Tag Archive | illness



My husband and I sat across the table at a local diner recently, delighted to be out of the house together and not at the hospital or a doctor’s office.  The day was gray and drizzly, but to us it seemed almost bright.  Almost.  We had travelled together through weeks of my husband’s hospitalization, pain, and weakness, but now here we were, sitting at a diner, smiling gently, almost shyly, at each other across the glossy formica-topped table.

It felt good.  Very good!  I asked my husband how he was feeling—pain-wise and strength-wise.  He paused, smiled reflectively, and said, “I feel I’m  about 70% here.”

“70% here!” I responded.  “That also describes my CFS/ME so well, at least on the better days!”  So there we sat, two 70 %-ers, enjoying a bowl of warm soup, enjoying each other’s company, and enjoying life, diminished as it has become.

Diminuendo.  Yes, the music of our lives, and of the lives of many whom we hold in our hearts, plays out more quietly these days—“pp” and sometimes even “ppp.”   But the music is still there.  No rousing crescendos for the moment.  The trumpets are muted; the violins as well.  But brass and strings still gently play and haunt the byways of our minds and souls—sometimes with memories of earlier crescendos of musical joys; sometimes with the promise of “forte” music still to come, either in this life or the next.

Meanwhile, we live the quieter music of the moment, taking in all we can, releasing the rest to others whose lives know a greater fullness of health.  Sometimes we do this gracefully and gratefully.  Other times we beat the drums of frustration and, at times, even the drums of anger and despair, pray the laments of the psalmists, and hope with them for  grace to hear God’s gentle melodies and once again accept the quieter “ppp’s” of our lives.

Kay Lynn Northcutt is a woman all too familiar with the quiet music of chronic illness.  Ms. Northcutt used to teach homiletics, lead retreats, and provide pastoral leadership in a number of churches.  But a serious illness, which struck quite suddenly, left her able to speak only with difficulty, and confined her for the most part to her home.  However, while she can no longer easily speak, she still knows how to listen, knows how to be attuned to the diminished music of life with every part of her being.  She writes: “My new vocation is that of loving extravagantly the shreds of life that are wondrously left to me.”*

What a powerful statement!  To love extravagantly whatever of life is wondrously left to us.  To stay attuned, attentive, to every melody, every grace note,  every nuance of life that, all together, compose the symphonies of our lives. Truly a worthy vocation for life diminuendo.

For that matter, truly a worthy vocation for those whose healthy lives are lived at full crescendo!


*Kay Lynn Northcutt, “A holy, mundane essence,” The Christian Century, 3/7/12



Softly sinister, it paints my window gray and

drapes itself across the houses and the trees

that usually greet and smile at me each morning as I

sip my cup of white orange blossom tea;

the bright red shovel on my neighbor’s deck,

the solid rock that sits forever underneath my trees—

all hidden now, wrapped in steely shroud so

dense it turns my world into a place I do

not recognize; the sun, the sky, the clouds all

vanished—gone; yet strange how all these

missing things seem eerily more present and

more precious in their absence than when

fully, certain here.

I’m mesmerized by this fog, but also fear its

chilling gloom and wish I could just blow it all

away, as well as every other fog that will in time

wrap round the now familiars of my world;

I can’t, but when the next fog comes, and come it will,

spill from sky to mute the colors of my life, ooze through

illness, other woes, to still life’s music to mere

echoes from afar, or swirl in dust of grief and loss to

blur, distort the contours of my mind and settle

dry and gritty in my mouth; yes, come it will, but

when it comes, let me remember windy joys and

music from the clouds, bright red shovels and

forever rocks, and let me move into the

haze—cautious, anchored, firm; trust the Breath that

hovers close and blows me tiny specks of light to

point my halting way until I see again just where and

who I’m meant to be, until I find once more a

clarity and home.

Selections from a prayer by Thomas Merton

MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going.  I do not see the road ahead of me.  I cannot know for certain where it will end.  Nor do I really know myself… [but]…I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.  I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

Ash Wednesday


Good to begin Ash Wednesday with a reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians: “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”   Today many will kneel at altar rails around the world.  Today many will hear these ancient words as pastors, with the ashes of last year’s palms, mark the sign of the cross on their foreheads:

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.

Accomplish in us, O God, the work of your salvation.

Not difficult these days to remember that I am dust, that we all are dust and that to dust one day we will return.  Recently, I have watched loved ones and friends coping with intense physical and emotional pain.  I have been measuring out my own days in mere teaspoons of activity with the weakness of my CFS/ME.   As I’ve listened to the evening news, I have tried to imagine the agony of a young Syrian mother giving birth in a refugee camp after fleeing from all she had ever known and loved, or the distress of an Afghan father worried about finding money to bury his young son who had frozen to death in a Kabul shelter the night before.  With all that’s going on in my life and in the life of the world, I truly have to struggle some days to remember that God has indeed begun a good work in me, in all of us.  Struggle to believe that God is still at work to accomplish that good work and bring it to completion.  Easier these days—often—simply to feel the dustiness, the grittiness, the muddiness of life rather than to be aware of any glory of the divine at work within me and within our world.

Yet, as I kneel today and hear the beautiful words of the Ash Wednesday prayer, I find myself realizing that God is indeed at work in all our lives…

  • enabling us to trust as we grope our way through pain and weakness…
  • enabling us to keep hope alive amidst all the ugliness and fear so rampant in our world…
  • enabling us to see and cherish all the beauty that still shimmers and shines amidst the gloom…
  • enabling us to love and care for those who need our hearts and our hands.

Accomplish in us, O God, the work of your salvation!

Advent Darkness and Light


“The Newborn”

Georges de la Tour (1593-1652)

Georges de la Tour’s painting calls me to a profound stillness before his riveting portrayal of the stark contrast between the darkness and the light.  The darkness is so deep.  The light is so bright.  And while there is some debate as to whether or not the artist was actually depicting the Christ child with his mother and St. Anne or simply a French village birth, we certainly can see the gospel story of Christ’s birth imaged in this intense focus on darkness and light.

There is so much darkness in our world today as we approach the holy season of Christmas.  Not just the darkness of the shortened days huddled around the winter solstice, but a deeper darkness.  Wars continue to rage across the globe.  Illness and financial worries darken many of our personal lives.  Poverty persists behind the bright rich facades of so many cities.

I recently read the 2012 National Book Award for nonfiction, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo.  It’s a book that tells the story of teen-age Abdul and his family and neighbors, and it powerfully depicts the darkness of life in Annawadi, a wretched slum in the shadow of the airport in Mumbai, India. Abdul’s “job” is to collect, sort, and sell the recyclable garbage scraps thrown out by the airport and the luxurious airport hotels.  Alongside these hotels, flashy billboards advertise elegant tiles that promise to be “beautiful forever” for those who can afford them.  Abdul’s mother longs to have some of these tiles for her tiny slum shack.  Instead, she daily sweeps her uneven stone floor, not-so-beautiful, knowing that, no matter how hard she works, she never can sweep away all the forever grime that seeps into the lives of her family.  Life is dark and difficult and ever so precarious for the citizens of Annawadi.  As it is for so many who live in the slums of big cities around our world.

As it was in that murky stable so long ago when Mary cradled the infant Christ and watched with wonder as Light shone into the gloomy darkness of her world.  Shone and continues to shine, as it shines so vividly in de la Tour’s beautiful painting of the newborn.  Shines in the love we share with each other in these holy days of Advent and Christmas.  Shines in the joy and hope that Christmas renews in our lives.  Shines in every act of kindness, in every step towards justice for which we work and pray.  Shines and points the way to a world in which Abdul will no longer awaken each day to the dark bleakness of his poverty.

Christmas lights cannot hide the darkness lurking behind all the “beautiful forevers” of our world.  Christmas carols cannot muffle the anguished sighs of Abdul and those like him around the world.  But neither can all this darkness extinguish the Light that we celebrate with our Christmas lights and carols.  For “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5).

It can be so disheartening to look across our broken world and see all the dark shadows that cloud so many lives. We know we won’t be able to right all the wrongs or cure all the maladies.  But maybe we can learn anew to focus on the Light that shone in Bethlehem’s stable long ago.  On the Light that de la Tour so hauntingly portrays.  On St. John’s sure promise that darkness will not overcome that Light.  And as we focus on that Light and celebrate all that Christmas means in our lives and in our world, maybe we can once again bring to the manger the gift of ourselves and offer “our hearts and minds as channels of the Light that wants to flow through every available opening” (from Robert Corin Morris’ Wrestling with Grace).

Still Life

“Still Life with Pears and Grapes”

Claude Monet, 1867

“Only in your solitude will you come upon your own beauty.”

“There is a lantern in the soul, which makes your solitude luminous.”

John O’Donohue, Anam Cara

My illness demands I rest—aggressive rest,

they say, and I do rest…a lot,

but too often rest is rest-less-ness, and

tangled in pools of dark, I can feel

useless, worn, and broken,

frayed at the edges;

hollow at the core;

longing to “do” instead of simply to “be.”

I’d like that to change, like to find that

stillness that glows in Monet’s

spotted pears, in his grapes and apples that shine from within.  I’d like my

restless rest to grow into a solitude that

is at peace with all that is, with

all that has been, with

all that will be; a solitude that

savors all the good, that

sifts the not-so-good into the hands of a

greater Solitude that holds and

shines in all, shines even in

me, Lantern glowing gently

in my sometime darkness.