As I know the power obedience has of making things easy which seem impossible, my will submits with good grace, although nature seems greatly distressed, for God has not given me such strength as to bear, without repugnance, the constant struggle against illness while performing many different duties. May He, Who has helped me in other more difficult matters, aid me with His grace in this, for I trust in His mercy.
– Saint Teresa of Avila, from the Preface to The Interior Castle.
A reflection by Penny.
If you type the words ‘Chronic Fatigue Syndrome’ into a stock images website, chances are it will bring up pictures that look like this:
When in fact, it looks more like this:
(note compression sleeves on my arms to help keep my blood circulating – reduces risk of fainting)
(light intolerance is one of the symptoms of CFS, so I spend most of my time in the dark)
(photo taken by my mother last month, after I lost 13 pounds in a week because I was too sick to feed myself and made an emergency trip home to stay with her.)
This is ‘moderate’ CFS – meaning that I’m still able, sometimes, to leave my bed for work, grocery shopping, or Mass. (Severe CFS involves paralysis, tube-feeding, and sometimes death. This is the disease still derisively labelled ‘yuppie flu’ by the media, and which many doctors, including two that I’ve encountered personally, diagnose as a form of hysteria solely because most sufferers are women. I could rant for days about sexism in medicine, but I’ll limit myself to one observation: in basically every case I’ve heard of, including my own, this condition starts with a viral infection that gets worse instead of better over time. It’s an illness. It exists.)
On good days I can get up and do a couple of things, provided I pace myself. Mostly, though, I’m in bed, listening to podcasts at minimum volume in the dark and occasionally trying to sit up for a few minutes at a time. If you’re wondering why the blog’s been low on activity this year, that’s why! Theresa has done yeoman’s work keeping our social media active and answering emails without the usual level of support from me, and I want to express my admiration for the extra effort that she’s been putting in to do so. If you’d like to submit content for the blog, PLEASE DO – we still need your generous contributions to keep the website interactive and would love to hear from you! Please just be aware that it may take me a while to respond, and that the delay doesn’t mean lack of appreciation!
So, why am I writing all of this?
At Easter this year, too unwell to go out to the Vigil, I stayed home and watched an old black-and-white film called The Miracle of Saint Thérèse. In one scene that particularly struck me, Thérèse is struggling to climb up a flight of stairs in her Carmel, gasping with the effort and pulling herself slowly hand-over-hand up the bannister. I felt that viscerally, because it’s exactly what I have to do when confronted with a staircase these days. (Before I got sick two years ago, by contrast, I was a martial arts student who did high-intensity training several times a week.)
It got me thinking again about illness, and its role in spiritual life. So many saints, especially women, became seriously ill in their teens or twenties and lived through years of disability and suffering: of those whose lives I’ve been listening to on audiobook recently, Saint Bernadette died at thirty-five, Saint Faustina at thirty-three, Saint Elizabeth of the Trinity at twenty-six, and Saint Thérèse herself at twenty-four. Little Nellie of Holy God, to whose biography I’m currently listening, made it – spoiler alert! – to the grand old age of four.
I’m not a saint who can bear illness the way they could – if they’d had blogs in the nineteenth century, I can’t imagine Saint Thérèse getting on one to vent about sexist doctors, for example – but I can still take them as my examples and learn important lessons from the way they carried themselves in suffering.
1) Don’t assume you’re being punished by God. Same as when you have to leave religious life, or any other dream falls apart: it’s not a personal failure on your part, or a sign that He has rejected you. As a consequence of the Fall, we live in a world where we’re surrounded by viruses, toxins, dangerous people and animals, sheer drops and large, fast-moving objects, and eventually something’s going to smack into the just and the unjust alike. Illness is impersonal; don’t take it personally. As I know from experience, blaming yourself for drawing down God’s punishment by your actions is the very best way to learn to fear and resent Him. He’s with you while you’re struggling, helping you to live through it.
2) Don’t overthink things and start denying your own experience. I’m not really that sick – I don’t need to rest. (Yes, you probably do.) Maybe I’m subconsciously making myself sick because I’m afraid of life. (You’ve read too much pop psychology.) I need to restrict myself to healthy foods, and if I eat that slice of pizza I deserve to stay sick. I need to try all the medicines/supplements/treatment programs/etc I read about on the Internet, or I’m not really trying to get well again.Maybe I’m just milking my illness to get out of things. Maybe I’m being lazy. Maybe I’m just being dramatic about the effect this is having on me.
The saints didn’t do that. They were honest about the fact that they were suffering terribly – think of Saint Thérèse warning her sisters never to leave a full medicine bottle within the reach of someone in pain, or Saint Bernadette wondering aloud how she hadn’t died yet – and they did what they could each day. Some days Thérèse could write, and on those days, she wrote. Other days, she couldn’t, and she offered up to God the frustrations that came with that. Some days you’ll be able to do things. Other days, you won’t. That’s okay, and you’re okay.
3) DO figure out ways to make your life easier. My go-to meal is a double handful of mung beans and ripped-up bean shoots dumped straight from their containers into a bowl, with low-FODMAP chicken or beef stock in hot water poured over the top to make a healthy soup. Preparation time: about thirty seconds. If you have days where your arms aren’t strong enough to use a spoon, try pre-puréed fruits and soups in sachets; cut off the corners and suck them. Keep a bag of nuts beside your bed so that you have something to ease your hunger if you can’t get up. Cook lots of chopped potatoes and mincemeat on a good day, and store individual portions in the freezer to heat when you need them (they go well in the mung-bean soup to bulk it up).
4) DO figure out how to adapt your prayer life to your energy level as well. If you say the Rosary, there are plenty of versions on YouTube that you can listen to and follow along with while you’re lying still in bed. This one’s my favourite: a basic, no-frills version without music (I love music, but now it often hurts my ears), and it doesn’t name the Mysteries so you can use the same recording every day. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MjDZeB7DfCo
If you pray the Office, you can download the Laudate app, open up whichever Hour you want to say, and have a screen-reader read it aloud while you listen. (I use the free @Voice Aloud Reader from Google Play, which has a bunch of different voices from which to choose. I like the sophisticated English lady. You can also adjust pitch and reading speed to suit your own preference.) Also, when you get tired of computer voices, there’s an app with a recording of Dominican friars singing Night Prayer in English for each night of the year: just type ‘Dominican Compline’ into Google Play and it will come up.
Basically any prayer you can think of, from the Holy Cloak Novena to Saint Joseph to the Divine Mercy Chaplet to the Golden Arrow Prayer, is available in spoken form on YouTube. Or, on a good day, you can record it yourself and then save it to play back in the future on not-so-good days. On days when the exhaustion and brain fog are so severe that you can’t even remember the words of the Hail Mary (trust me, I’ve been there), this is a gentle, no-pressure way to pray.
Audiobooks on YouTube are a great resource for filling the long, long hours alone in bed – my spiritual life has deepened immensely from the things I’ve learnt on days when I was too sick to read or watch a movie, and they’re basically now my primary way of staying close to God. Even if you’re not unwell but just want something to listen to on the commute to work, these are good resources. Here are some of my favourite channels:
(A friar, almost certainly a Dominican based on the number of OP books in his library, who reads edifying books aloud in his soft, slightly gravelly voice. You’ve got books by Louis de Montfort, Thomas Aquinas, G.K. Chesterton, and some of the mediaeval mystics, among others.)
(Orthodox Catholic talks on numerous topics, from lives of Saints to end-times prophecies and the state of the Church. You’re asked to say three Hail Marys for the priest who delivers each talk you listen to.)
(From Julian of Norwich to Saint Francis de Sales, there are numerous books available, read aloud by volunteers from around the world. Some volunteers are much better readers than others, but it’s a great resource overall.)
There are also lots of Catholic books on Google Play quite cheaply (I got a book by Saint Alphonsus Liguori for a couple of dollars) that you can then use the Google Books inbuilt screen-reader to read aloud for you. It’s more annoying than a human voice, but not impossibly so.
Finally, there are television Masses uploaded online every day (you can type ‘Catholic Mass today’ into YouTube if you’re too sick to go out to church), and also live-streamed Perpetual Adoration here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m4A6RIOwC2E
Basically, it can be done: there are numerous cheap or free resources out there to help your soul to grow in faith, hope and love in times of illness. I no longer feel as though I’m rotting away in the dark, because I know my heart is hearing and responding to God, and prayer connects me to the world outside my room. In effect, this solitude has become the cloister I once sought in the convent, and the stillness has become a source of contemplation. I would love to be well: to go back to work properly, to resume my studies, to get my brown belt in karate, and to carry on with the life I was living before my illness took all of that away. And yet, being torn out of my ordinary life and compelled to live with God in solitude has given me more graces than I could ever have imagined, and I can share the fruits of those graces with others by my prayers even if I don’t live among them much anymore.
It isn’t easy, but He is here. And for as long as He wills it, so am I.
A huge thank you to those who joined us in the novena during June 2019! We’ve now archived the prayers and condensed them into one page so that you can come back and pray the novena whenever you wish. This page can be found here.
You’re invited to pray a novena with us June 20-28.
Listen to the audio invitation below for more information. Each day I’ll post a new reflection on this page.
Hi Everyone, it’s Theresa!
I’d like to invite you to be an active part of our apostolate by praying with us for two minutes per day for nine days starting on June 20 and ending on June 28, The Sacred Heart of Jesus.
June 16 is Leonie’s feast day so I thought it would be a great day to announce this exciting opportunity.
Each day I’ll post a 2 minute recording with a short prayer and a time of quiet reflection.
I’m confident that at the end of the novena, things will happen. I can’t wait to hear about what God says to you in your prayer and what comes up in your heart.
Recently, I was invited to attend a Mass of Thanksgiving for Blessed Clelia Merloni, foundress of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. I knew nothing about her, but who doesn’t like attending a special Mass with great pomp and circumstance? Besides, I work in Catholic education and thus have a connection to her community today. The program for Mass had a one page biography, which was nice. More importantly, there was a short book at the back of the Cathedral that I picked up afterwards and have since been reading, titled, “I Bless You with a Hundred Hearts.” I discovered that Blessed Clelia could certainly be another intercessor for Leonie’s Longing readers!
Even her biography on the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus webpage does not have the details that caught my eye. It merely states,
“After various experiences of religious life in different congregations, Clelia entered the Congregation of the Daughters of St. Mary of Divine Providence…Immersed in a life of self-giving and prayer, she sensed a strong calling to establish a new congregation dedicated to works of charity which would visibly express the love of Christ.”
“Various experiences” refers to short stints (usually less than a year) with 6 different congregations! SIX! For those of us who have entered and left one or two, I imagine Blessed Clelia may have had thoughts similar to our own along the way. In between some of those, she also opened and closed a couple of ministries of her own as a laywoman. The whole time from her first entrance to her founding of the community was about 10 years.
Her life was certainly guided by Divine Providence, because most of her leavings were due to illness. For example, her first attempt was at the Monastery of the Visitation, where she became so ill it seemed she was at the point of death but following a dream that upon reception of Holy Communion she would recover, that is what happened. She still returned home as all advised her to seek a less rigid congregation. Her stint with the Daughters of St. Mary of Divine Providence came to an end after an illness where the orphans prayed for her recovery as a sign that she was indeed called to follow her inspiration of founding a community herself.
Perhaps most of us have not had such unusual guidance in our vocational discernment, yet, her example of perseverance is worthy of emulation. No matter where our vocational journeys lead us (whether as a consecrated religious or into holy matrimony), her life can inspire us to continue to trust God, especially when the path seems unclear. I quote from the book:
It seems that Clelia’s life may have been purified above all by the suffering of obscurity. God tested her faith by immersing her in large part on a path of darkness. Doubt, “a hot-bed of purification,” existed for a long time in Clelia’s heart. As we often see in the lives of saints, she possessed gifts of light, of graces that enlightened the path for others; the ground on which she herself walked, however, was often poorly lit.
Who of us has not felt the same about our own lives? As I continue to seek my next steps, now several years after leaving my community, Blessed Clelia’s life reminds me that I don’t need to have it all figured out yet. In fact, my next steps seem to be taking me further from religious life. Nevertheless, this Blessed has encouraged me to keep moving forward.
After the founding of her community, Blessed Clelia’s trials did not come to an end. I haven’t finished reading the book, but the little I do know already is inspiring. Some of those details are found here. What her story says to all of us is, never give up hope as we trust God and strive to live His Mercy – while the path does not appear straight to us, we are guided by the Hand of our Loving Father.
Whether or not a person who leaves religious life discerned that on her own, it may feel like a disappointment on some level. Here you were, ready to give yourself away in the life of religious vows, and now you are no longer in the community you joined. You trek back to the secular world wondering, “What’s this all about?” You may feel like Eliza Doolittle who cried out, “What’s to become of me?” Perhaps for some it may feel that leaving religious life is simply an ending, with no new beginning in sight. But each of us is called to be a saint, and there are a number of holy people who left religious life or seminary (or were never permitted to enter), only to find their vocation elsewhere and become persons of exemplary holiness.
For the encouragement of all who are a part of Leonie’s Longing, I thought I would start a list of saints, blesseds, and other exemplary persons who at one time aspired to the religious life but were unable to enter, or were in seminary or religious life and left.
+St. Frances Xavier Cabrini – was turned away in her youth from entering religious life due to poor health; she later founded her own order.
+Bl. Margaret of Costello – expelled from a religious community, she became a 3rd order Dominican.
+St. Zelie Martin – she had been rejected by a religious order and became a holy wife, and mother to St. Therese of Lisieux.
+St. Louis Martin – could not join a monastery because he could not master Latin and became a saintly husband, and father to St. Therese of Lisieux.
+St. Anthony Mary Claret – sickness kept him from remaining in the Jesuit novitiate; he later became a bishop and founded a religious order.
+Fr. Isaac Thomas Hecker – had been expelled from the Redemptorists, then was asked by Rome to form a new community, which became known as the Paulists.
+Judge William P. Clark – had entered seminary then left and became a top advisor to President Reagan
+Elizabeth – a friend of mine who could not become a religious due to a chronic health condition…now she is a consecrated virgin with the Blessed Sacrament in her home.
+Sister Luitgard Kussman, OSB – member of Benedictine nuns in Colorado who died a few years ago; health problems led to her being released from her religious vows as a Missionary in 1945. Some years later she entered the contemplative Benedictines.
+Pope St. John Paul II—wanted to enter the Discalced Carmelites, but due to the war in Poland, they were not accepting novices at the time of his inquiry. Looks like God had other plans!
If anyone knows of others, PLEASE share so that we all can be encouraged and inspired even more!
I was sitting at a table happily conversing with a group of girlfriends when I saw her walk in. She had made some attempt to look put-together, though her puffy eyes and downcast demeanor implied otherwise. I knew she struggled emotionally and had a lot of marital drama, so I wasn’t surprised. I watched her walk past my table and choose a seat at a distance from everyone else. Apart from the bride-to-be, whose shower had brought us together that day, I’m pretty sure I was her only other friend in the room.
“Friend” was a challenging term to use here. Only a few years my senior, she had been my boss for three years. Our strong personalities often clashed. I felt stifled by her, and I think she felt threatened by me. Our rocky relationship eventually drove me to leave that job.
Both of us had become close with another coworker—a kind and deeply compassionate young woman who was preparing to marry the love of her life. This woman and I had spent a lot of time together, even outside of work, and our friend circles intertwined. I knew half of the people in the room that day, but I was well aware that my former boss, who normally feigned confidence, was like a fish out of water here. As I continued my comfortable conversations, I felt a nudge to go over and speak to the lonely one. I ignored it. I continued to catch glimpses of her out of the corner of my eye but continued to suppress the inspiration to do the kind and uncomfortable thing. In a little while, I thought. But before I ever had the courage to respond to a simple prompting, she had left the party.
Thankfully, I had a more pleasant encounter with her at the wedding a month later and some positive text exchanges in the weeks that followed. At that point, the three of us who had once worked together a part of a tight-knit (albeit dysfunctional) team had all moved on and were on the verge of new chapters in life. The former boss expressed in a group text one day how much she missed our team, and in a genuine gesture, I texted back suggesting that we meet for lunch soon at her favorite Italian restaurant. Maybe I could make up for my neglect of charity a few months earlier. She responded affirmatively.
But the shared meal of bread sticks and gnocchi soup never happened. Three days after that text conversation, she took her life. She left behind a husband and five children whom she decided would be better off without her.
As I tried to process the news, memories rolled through my head. I spent the first three years after leaving my community with this person, day in and day out. She hired me for my first-ever career-type job and allowed me to gain experience in a field that I came to love. We had more than our fair share of challenges, but we both made some attempt to bond over those things we had in common—like an appreciation of unique foods and a love for cinematic music. While the memories and tears flowed, one phrase echoed through my head: I wish I had loved her more.
I had planned to work that secular job for a year or so while I searched for a new ministry to pour myself into. What I had failed to realize was that God placed ministry opportunities right in front of me. He gave me people who needed to be loved. He gave me moments to sanctify and challenges to offer. I was no less called to be His disciple in this job than I was in my community or in any other full-time ministry. I shed some tears as I thought back over those years and recalled the day of the bridal shower. I prayed for God’s mercy on this woman’s soul and for her family. For myself, I asked that I not be so blind in the future. Sure, I may not have been able to change the course of this person’s life, but I know I could have made some small attempt to love her more.
Recently I was attending another bridal shower. As I walked back to my table after refilling my iced tea, I noticed a woman sitting alone, as everyone from her table was helping the bride-to-be with gifts. I felt a gentle prompting and walked over to her. I introduced myself and invited her to come sit at my table. She smiled and accepted the invitation. I recognized the God moment, and I praised Him in my heart for another chance to love.