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Deacon-structing the voice of illness, part 6

Deacon Pedro

Monday, December 28, 2020

This year I am thinking of everyone who is not able to participate at Mass this year, of everyone who is not able to gather with family and friends. For many people this is a very difficult Christmas season. We began our Advent and Christmas reflection this year, five weeks ago, by explaining the “voice of illness”. It is the voice inside all of us that cries, “Where is God?” I know that many, whether they know it or not, are crying out with this voice of illness.  Four weeks ago, we looked at the tension between doing and being when responding to someone else’s voice of illness. Three weeks ago, we looked at how Jesus responded to the voice of illness, and two weeks ago, we looked at how those in pastoral ministry can respond to the voice of illness. Last week, we found three passages in Scripture that deal with this type of suffering and learned that Jesus is the one who takes on our suffering – not necessarily to take it away, but suffering with us.
I have been blessed not to have had any major experiences with illness, death, or suffering, although, as all of us, I have had my share of pain.
Today I’d like to share four insights that I have learned about suffering from my own experience.
First, I remember an experience I had several years ago at the L’Arche Daybreak Community in Richmond Hill. We were filming a story for our show, the Salt + Light Magazine and hosting a concert by singer/songwriter Jennifer Martin, who had suffered an illness which had left her partly paralyzed. After her healing, she dedicated her music and her ministry to addressing our human brokenness and, in particular, spent much of her time working with the disabled community. Jennifer’s young friend, Gillian, came to the concert. Gillian, who was 10 years old at the time, had a condition called Rett Syndrome, which had left her unable to walk or speak. To an outsider, it was not apparent that she could communicate at all. I had very little experience with people with severe disabilities, and although I went into the whole experience with an open mind, I also had a bit of apprehension. What I found was incredible! I met this little girl, and although she could not communicate – I don’t even know if she knew I was there – I loved her. Within me welled up an incredible love that I cannot describe except to say that I wanted to care for her. Meeting her changed my life. I am not sure if I am called to work with people with disabilities, or how good I would be at that, but I know that each one of them is loved in a special way by God, and they deserve to know that they are loved.
I am able to do that because Christ has first loved me, and I am just as broken – in many ways, probably more broken.
Several years ago, the mother of a friend was in the hospital for three weeks waiting for a procedure to be done. She had to wait in the hospital because she was unable to eat and so required intravenous feeding. I went to visit her, and despite her unfortunate predicament, she was joyful, almost glowing. She is a remarkable lady. She shared her double room with another lady whom I never saw – the curtains were drawn. But this lady was in a despair that I cannot explain. I could not understand what she was saying – she was crying out in a different language – but her voice of illness was so clear. I don’t know what her problem was or why she was in the hospital. I never found out her name, but I will never forget her despair. She was very clearly crying out, "Where are you God?" And she was afraid. I learned that night that our voice of illness is a voice of fear, and the only way to confront fear is with love. That is what Jesus did, and that is what all of us who are engaged in pastoral work are called to do. That’s what all of us are called to do: to love.
When we truly love, we are being present and authentic to each other.
A bit after starting my diaconal formation, I was home in Panama for a quick week-long visit. It was very interesting being back in a developing country since beginning formation; the poverty and suffering are a bit more noticeable on the streets. One afternoon, I was on my way to lunch with a friend, and we were slowed down by a traffic jam that was caused by a bus that was not moving. As we slowly made our way around the bus, we realized that the bus could not move because there was a man standing in the middle of the street, in front of the bus, yelling at the bus driver. From what I could see briefly, I sensed that this man was probably homeless and likely had some mental health issue – I don’t know for certain. His clothes looked ragged and dirty, and he seemed to be screaming incoherently. As we passed him, I realized that although he was wearing pants, his genitals were exposed. I am not able to describe all the thoughts that flashed through my mind – but I wanted to go to him, to tend to him. I don’t know his situation, but he needed to be treated with dignity. Of course we did not stop, but his image will remain forever with me. I also know that, had I experienced this a few years ago, I would have perhaps derided him and mocked him. He was the man of Psalm 22: “I am a worm and not human,” whom all who see mock and turn their heads from. He was the disfigured suffering servant that Isaiah describes: One whom no one wants to look at. Had I been able, would I have helped him? I don’t know, but I do wonder how often we must act (in prayer and love) first and then "sit with".
I also wonder how many are in the same amount of pain and distress, but it is not visible because they are able to hide it well.
Most of the time, our voice of illness is not visible.
Lastly, in 2010, I did an interview for the SLHour with author Karen Zizzo, whose son Stephen was healed of cancer when he was seven years old. When faced with her son’s illness, Karen described how all the doctors, in their seeking to be realistic and to not give them any false hope, inadvertently were taking away all their hope. It was because of their faith, courage, and support from their friends, family, and priest that they were able to hold on to hope. She is very clear that if she learned anything from that experience, it is that we should never take away people’s hope.
The whole season of Advent is about hope. All the readings from the Prophet Isaiah during this season are about hope. Christmas is about hope and a promise fulfilled. Next Sunday, as we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, we will hear Isaiah saying:
See, darkness covers the earth, and thick clouds cover the peoples; but upon you the LORD shines, and over you appears his glory. Nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance. (Isaiah 60:2)
Indeed there is darkness in the world, but the Lord is the Light that the darkness cannot overcome (John 1:5). We are called to bring that light to others.
Yes, we need to listen and be present, but at the same time, we must offer comfort and right teaching when appropriate. But no matter what we do, we should always bring light and always give hope! I am inspired by this notion, as I truly believe that the work of the Church is to give hope. If we are not giving people hope, then what are we doing? If, after a homily, people do not feel hopeful, then what’s the use? Our motto at Salt + Light Media is "Your Hope. Our Mission." That’s our goal: to give hope. If I produce a program that, despite the issues and realities, does not offer people hope, then what I am doing? I am contributing to the doubt, despair and fear that is in the world. If a deacon walks out of a hospital room and has not left the person with a little bit of hope, then the voice of illness has not been heard. People who compliment hospital chaplains and deacons for such good pastoral care are probably reflecting on the fact that they were loved, treated with dignity, and given hope. Sometimes that can be done by merely sitting with someone and being present and listening to them. Sometimes it involves using words and actions.
You may be interested in reading two of my homilies from the Advent series this year at my parish. We preached on how the Theological Virtues, Faith, Hope and Love, are the only way to respond to the doubt, despair and fear that is in the world. I preached on Hope and then on Love. We must always remember that when we love the other, with joy, we are strengthening their faith and their hope.
Come back next week for the conclusion of our Advent/Christmas series on the Voice of Illness.

pedroEvery week, Deacon Pedro takes a particular topic apart, not so much to explore or explain the subject to its fullness, but rather to provide insights that will deepen our understanding of the subject. And don’t worry, at the end of the day he always puts the pieces back together. There are no limits to deaconstructing: Write to him and ask any questions about the faith or Church teaching: Follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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