For several years I’ve been working with an occupational therapist on the question: How could spirituality re-emerge as a vital part of this profession? This entry examines one part of that search: How might chronic illness diminish a person’s spiritual self? (Also implied: How might spirituality help diminish the debilitating circumstances of a chronic illness or disability?)
Some personal questions come to mind: How could moments of deeply practiced spirituality cover continuing pain, incompleteness or medical intervention? Or does the never-ending agony of physical/emotional hurt make it nearly impossible for spirituality to grow and flourish? Can we be spiritually/physically whole when we’re physically/spiritually diminished? Which of these parts of us ultimately trump the other?
As we age, questions like these might increasingly trouble us. Our aches and pains—or ongoing harmful attitudes—might blend together into something resembling a chronic condition: Problems could take longer to run their course; recovery may not occur so reliably; some medical questions may not have easy answers. What seem like cures may bring along unintended consequences. What began as small personality blemishes may morph into scars and scabs that don’t want to heal. Stubborn attitudes—self-hate, despair, self-pity, diminished purpose, anger and shame—may slowly accumulate like a hard shell.
Many of us already live with chronic conditions. We may have run through several courses of treatment and found no relief. We might attach our hope to smaller and smaller remedies —a different doctor, a new antibiotic, a shift in behaviors. It may be harder to hold on to a larger perspective about our purpose or worth. Our minds or bodies may languish as we await—and long for—circumstances that will bring us back to full functionality. We can be left with self-doubt and humility, both nudging us toward a core competency that must surely be part of our spiritual selves.
In these circumstances, the Spirit can bring us deeper into Scripture, prayer and the witness of others. This deeper spiritual self may not have been evident in our previous life circumstances, but emerging chronic conditions now become insistent: Whatever strands of self-idolatry remain woven into our self-image can gradually dissipate. Stripped of total self-reliance, we turn towards God’s power and love, much of it experienced in the love of those around us. What may have seemed contradictory—physical conditions changed by spiritual beliefs—can now seem as real as tests, prescriptions and therapies. We begin to discover how well-being can be experienced in several dimensions.
As our spiritual selves help us manage our physical selves, we can begin to accept futures that may not match our fondest yearnings—but that become full in their own ways. Hope can still burn strongly inside of us. Accepting our own weakness(es) and mortality, we can sift through priorities to find those that are most important, most possible, most helpful. We can stop pretending, and find emotional honesty as a gift that comes from chronic disability. We can learn to accept the love and care that others offer us.
Perhaps you are facing chronic conditions that eat at your spirit. You may have your own collection of heartfelt questions. As you try to find useful answers, keep in mind Eugene Peterson’s descriptive phrases about spirituality: *“Transcendence vaguely intermingled with intimacy…that is both Beyond and Within… and conveys a sense of the life of God.” It’s possible that these words already describe you at your best, and that nothing can separate you from the never-ending love of God.
A good place to start and end….?
* You can read more of Eugene Peterson’s remarkable insights in one of his explorations into spiritual theology, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2005/march/spirituality-for-all-the-wrong-reasons.html