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:
The Priory Librarian: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCxMQn7rjBwqRGkf2gV1jP5A
(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.)
Sensus Fidelium: https://www.youtube.com/user/onearmsteve4192
(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.)
Classic Catholic Audiobooks: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCfXTzdNin8U8aEQVMIXiRog/videos
(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.)
Sacred Heart Publications: excellent Catholic talks on holiness, as well as audiobooks: https://www.youtube.com/user/MultiBurtons
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.
By Cate (re-printed with kind permission from her blog Seeking Sunflowers) .
I turned right one street before I needed to—the route that led to my old apartment. Shoot, I thought to myself. I’m already running late, and now I have to drive around the block and lose more time. After turning left in order to get back to where I needed to be, I saw a male figure I recognized walking down the sidewalk. My hunch was confirmed as I approached his vicinity, so I pulled over and called out the window to him.
This man and his wife were friends of mine from high school. We reconnected several month ago, before I moved out of town for missions. I had thought about reaching out to them while I was home on break, but my schedule filled quickly, making it impossible to see everyone this time around.
I got out of my car, and we stood chatting for a few minutes in the cold, catching up briefly on life before exchanging hugs and wishing one another well. I was grateful for the happy accident—the seemingly wrong turn—that afforded me this encounter.
Isn’t that how life is sometimes? Unexpected turns lead us down roads that, in the end, we are happy we didn’t miss. In fact, some the greatest joys in my own life have been the result of turns that, at the time of choosing, I seriously questioned being the “right” choice.
I remember the state of my heart one dreary January afternoon several years ago. I was sitting at an office desk across from my friend Theresa, who had been supervisor, coworker, and mentor to me. I had just made a decision that rocked my world—to leave the Catholic organization I had been serving with practically my entire adult life up to that point. Through tears I verbalized to my confidant that I had just made the worst decision of my life.
My dear friend, who knew that the decision came as the result of much prayer and discernment, encouraged me to consider that this detour—if it was in fact a detour—was happening for a reason, and that perhaps there was something or someone along this path that I needed to encounter.
Theresa was right. As I look back, I no longer see in this decision a wrong turn, and I no longer believe that I took a detour. That was the way I was meant to follow, and the blessings that came as a result are ones that I can’t imagine not having as part of my life today.
Since that cold January day I have made plenty of other questionable turns in the road. Some I have made peace with. Other I still wrestle with in my mind. But on my better days I am able to see that all has served to bring me to where I am now.
As we begin a new year, and I begin a new chapter in life, the temptation can be to jettison the past and “begin anew.” While there is certainly wisdom in this approach, I have found the Holy Spirit leading me in a different direction presently.
One of the words I received for this year is build. While this was the one generated for me on a website, and not the one I received in prayer (more on that in another post), I have nonetheless been reflecting on its significance.
We tend to see time as linear: the past in the shadows behind us, and the future on the horizon ahead. But lately I have been challenged to see time as more horizontal. We build on the foundation of the past and ascend toward the future that awaits us. Our past—with its joys and sorrows, good and bad, triumphs and mistakes—all serve as a foundation for where we find ourselves in the present.
Today I stand on this foundation, on the brink of something new. In a few short days I will board a plane to Peru and begin to make a home in this new country. I have a different view than I did on that January day. I now see that it was only by making that difficult decision, and many other that have followed, I am here, once again ready to step into the foreign mission field.
I am grateful for the roads I’ve traveled, for the wisdom gleaned from each chapter, for the beautiful, the challenging, and the grueling. My good God has allowed each and every piece of the journey to bring me to where I stand today, on the threshold of something beautiful.
By Katita Luisa
“Go to the desert and you’ll understand”.
So I went there this year.
I dipped my toes in that hot sand
and out of love for Him,
I was soon all in
with each grain rubbing against me,
scratching and removing what I wanted most,
and my dreams
and my will.
I went there.
I stuck my neck out in that unrelenting heat,
feeling the burn on the most delicate of skin,
but out of love for the Son,
realizing He was not merciless
but rather merciful,
exposing and toughening
for the path that would unfold.
I went there.
I reached for my canteen
only to find it empty,
my own preparations,
and was invited
to rely solely on Him,
embracing the unknown,
thirsting for Him alone.
And out of love for me,
we went there.
We grew closer rather than apart.
I found refuge in His Heart.
I even saw flowers bloom in that desert-
because I can take Him at His word.
Lessons taught and learned,
my heart broken only to start to heal,
making room for Truth to sink in,
deeper than the cracks of my sin
and the holes of my doubt.
Yes, my cup overflows,
only because it had to be emptied first.
And as we left and I dusted off the sand from my sandals,
I took His hand and said,
“Out of love for You,
I’d do it all again.”
He looked at me, smiled, and said,
“Now you’re beginning to understand.”
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.
By M. Cabri
Over a year and a half ago when I left a religious community, everything in my life seemed to be broken. My family seemed to have fallen apart while I was thousands of miles away, and I could not seem to maintain emotional equilibrium. I alternated between extreme joy and deep interior darkness. Inside, I tried not to be blinded by the fear of not understanding what was going on, and the growing sense, which I refused to accept, that I may have to leave the community. My spiritual life had been undermined as well, and I alternated between wondering if it was spiritual dryness or something I had done terribly wrong. I felt burdened by the obligations of communal prayer in a monastic community. I seemed to fall asleep in both of my meditations every day no matter how hard I tried to keep watch with Our Lord. I received no consolation at daily Mass. Whenever I went into the chapel to pray the Divine Office, rosary, or make a Holy Hour, it couldn’t be over fast enough. I was painfully agitated and restless. The silence seemed to crush me. When I could speak, I never seemed to be able to say what I needed to my superiors, which left me feeling hopeless and desperately alone.
In the months before I left, I cried myself to sleep more nights than I can count. I never seemed rested when I woke up in the morning. Every day I dragged myself to my chores, trying to tell myself wholeheartedly and joyfully that this was all for Jesus, but I found that I wasn’t even able to convince myself of that anymore. For the first time in my life, it truly seemed like Jesus was taking away the grace to live a life I had dreamed of for so long. I remembered how happy I had been as a postulant and new novice and couldn’t make sense of the inner darkness I felt now. I wrestled with feeling like I never could be enough for Him, that all my prayers and labor was in vain. I even began to wonder if He still was there, loving and supporting me. I couldn’t even look at my Sisters without crying. Finally, I just broke.
For a few blissful and painful days, I lived in a limbo of dreading I must leave and knowing my Sisters did not know what would happen. I felt interior joy (or relief) at the prospect. I sensed all I wanted was freedom from what had become oppressive to me, not realizing that I was pining for earthly treasure which could not satisfy my heart. His grace (or my willfulness) seemed to keep me in one piece long enough to smile and say goodbye to my Sisters without dragging them into my inner chaos.
From that place, I came home across the country, hoping that somehow everything would be better again. Those painful first days, I could barely go outside because I felt unable to face the world as I was. I felt immodest walking around habit-less, horror that I had left the community, shame for my shaved head and an unshakable sense of failure. I could barely tolerate going to Mass or praying, because I felt divorced by the One I had promised to marry, whom I still love. Everything reminded me of the Sisters I had left behind who were now dead to me. I saw their faces everywhere and heard their voices in my head, sharing their joys, sorrows and spiritual growth with me. To this day, I still do. I still do.
Over a year later, after being in therapy and having the advice of a wonderful spiritual director, I approached the community again. The prompt reply was that they did not think I had a vocation to their community and should discern elsewhere. The experience was like leaving all over again. I feared that no community would ever want to talk to me.
In the six months since that conversation, I have approached two communities. From both, I have received understanding, love and support. One vocation directress even praised me for my courage in continuing discernment of consecrated life. Both emphatically assured me that I could have been refused simply because the community had too many applicants that year or did not have the resources to invest in a young woman for a second try at religious life. After a long struggle, those words are beginning to set me free.
It is easy to see everything as a personal rejection. Many of us already see ourselves as damaged goods, irreparably broken and unlovable. The great mystery of salvation is that Christ does not merely come to make everything externally appear better, leaving the root problem intact. He wants to, and DOES, heal the inner brokenness! We are all wounded and damaged by sin, either our sins or the sins of others. He sees the brokenness and what He can do to make those scars radiant. We are all like shards of glass which individually can be unimpressive. But when the chips are filled, edges polished, and we are pieced together with the rest of the Body of Christ, we will be more beautiful than we ever could have imagined. The more perfect and transparent each individual piece is, the more light will shine through that piece and make the whole window radiant.
Jesus wants to shine through your life so that the world will come to know Him through you. The more you reflect Christ, the more His light will shine on people around you. Offer up your suffering, grow in holiness, and above all, continue to hope when all seems hopeless! The Body of Christ needs your suffering; don’t waste it! He IS faithful, even when we cannot feel it! Let Him heal you and know that all the saints and all of us who are journeying this path with you are praying for you!
By Aimee Dominique.
Journaling is a means by which I prefer to pray. I dialogue with God, ask Him questions, listen to His Word and sometimes write down what I’m grateful for at the end of the day. I like to go back and re-read my prayer journals to see how God has answered prayers, taught me, consoled me, forgiven me, and walked with me. Often I need a reminder of how God has been leading me, how much He has done for me. Sometimes I am surprised to see that I am tempted by similar things from year to year. Journaling has been a privileged means of seeing God’s presence in my life. Through journaling I get to see how God wants to work with my apparent failures.
Honestly, leaving religious life has felt like nothing less than leaving one culture and entering into another. It’s even more challenging when the culture I’ve returned to is supposed to be that of my own, that of my own people, my own country, yet it feels foreign to me. When over 10 years ago, I entered the convent for the first time, much of what has become the social norm didn’t exist. I never used a smartphone before and I feel lost when it comes to so many new forms of technology. I left religious life a little over two years ago and I continue to realize that the transition from the convent into the world is no less demanding than “sacrificing all” to follow the Lord to the convent in the first place.
One day I was expressing to God my pain and frustration—why does my life seem like a contradiction and a failure? (That may seem a dramatic assessment, but I would imagine that others who have left religious life have experienced similar doubts and feelings from time to time.) As I was pouring out my heart to the Lord in journaling prayer, I wrote to Him about feeling dizzy:
Dizzy—this world, my American culture, with its Instagram, Facebook, social media madness makes me dizzy… Job searches that end in a laundry list of competencies and required abilities, licenses, etc. make me feel dizzy… My own weakness makes me feel dizzy…
Not only can the first steps back into the world make you feel dizzy, this feeling can linger for years. There is the challenge of finding work, perhaps re-discerning a vocation, making friends, relating to people who you once knew, among so many other daily adjustments that often go unnoticed by those around you, but are felt with every step you take.
God recently revealed to me an explanation of my feeling of dizziness which consoled me. He reminded me of a passage in the Old Testament from the book of Jeremiah. God says to the prophet Jeremiah to go and visit the potter’s house. While there, Jeremiah discovers the potter is working at his wheel. Jeremiah writes, “whenever the object of clay which he was making turned out badly in his hand, he tried again, making of the clay another object of whatever sort he pleased” (Jeremiah 18:4). As Jeremiah witnesses the ingenuity and perseverance of the potter, the word of the Lord comes to him saying, “Can I not do to you, house of Israel, as this potter has done?… Indeed, like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand…” (Jeremiah 18:6). From this, God helped me understand that I feel dizzy because He is working on me right now. I’m His clay and I’m on the wheel spinning, but I’m in His hands. That’s what matters.
Clay is soft and impressionable. It doesn’t resist change but feels it very acutely, if clay could feel. If it was self-aware, clay might wrestle with feelings of shame about “turning out badly” in the hands of the potter on the first try. The important thing though is that the potter has a different perspective. The potter doesn’t get discouraged or frustrated with the clay. He tries something new. He is determined to continue his work. This is what God does with us. God revealed to me that it’s okay to feel dizzy and it’s okay to try something that doesn’t work out. He’s going to make everything work out in the end. He never gives up on us. St. Paul had this hope and perspective when he wrote, “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:6). We just need to trust, trust, trust, and surrender ourselves into His hands.