The Spiritual Meaning of Illness

“The most important thing in illness is never to lose heart.”

            I am dying.  I have two terminal illnesses:  kidney failure and non-Hodgkins lymphoma, which is cancer of the bone marrow.  My kidney failure hovers between stage 3 (moderate) and stage 4 (severe).  The doctors see my being on dialysis as largely inevitable.  The cancer is slow-growing and until that changes, those doctors take a wait-and-see approach.  Since it is in the blood stream, my cancer is considered incurable.

            What I would like to wrestle with in this posting is the meaning of illness.  What has it taught me?  How does it inform my life?

            The questions are, I think:  What?  So what?  and Then what?  The What of my illness is profound tiredness.  I often need to rest or nap during the day and don’t have the stamina that some others of my age have.  I have no pain from these particular illnesses, though a pinched nerve in my back plus arthritis of the neck are often hard to ignore.  So physically, my activities are curtailed because of my illness.  Emotionally, the gift of my illness has been a keen sense of the nearness of death.  It walks beside me as a shadowy companion.  You, of course, are also dying.  But many of you reading this blog don’t see death out of the corner of your eye as often as I do.  Yet you and I share the same fate.

            Then there’s the So What question.  I don’t know what happens to us when we die.  Sometimes I echo Edna St. Vincent Millay that “we go to feed the roses.”  My body will decay and perhaps provide food for plants.  Those plants will go on to their own fate, transforming into other life forms.  But what was once “me,” the “I” writing this blog, will have vanished when my brain was extinguished.  I will have been absorbed into the cycle of life, into the endless pattern of birth, growth, death, and rebirth but in changed form.  That’s one possibility.  Yet another one is that what was once “me” will return to god as pure energy.  I believe, in the broadest sense, we all came from god.  The big bang that started it all 14 or so billion years ago I see as a moment when god woke up and manifested him-, her, or itself.  Human beings and all of the natural world, as Carl Sagan said, are made of stardust.  These building blocks of life were put in motion from god, in my view.  And how natural it might be, then, for us to return to the universe, contributing to further life, and our energy merging with that of god.

            Finally, I look at the Then What question.  My illness has been a patient teacher of mindfulness, of being utterly present in the moment.  My illness has taught me gratefulness, for the crisp tang of the air outside on a wintry day, for the silkiness of my cat’s fur as I stroke him, for the anguish in a dissonant musical chord, for the taste of a warm biscuit straight from the oven, for the relief when I untie my tennis shoes.  (Yes, I am the archetypal little old lady in tennis shoes.)  My illness has taught me how to be alone and feel okay about it.  My illness has taught me who I really am.  My illness has taught me how to be whole.

            I will close by summing up what I have learned from illness in this passage that I wrote a year ago:

Psalm 4
Thanksgiving

Blessed be illness
For it shows us our frailty.

Blessed be illness
For it reveals our strength.

Blessed be illness
For it makes a friend of death.

Blessed be illness
For it shows us the truth:

That which is my essence
Is not my body;

I have illness but
Illness does not have me;

As my body diminishes
My spirit grows.

Blessed be illness
For it gives great gifts.

Blessed be illness
For through it God speaks.

Blessed be illness
For it shows us our frailty.

Blessed be illness
For it reveals our strength.

2 thoughts on “The Spiritual Meaning of Illness

  1. Very powerful Beth. Thank you so much for sharing this with us. You are loved and are cared about greatly. We will always be here to support you!

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