Thank you all for being here.
First of all, I want to thank Teresa, Dianne and Sue of Curatio for this invitation to be here. I want to thank Archbishop Hebda and Father Moriarty for their hospitality and their celebrating this incredible Mass surrounding the World Day of the Sick. I would also thank St. Agnes for putting this on in what is a truly sublime environment. This church is just so gorgeous that only the liturgy exceeds it.
I want to start this talk by basically robbing, if I will, from one of my favorite Catholic thinkers, G. K. Chesterton, who said “Faith means believing the unbelievable. Hope means hoping when everything seems hopeless.” At the young age of 25, a southern Catholic writer named Mary Flannery O’Connor was diagnosed with lupus. Having seen her father succumb to the same ravaging illness when she was only a teenager, she had no illusions regarding the difficulties that lay ahead. While she had a sense that something was not quite right, the full diagnosis was a shock. Things had been going so well for her. Having a pension for writing, Flannery, as she would soon be called, was accepted at the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop. She published a collection of short stories and won a notable award for her first novel, Wise Blood. Before long, this shy but gently sardonic young woman would be accepted and welcomed at Yaddo, an artist’s retreat at Saratoga Springs, New York, and there she would befriend and learn from numerous standout writers and poets, such as Robert Lowell.
But then the lupus came, and with it came flares, crippling arthritis, drenching fevers, profound fatigue. The steroid she was given would help some of the symptoms abate, but they had side effects of their own on mood, on weight, on her bones. And so Mary Flannery O’Connor would head home to Milledgeville to live with her mom, to hobble. She walked around the peacock and peahen trammelled farm known as Andalusia, and she would rest; but Flannery O’Connor would also write, and she would write, and she would write some more. In fact, it was in the depths of her debility, the long days and dark nights of the soul, that Flannery O’Connor penned her greatest works, including A Good Man is Hard to Find, Everything that Rises Must Converge, which is another collection of her stories, and her second novel, The Violent Bear It Away. However, perhaps the most consequential writing that Flannery O’Connor did would be a surprise even to her; it was her private letters. Because of her illness and her subsequent removal from the intriguing literary landscape that she inhabited prior to her diagnosis, Flannery would once quip, “Mail is very eventful to me.” That is what her latter-day readers would also discover, for in The Habit of Being, which is a posthumous collection of Flannery’s letters thanks to the painstaking work of her friend, Sally Fitzgerald, we now encounter a most beautiful mind.
In exchanges that Flannery had with theologians and authors, students and friends, she is witty and thoughtful, clear-thinking and brutally honest. It is in Flannery’s letters that we truly begin to fathom the depths of meaning in her novels and her short stories. Her fiction, if you’ve ever encountered it, is raw. It is filled with vagrant preachers and smug mothers, one-legged college grads and hillbilly grandpas. There are stories of grotesques and misfits. In fact, her most famous story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” is centered on an escaped murderer aptly named “The Misfit.” Her characters are unbecoming; they don’t sit well. They don’t make you comfortable, and they tempt you to want to put the book down. But when asked why she crafts characters in this way, she answered, “When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax and use more normal means of talking to it. When you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock. To the hard of hearing, you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures. And for this devout Catholic, who read 15 minutes of St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa every night before going to sleep, she could be withering in her criticism of right-thinking professors foisting Godless, clinical interpretations of her work upon their unsuspecting students. When three such professors collectively wrote her of their hyper-symbolic interpretation of the crazed misfit in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” Flannery literally spat back, “The interpretation of your 90 students and 3 teachers is fantastic and about as far from my intentions as it could ever get to be. Teachers are in a habit of approaching a story as if it were a research problem, for which any answer is believable so long as it is not obvious, and I think students will never learn to enjoy fiction. Too much interpretation is certainly worse than too little, and where feeling for a story is absent, theory will not supply it.” Later she would quietly fume in a letter to a friend, “The theories are worse than the Furies!”
But the genius of Flannery’s incisive mind is not what makes her so relevant today on this World Day of the Sick; it is her faith that sees through her suffering. It is her trust in the midst of consuming illness. Even before her diagnosis as a young woman writing in her prayer journal, Flannery faced fear that her own worries, her own fears, or even her own self-importance might eclipse God’s active presence in her life. She wrote privately, “Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I would want to. You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see, and my self is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon. The crescent is very beautiful, and perhaps that is all one like I am should or could see; but what I am afraid of, dear God, is that my self shadow will grow so large that it blocks the whole moon … I do not know you God because I am in the way. Please help me to push myself aside.”
Nearly a decade into her illness, Flannery would reflect on the challenge of believing in the midst of illness, in the midst of suffering. She said, “I think there is no suffering greater than what is caused by the doubts of those who want to believe. I know what torment this is, but I can only see it, in myself anyway, as the process by which faith is deepened. What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think that faith is a big electric blanket, but of course it is the cross.” Flannery would further reflect, “I’ve never been anywhere but sick. In a sense, sickness is a place, more instructive than a long trip to Europe, and it’s always a place where there’s no company, for nobody can follow. Sickness before death is a very appropriate thing, and I think those who don’t have it miss one of God’s mercies.”
Now, let’s step aside from Flannery’s story for just a minute, and considering all that she endured and all that she came to understand in her illness, I had to ask myself a question. Even though I care for the sick day in and day out in my job as a doctor, what do I really know about suffering and illness? Not as much as many of you, I’m sure. In fact, I would reason that a number of you should be standing here and giving this talk instead of me, because you know what illness feels like. You understand its weight, its sheer heaviness, as a presence in your life. You live with the growing anxiety with a PET scan next week, the loosening of once fitting clothing, the exhaustion of answering loved ones’ questions with hope for their sake when your own reserve of hope is running low. You know the doctors you like and the ones you don’t, the nurses who care and the others who feel kind of worn out. You pick up on the nuance of a furrowed brow, a hesitated answer, a look of sadness that steals across a clinician’s face. You think about the future more often, as well as the past. Things once neglected or bustled past mean more. You take fewer things for granted.
Recently, my 82-year-old mother fell when alone in a garage, her balance hampered since my childhood due to two brain surgeries that infarcted her balance center, her cerebellum. She went down and hit her head hard, and ended in the hospital with a subdural hematoma, which is a collection of blood growing between the skull and the brain. When conservative care failed and she was re-admitted with an urgent need to evacuate the blood lest she die, my most vivid memory during this harrowing ordeal was my drive at breakneck speed to LaCrosse Mayo Hospital, and the only thing I kept thinking to myself as I fought tears was, “God, do I love her! And I haven’t been good enough to her.” She’s done very well, by the way; her surgery went well.
What do I know about suffering and illness? I’ve spent the end of a long hospital day rounding and finding myself at the bedside of Walt (and the names are changed for privacy). Walt is wracked with fluid from his failing kidneys and heart, but he still has the energy to tell me about what it was like to encounter prisoners at Dachau concentration camp when his army division liberated them. Story after story would pour out, along with his tears. “I cry every day about what I saw,” he tells me. I’ve listened to Beverly, strapped in her motorized wheelchair, her body contorted by cerebral palsy, her smile running away from her face as she tells me, “They all think I’m a vegetable, but I’m really smart.” I’ve seen James, whose cancer marched on; Sue, who had to be re-admitted with another stroke; and Philip, whose depression just won’t respond to our latest medication. David, the psalmist, knew these pains. He knew their leveling blow, their unrelenting presence. He knew the loss of words because of them, and he wrote, “I am worn out from my groaning. All night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears.”
Suffering and illness are never fully explicable. From the outside, you never fully get it, and from the inside you can’t fully get your head around it. It is the cross. But there’s something I’ve come to realize about suffering and illness; it’s sort of an epiphany for me. Though I don’t understand the searing experience or the logical reasons behind illness and suffering, God does. Job, a righteous man, endured almost incomparable suffering with the loss of his health, his family, and his livelihood, and though he never lost his faith in God, he became very angry with Him. And God, loving Job, responded to Job’s righteous anger with questions of His own. “Job,” He asked, “were you there when I put the stars in the sky, when I separated the land from the sea, when I created all that lives?” It was a panoramic second creation story that God put before Job’s very eyes, and Job is utterly humbled. God in fact, lovingly but assertively, seems to ask Job, “If you can’t begin to explain the operations of the physical universe, how can you begin to fathom how I run the moral universe?”
St. John Henry Newman offered this when he endured suffering of his own. “God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which he has not committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good; I shall do His work. I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it if I do but keep His commandments. Therefore, I will trust Him, whatever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him; in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him. If I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. He does nothing in vain. He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends. He may throw me among strangers. He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me. Still, He knows what He is about.”
Flannery O’Connor, herself heavy with illness, didn’t see her short life charged with unraveling the mystery of suffering and illness. Instead she insisted that “For me, the meaning of life is centered in our redemption by Christ, and what I see in the world I see in its relation to that.” Flannery’s is a narrative of hope that blooms out of deep loss. So perhaps, as we grapple with the meanness of suffering and the unforgiving insistence of illness, we would do well to ask a few alluding questions. What God, in any tradition, without fail greets us or has His messengers greet us with, “Be not afraid”? What God tells us not to worry, that He’s going to prepare a place for us, that He will be with us until the end of the age? What God has pity on the sick, the lost crowds, and heals them to His own utter exhaustion? What God chases us, we lost sheep, prodigal sons, lost coins, to the ends of the earth? What God suffers incomprehensible pain, humiliation and death, for reasons that serve only our salvation, our reunion with Him? Our God does, and this truth is what every saint attests to, through illness, isolation, torture and execution, mystery and uncertainty. God knows and loves us through our suffering.
I may not understand suffering and illness the way I should – its meaning, its searing pain, its ability to collapse and to crush – but I know that when it comes, not if but when, I will have a God who does. The fears and anxieties that come with suffering and illness may not be extinguished, but they can be assuaged. As Hans Urs von Balthasar once wrote, “The Word of God has no fear of fear and anxiety.”
In 1964, Mary Flannery O’Connor died. She was just 39 years old. Before she passed, she didn’t bestow upon us, with her keen mind and her apprehension of deeper truths, the Answer. She didn’t give us the answer to illness, the understanding of suffering, who gets sick, who dies young, and why. But perhaps – just perhaps – her insight, which was a prayer scrawled in a dime store notebook, will begin to help us. “I do not know you, God, because I am in the way. My worries, my fears, my illness, my suffering, my plan not Yours, are in the way. Please help me to push myself aside.” Thank you very much.