The Cloister of Illness

The Cloister of Illness

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.

The Path is Not Always Straight

By Rosemary Kate.

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.

Blessed Clelia Merloni, Pray for us!

 

Image credits: By ASCJ.Roma – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=67168692 

On the Threshold of Something Beautiful

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.

Desert Poem

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,

purifying me

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,

reddening,

but out of love for the Son,

I continued-

realizing He was not merciless

but rather merciful,

exposing and toughening

my weaknesses

for the path that would unfold.

I went there.

I reached for my canteen

only to find it empty,

surrendering

my own preparations,

expectations,

wishes

and comfort,

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-

promises fulfilled,

so unexpected

yet expected,

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.”

Hurricane

By Windy Day.

In 2016, I went for a walk with a colleague when Hurricane Matthew was striking the United States. We couldn’t help but talk about the weather because it was such big news. He shared that he was in Virginia for Hurricane Bertha and said it was “only a Category 2.” He then described his experience:

“The sky was pitch black; the wind howled nonstop for hours. The eye of the storm passed by at around noon, which I recall vividly because it provided just enough time for us on staff to go out for lunch — we sat outside at a local sandwich place under beautiful, peaceful blue skies and sunshine! Then, no sooner had we returned to the office when the deafening, dark tempest began roaring again. The contrast in so short a time was surreal and impressive.”

We were discussing this on a beautiful Autumn day, knowing full well that in other parts of the world people were recovering from devastation, experiencing devastation, or awaiting devastation. It was a strange feeling. Enjoying the beautiful weather and yet knowing not everyone in the world was experiencing the same thing.

If that can happen with weather I would suspect that it can happen in the spiritual life.

Does it sometimes seem that your experiences and feelings are casting a cloud over everything? It’s easy to deduce that everything is awful when we feel awful ourselves. But our current feelings and experiences aren’t an all-encompassing reality (or they don’t need to be). Have you heard St. Therese’s analogy of the little bird looking at the sun when the cloud passes in front?

“With bold abandonment, he remains gazing at his Divine Sun. Nothing can frighten him, neither wind nor rain; and if dark clouds come to hide the Star of love, the weak little bird will not move away, for he knows that on the other side of the clouds his Sun continues always to shine.”

To me that analogy made sense. But the way I had been reading it made it seem fairly tame. However, if we think about a hurricane completely blocking out the Sun so that midday looks like midnight, that is something very different.

Have you felt this way? I know I have.

Since returning to lay life I have felt to varying levels of desolation and spiritual torment. These are hard to reflect upon, let alone describe, especially when you’re afraid to scandalize others. It feels as though everyone expects you to have your life together because you were a religious. And to make it worse, we often expect that of ourselves.

Instead, I think it’s more realistic to anticipate and expect at least some darkness, if not extreme darkness, at this time. We are vulnerable and the evil one always looks for weakness in our defense (see 14th rule in St. Ignatius’ Rules for Discernment of Spirits*). It is quite likely your relationship with the Lord has been strained or challenged and this gives Satan an “in.”

How can we combat this darkness? Here are a few thoughts:

First, recognize this possibility and, “Be not afraid!” Fear can easily dominate us and cause us to feel powerless. Try to manage your response and any other things that you can control. Remind yourself of the truths of the spiritual life. Once again, Ignatius’ rules may help.

Next, don’t be surprised, offended, disappointed or take it personally. It magnifies things and only makes everything feel worse. This is a great opportunity to find hidden pride. If you are shocked and upset, you most likely had an unrealistic image of yourself (mea culpa!).

Finally, consider praising God in all things and thanking Him for this opportunity. View this truly as an opportunity and not a barrier. How can this be true? A few ideas:

You can learn more about yourself.

You can depend on God more.

You can turn to Him.

You can grow.

 

These are all good things that God wants for you! And you can always ask Mary to help you. Keep reminding yourself that, as St. Therese affirms, on the other side of the clouds his Sun continues always to shine.

 

What suggestions do you have? Please share in the comments below!

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*http://www.discerninghearts.com/catholic-podcasts/14-rules-discerning-spirits-different-movements-caused-soul/

Experiencing Holy Envy

By Christina M. Sorrentino, re-printed with permission from her blog https://calledtoloveosb.blogspot.com/

One of the greatest blessings of living in a monastery or convent is being able to live with the Blessed Sacrament. When young women would come on a discernment retreat and ask me what my favorite part was of being in religious life, I would always tell them, “Being in the constant presence of the most holy dwelling place”. There were some nights I would go down to the Eucharistic chapel and simply sit quietly alone with Jesus in the darkness with only the sanctuary lamp as my light. I cannot explain the feeling that would come over me as it is indescribable, and it is a feeling that I miss the most after leaving the monastery. I can no longer at night right before bed go downstairs and sit in the stillness before the Blessed Sacrament, and I can say that is my greatest sadness and loss of no longer being in religious life.

As in the words of Fr. Michael E. Gaitley, MIC, I find myself with a sort of “holy envy” in that I wish that I lived in the same house in such closeness to the Eucharist. Religious sisters and nuns are truly blessed in that they actually live in the same house as the Blessed Sacrament, and can visit with Jesus as often as they wish to visit him. I remember after Compline visiting the Eucharistic Chapel on my way back to the Sisters’ residence, and whispering to Jesus, “Good night”.

My heart yearns for the day when I will once again be living in the same house as the Blessed Sacrament. I do not find it a coincidence that not too long after my departure I was given an image of the Divine Mercy, which is such a beautiful image of his grace. I told my father I wanted to hang the image on the wall in my parents’ living room, and I was surprised when he told me that I could do so, and already I knew that Jesus was pouring out his merciful love.

Although the image is not the Blessed Sacrament, it will be a reminder of the merciful love of Jesus for me and for my family. The Divine Mercy Image Enthronement is an invitation to allow Jesus to reign not only in our home, but also in our hearts, and I will remember to trust Jesus and his divine will. This image of great grace brings Christ into our home, and until the day that I can once again live in closeness to the Eucharist I will consider myself blessed that the Image of Divine Mercy will remind me that Jesus is always with me, and to trust him.