Kingdom of the Sick
May 1, 2011
Rev. David W. Chandler
Sally keeps NPR on the radio in her car, so I know that is where we were one autumn night in 2009, listening to a man speaking who did not have a body. It was 10 minutes or so before I realized he did not actually have a voice either. He was breathing through a machine and speaking through a synthesizer.
We were not having a visit from the other side, although we might as well have been. The man’s name was Tony Judt. He had ALS – Lou Gehrig’s disease. He was utterly paralyzed – no muscle control at all. A few involuntary functions were still going, like his heartbeat, but that was it. Judt described his absolute physical helplessness bluntly but not without a wry humor. He told of being put to bed at night, his attendant turning off the light and leaving the room, of lying awake for hours unable to move a muscle – and what happens when you have an itch.
There was nothing wrong with Judt’s brain. He described the long night hours running pictures through his head, and – much of the time – composing his thoughts as a leading historian, cultural critic, teacher and public intellectual. By morning, he had ready for dictation the continuation of his decades of work.
Judt was a brilliant interview subject – lively, interesting, wide-ranging, pointed and present. He died in the summer of 2010, but not before publishing a final major work, and completing the manuscript of an equally well-reviewed memoir of his illness.
In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king – we have heard the proverb, and perhaps we think it is the same with sickness: Anyone who is well must be king. But perhaps that is too easy, too gratuitous and even shallow. Perhaps it is part and parcel of our American cult of wellness, of clinging to youth and almost compulsive activity up to and beyond the point of foolish pain and dangerous overreach. Perhaps it is a symptom of denial and timidity, a guarded unwillingness to follow the thread of life wherever it may lead us.
To encounter someone who is sick – especially someone gravely ill – is often to find a startlingly different reality than we expect or assume. Those in the immediate grip of their mortality often shock us by not just craving peace for themselves, but by seizing it with both hands – a vigor of life’s energy that can be all out of proportion with the infirmity of body or even mind. How many times have you heard of, or felt, the gift of compassion and composure, not as the well person gave it to a “patient” – as was presumably planned – but as it was received from that patient? There is an ageless reason why we lean close to hear – the blessing is so often for us.
I mentioned last week one defining characteristic of the “Jefferson Bible.” Our third president, in compiling a chronological narrative of Jesus, cut out the miracles attributed to Jesus. We may still agree with this view as far as Jefferson took it – that miracles were neither necessary nor proper to prove divinity – but we can also now understand those miracles primarily as works of healing. It is the profound appreciation of “healing” the sick can give to us.
Healing is not curing. The wonders of modern Western medicine are many – including cures for medical conditions that would have seemed miraculous only a few years ago. Look closely at miracles of healing and see something else at work: Not the disappearance of illness or injury but its integration, the restoration of wholeness even in diminution, the reconciliation of the self and the social bond. The sick often uncover this gift in the uttermost depths of their illness and despair, and then they offer it up to us. Even those at the end of life – knowing they are at the end of life – find so frequently not an overwhelming sense of loss but a surpassing sense of completion – of passing, however understood, from one phase of existence, to some other phase. We can know in their company life is indeed a biomechanical process, but also something beyond that.
To this lesson of healing, add that of enduring. In the kingdom of the sick, patience is not a passive virtue; it is an active necessity. How many of us go through the day longing to be more “grounded,” or “centered,” more “appreciative” or “mindful,” more “in the present moment” than processing regret or stifling apprehension?
Certainly illness can be processed as a project with its own deadlines, goals and action plans – realistic or absolutely deluded. But how much more often does the learning come that patience is essential. We soon learn the mechanisms of the human body take time for healing. And the mechanisms of chemotherapy, surgery and rehabilitation are deployed as well over extended periods. A cold will take ten days no matter what you do. Something more serious may take months or even years. Might as well leave this rushing and frenetic world and live out the virtues of hunkering down.
Time is elastic not linear. This is a gift we can gain and receive in the midst of illness.
Finally, this lesson practical, social and spiritual: The gift of repairing. To come to understand the central goal of healing, to appreciate the fundamental mechanism of patience and perseverance – these are dimensions sustained and progressing toward the culmination of putting right what is not, or has not been. What is not right is often the focus. The injury or illness naturally draws the attention – it is why you are off work; it is why we are calling or sending a card or coming to hold your hand.
It will take its course. A more important thing is the repair of what has not been right, sometimes long before this episode of mortal life. We know this. How common are our shared narratives of forgiveness between children and parents, between partners and spouses, between friends or even mere acquaintances? These are truisms because – surprise – they are what actually happens. Stripped bare of the accumulated artifice of constructed roles and mediated reality – both of which we create – we touch what is real between us. Postponed forgiveness bursts to the surface. Denied absolution emerges unstoppably. Strained tolerance – or even total alienation – melts from our hearts. We find our hands touching, our words softening, our relationships knitted up not in raveling of cares but sinuous in resilience and in stranded, inescapable connection.
We suddenly find we are together in only this place in absolutely this moment – the most profound truth available to human beings. Our deepest longing – to escape the pervasive sense of being sundered from others – is suddenly gratified. Perhaps only a few minutes or days, but possibly a long and treasured memory, this is the revelation that secures our hearts and our spirits without hardening them. It is another miracle – to become stronger and more resilient through the mechanism of greater weakness and vulnerability. Who among us can fail to see revelation here, if we have the courage to name it? Who will refuse to recognize a transcendent reality, if we will accept it?
From the kingdom of the sick then, like the gifts delivered by the Kings of Orient, come these three treasures – healing, enduring, repairing. They are delivered to us if we care to receive them. They come despite our gnarled lives, ignoring our transgressions and evasions, regardless of our worldly accomplishment or lack of it. They come to us because we too are divine. Somewhere within us is that inherent dignity and worth, that all encompassing grace. They come because we are always sick, but never undeserving.
May the moment always arrive when they come to you.
Amen. Blessed Be. Shalom.