03 October 2006

Of Sickness.

e at St. Joseph of Arimathea are a broken and bruised bunch these last weeks. I don’t know that we’ve ever had so many parishioners in the hospital or laid-up at home from accidents, surgeries, or sickness. Ashley and I have been through our own difficulties. Indeed, one parishioner even wondered aloud if we weren’t under some kind of spiritual attack. Who knows? In any case, our confidence is in our Lord who has given his promise to his faithful people: “I will be an enemy to your enemies, and an adversary to your adversaries” (Ex 23.22).

How are we to think about sickness? As C.S. Lewis said, and as I never tire of repeating, “Like most of the other things which humans are excited about, such as health and sickness, age and youth, or war and peace, it is, from the point of view of the spiritual life, mainly raw material.” Mainly raw material. Whatever else we may say about it, the occasion of sickness and (as folks used to say) infirmity is something that we can use – or, better, which we may ask the Father to use to conform us to the image of his Son (Rom 8.29).

Certainly, sickness is a memento mori – a reminder of our own deaths, a kind of private Ash Wednesday. This is not to be morbid, but to be soberly realistic. While we should be thankful for and take full advantage of the wonders of modern medicine, the best the doctors can offer us (even so fine a physician as the one with whom I live!) is a temporary fix. The great temptation is to live our lives as if we will never die. But of course, should the Lord tarry so long, each of us will. By serving as a memento mori, sickness is a reminder of the moral seriousness of this life, helping us to lay to heart Scripture’s solemn warning that there is a Day coming when each of us must render an account of our lives, even of our every word, before the great judgment seat of Christ (Mt 12.46; Rom 14.12).

In addition to serving as a necessary reminder of death, sickness may serve us by bringing to the fore a basic truth which we too easily forget – namely, that we are all, every minute, dependant upon one another. There is nothing like not being able to feed oneself, nor to stand, to drive, even to perform the most basic of bodily functions without assistance to bring the “rugged individual” in each of us to its knees, and to remind us that we only, to paraphrase the Beatles, get by with a lot of help from our friends. This theme is caught in one of the collects from Compline, in which we ask that the Lord never allow us to forget that “our common life depends upon each other’s toil” (BCP 134).

But while sickness can serve us as “raw material” in these ways and others, this does not make sickness itself a good thing, any more than is death itself. God’s will for us is health, wholeness, and life. We believe in the resurrection of the body, so that these our frail and faltering bodies while sown perishable, will be raised imperishable; while sown in dishonor, will be raised in glory; while sown in weakness, will be raised in power (1 Cor 15.42,43). So we do not indulge sickness, but seek health. St. James counsels that any one who is sick should “call on the elders (the ‘presbyters’ or ‘priests’) of the Church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the Name of the Lord” (Jas 5.14).

This ministry of prayer for the sick and suffering is basic to the life of the Church, but has only been a part of our common life in fits and starts and on an ad hoc basis as I have visited many of you on your sickbeds, at home or in the hospital. Beginning in October, we will have a regular service of anointing (“unction”) and prayer for healing within the context of the Holy Eucharist. This will be on the third Wednesday of each month, at 5.30 in the evening. Fittingly, the third Wednesday of October falls this year on the 18th, the Feast of St. Luke. St. Luke was himself a “beloved physician” (Col 4.14). So, will you come pray with us on St. Luke’s Day, as together week seek healing for body, mind, and spirit?

*From the October issue of The Grail, our parish newsletter.


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