Days and nights were marked by the passage of thermometer-bearing, blood-pressure-cuff-carrying, intravenous-poking hospital personnel. Persistent pain made time seem to stand still. Fear of the unknown crept subtly into my heart and head. It invaded my waking moments. I became anxious, worried, concerned. Every idea and concept I had thought, taught, preached, and believed about “living in the now” was being challenged. The precious grace of the present moment faded in the face of my fright. Possibilities, probabilities, questions filled all the spaces where faith had once reigned secure. It was, for me, the worst of times. It was also the best of times.
There I was, awaiting and then enduring unexpected surgery. Beyond that, I was informed that further hospitalization and surgery was in the offing. I was rendered weak when I had been so proudly strong. I was becoming unable to “do for myself” when I had always been able to manage. Dependent on others for my most basic needs, I felt totally out of control. Minute after minute, hour after hour, I was recipient rather than donor, being served, not serving. Even my “thank you’s” were minuscule and whispered in pain.
I lay in my bed unable even to pray, a scary thought. I could not even seem to offer up the experience in solidarity with and empathy for all those whose sufferings far surpassed my own. Even the knowledge that others might need my pain to help them pull through their crises was insufficient to rouse me. All that held my attention was my own terrible vulnerability. All I could summon was the piercing hurt I found so difficult to bear.
Probing questions soon followed. Would I be accepted in my weakness by those who only knew me as the strong one? Would I be loved for who I am, even if I could not do as much as I had done previously? Did I love myself in my incapacity? Did I really love the “me I am” without having that love depend on what I did and could do? Would I have the patience to be, just to be, and know that “being” is good?
So often, so long, so reflectively, had I spoken and written of faith. It was the faith that I witnessed in people whose lives touched my own in myriad ways. Now my turn had come. The words written in the letter of James became hauntingly vibrant:
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (Jas. 2:14–17).
Now it was I who was naked. I was the one robed with fragility, covered only by a hospital gown, vulnerable to the view of all. I was the one denied food and drink, dependent on the nutrients provided by tube and needle. Now I was being asked to practice the faith of receiving, trusting that dependency and vulnerability were open pathways to God, the God whose power is found in painfully passionate response.
I saw faith in action. As nurses, doctors, aides, loyal friends, loving parishioners cared for me, I was nourished. Laughter fed me, even when it hurt to laugh. Cards, letters, flowers, visits quenched my thirst for inclusion in the life I thought I had lost. I was sustained and encouraged by the loving admonitions to “take each day as it comes.” I witnessed profound love offered to me in a land I could never again claim to be alien and strange. It was, indeed, the best of times in the worst of times.
Although this experience happened years ago, it continues to rise to the surface of my consciousness. Because it was a turning point in my life, I clearly recall even names and dates despite the fact that I find it difficult to remember other occasions. Major surgery, followed by complications that brought me to death’s door, also provided me with a wake-up call. No longer could I consider life a “given.” Instead, I began to appreciate each day as a treasured gift containing surprises I needed to unwrap with reverence.
There was more. Always, there will be more for me to learn of pain and powerlessness. I began to taste a small portion of God’s banquet feast, a table set for all. My own experience made me see more concretely the frequency with which I had judged by human standards and not God’s. I never thought I had, but there it was: I had evaluated my life, and thus the life of others, by the human standard of productivity. There were tasks to be performed perfectly, goals to be set and met with success, work to be done on schedule, no matter what! Strength and control were admired, respected, and accepted as appropriate and virtuous. They are all very good objectives, no question. Yet I had forgotten that the table of God is set in giving, not rebelling. It provides places for those who do not shield themselves from the buffets and spittings of real living.
Only now have I begun to understand the profundity of God’s command to each of us, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). The truth is I had been extremely selective regarding personal denial. I had denied myself only those things, situations, pleasures that I determined to be bearable pain. I had not denied my very self, the strong, proud, healthy self. Too fearful of failure, too scared to be trusting, I skirted that kind of sacrifice.
God knew I possessed, but had not fully used, a different sort of health. God’s view is salubrious, God’s plea is simple! Love yourself. The request is that I love enough to cry out in supplication, to plead and pray to the God who loves me into life. It is a divine communication sent to all peoples everywhere.
God asks me, God asks you, God asks us, to deny our very selves. Self-denial is the cross I must accept. Give up the false “me” I present to the world and be real. Be authentic and know that inauthenticity is sin. Masks are madness. Hang up the effigy I offer the world and let it burn in the Son-shine. Follow in the steps of Jesus. Suffer, stumble, fall, cry out in pain, and know, as never before, that God keeps the little ones safe. Know what it means to be brought low and be saved from myself. Know that we “walk before the Lord in the land of the living” (Ps. 116:9).
Ah, yes, it is indeed the best of times in the worst of times!
Fran Salone-Pelletier holds a master’s degree in theology. She is the author of a trilogy of scriptural meditations, Awakening to God: The Sunday Readings in Our Lives, as well as a religious educator, retreat leader, lecturer, and grandmother of four. She can be reached at email@example.com.