It crept up on me for several months, but when it happened, it was startling and very clear. It was time to heed the words of the 4th century desert fathers and mothers, “Go sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.”
I’d struggled with a cold since the beginning of the year, which was only exacerbated by significant air travel, major flight disruption and a crazy schedule. In addition to congestion and a cough, I start getting chills and throw up most of the afternoon. It soon becomes clear. No preaching for me on Sunday. I sleep all day in my cell.
I know I am really sick when I don’t even agonize about whether to be in church or not. I pray in my bed for all those around the world who are leading worship this morning. I also thank God for the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ, which saves even the most stubborn and resistant among us, especially a wretch like me.
I recognize that even though I haven’t seen a doctor yet I am likely going to need to sit in my cell for a while to heal. As a sign of moving beyond resistance to accept my illness, I decide to celebrate the 100th birthday of Thomas Merton by reading his autobiography, The Seven Story Mountain, published in 1948. It’s four hundred pages long and the type is small. How can I possibly finish the book before life returns to normal and time evaporates? Not to worry.
Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, has always been one of my heroes of the spiritual life. I read with hope, a little bit at a time, cocooned in my cell. I suspect Merton will have much to teach me.
“This, then, is our desert: to live facing despair, but not to consent. To trample it down under hope in the cross.” (All quotes from Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude)
I call the doctor first thing in the morning. She takes a chest x-ray and announces that I have pneumonia.
“You’ve got to take it easy.”
“Can I run? I’m training for a marathon.”
“Not for a few days.”
“Can I work?”
“You need to give your body a rest. Why are you even asking these questions? Go sit in your cell and chill out.”
“We can be glad of our helplessness when we really believe that God’s power is made perfect in our infirmity… But we cannot have true compassion on others unless we are willing to accept pity and receive forgiveness for our own sins.”
I can’t just go cold turkey, so I decide to teach my Tuesday women’s book study. The antibiotics and cough medicine are working, but I wake up, realizing that it is silly to even think I am able to be out and about. I send my class outline in to the church with Gary, and a volunteer very capably leads the class.
In the chapter we are studying from Robert J. Wicks’ Riding the Dragon, he quotes Henri Nouwen’s lament in The Genesee Diary, “While teaching, lecturing, and writing about the importance of solitude, inner freedom, and peace of mind, I kept stumbling over my own compulsions and illusions. What was driving me from one book to another, one project to another? … What was turning my vocation to be a witness to God’s love into a tiring job?”
After internal wrestling about letting people down and not fulfilling my obligations, I decide to accept my fate and give in to my illness. The pneumonia is a gift to lead me into deeper awareness of God’s working in my life. I go into myself.
What exactly is my sickness, anyway? Is it overwork, imbalance or giving in to my need to be needed? Or is it my compulsion to make a difference in the world, to bring in God’s kingdom of radical love and justice? Saying “no” has never been one of my strengths.
“The more we are content with our own poverty, the closer we are to God. For then we accept our poverty in peace, expecting nothing from ourselves and everything from God.” (Merton quote)
Everything slows down. Sitting in my cell, I continue to read Thomas Merton but also begin to pay attention to the world.
- NBC news anchor Brian Williams has been suspended for six months because of inaccuracies in reporting. We are all liars, I think to myself. Everyone exaggerates or misrepresents themselves on occasion. If our God were not a God of second chances, I don’t know where I would be.
- It has been revealed that Kayla Mueller, the last American hostage held by ISIS, has died. What an inspiration she has been to the world. In her last letter to her family, smuggled out of her cell, Kayla writes, “I have been shown in darkness, light + have learned that even in prison, one can be free. I am grateful. I have come to see that there is good in every situation, sometimes we just have to look for it.”
- Little League World Series officials strip Chicago’s Jackie Robertson West Little League of their regional and national titles because they fielded players from outside Chicago. My heart aches for the children.
“What is the use of praying if at the very moment of prayer, we have so little confidence in God that we are busy planning our own kind of answer to our prayer?”
The Powerball Jackpot of $564 million, the fifth largest lottery prize in history, was won by individuals in Puerto Rico, Texas and North Carolina. I had no idea that Powerball is an interstate lottery designed to make money for small states by offering jackpots larger than their lotteries alone could advance. Is this what normal people do in our country? I’ll never get it.
The nation is gripped by the execution style murder of three young Muslims in North Carolina over what appeared to be a dispute about parking spaces but may have been a hate crime. A recent poll shows that young Muslims are seen in a more negative light than any other minority in our country. God, forgive our inability to love and respect those who are different.
I go to the church for two important meetings, but it would have been better if I could have just stayed home and been quiet. Healing and solitude complement each other.
“Prayer is then not just a formula of words or a series of desires springing up from the heart – it is the orientation of our whole body, mind and spirit to God in silence, attention, and adoration.”
What’s the fascination with Fifty Shades of Grey? The book has sold over 100 million copies worldwide, and the movie was released today. I am boycotting Fifty Shades of Grey because its cultural impact romanticizes sexual violence and excuses domestic abuse. Shame on us if the movie prompts further sexual exploitation in our world.
I pray for clergy today. I believe that a significant number of pastors are so stressed and burned out that they regularly consider leaving the ministry. Conflict, depression, loneliness, the burden of expectations of their local churches, few signs of success, the relentless nature of Sunday coming every week, the neglect of their families, worrying about budget issues, dealing with complaints, having little time for personal spiritual disciplines: it all takes a toll.
Ministry is dying of a thousand paper cuts. And eventually we get sick. We clergy are not a healthy lot. That’s why our health insurance is so high. We take care of everyone else first. We are not good models.
“A person who truly responds to the goodness of God and acknowledges all that he/she has received, cannot possibly be a half-hearted Christian.”
What has my cell taught me? How can I recover and keep God’s love first in my life? Taking time to cultivate solitude and my own spiritual life is not optional. Maintaining balance will always be a struggle.
“The spiritual life is, then, first of all, a matter of keeping awake… It requires unending courage and perseverance and those who are not willing to work at it patiently will finally end in compromise.”
God, give me courage and save me from ever being a half-hearted Christian.