate first and foremost is that I am thankful to God for his kindness, goodness, love and mercy, for the fact that I am lovingly embraced by my Abba. It signifies that I appreciate the positive dimensions of my life, including the fact that I am retired, can still breathe on my own, swallow, and use my right hand, despite its extreme weakness, for some essential functions. It means I am grateful that I can still think, talk and see.
I am especially grateful to my heavenly Father and for my mother Mary’s intercession, that I can still do research and write. I am retired as a college professor of theology and religion. So I no longer belong in the classroom. That does not mean, however, that I cannot use my talents for God’s glory and the benefit of my brothers and sisters through writing. Writing gives me a reason to get up in the morning.
The deepest special meaning of being joyful in the Lord is the gratitude I have to be able to share in the sufferings of Jesus for the benefit of my brothers and sisters within the Mystical Body of Christ, and my own spiritual development. Sickness constitutes “a tremendous powerhouse of spirituality that can be harnessed for the good of the whole Church” (Valladares, J., “Sacrament of the Sick,” The Priest, August 2014). It further provides an opportunity to come closer to Father, Son and Spirit in this life as an initiation into an incomparable life in the Beyond with the Holy Trinity, one of endless happiness and vibrant peace. Embracing suffering leads to glorious resurrection. That is plenty of reason to be joyful. “Happy the man who stands firm when troubles come. He has proved himself and will win the prize of life, the crown that the Lord has promised to those who love Him” (Jas 1:12).
DR. DECELLES retired as a full professor from the Department of Religious Studies, Marywood University, in June 2013, after completing 43 years of teaching in the department. In August 2014, he was awarded the official Marywood designation of Professor Emeritus.