I recently read the book, The Practice of the Presence of God (Brother Lawrence/Alan Vermilye). The Eleventh Letter of Brother Lawrence (pgs. 95-96) got me thinking about my own attitudes toward sickness. Long before Covid 19, Bobby called me a germaphobe. Do I really have a fear of germs? Maybe. I usually go straight to the bathroom to wash my hands when I return home from shopping, (You know – touching carts, hangers, check-out touch screens.) or when I’ve been touching other people; but my fear of germs doesn’t stop me from going out, shaking hands and/or hugging in public. Sometimes I focus too much on wondering if I’m getting sick, or when I know I am, trying to figure out what caused it or what I could have done differently to prevent it. I think things like oh no, my throat feels a little weird or I shouldn’t have stayed up so late the other night.
Here’s the part of Brother Lawrence’s letter that made my eyelids stretch and my mouth hang open: “They see sickness as a pain against nature and not as a favor from God. Seeing it only in that light, they find nothing in it but grief and distress. But those who consider sickness as coming from the hand of God, out of His mercy and the means He uses for their salvation, commonly find sweetness and consolation in it.” (pg. 95) He was talking about worldly people, who don’t suffer “like Christians”, and it sounded like he was talking about me!
So why do I mildly freak out when I get sick or when there are sick symptoms in my home? I don’t think I’m afraid of dying, or of physical pain. I rarely take medication, I’ve had six natural childbirths, and suffered physically through many oddball ailments over the years. I think the real problem is that sickness ruins my plans. I might have to lie on the couch or in bed while the house falls apart and I don’t get anything done. Not what I want to do anyway. If members of my family are sick I may have to drop what I’m doing to perform unpleasant nursing or waitressing tasks, or sit in a doctor’s office. How ungrateful and selfish am I?
Brother Lawrence continues: “I pray that you see that God is often nearer to us and present within us in sickness than in health. Do not rely completely on another physician because He reserves your cure to Himself. Put all your trust in God. You will soon find the effects in your recovery, which we often delay by putting greater faith in medicine than in God. Whatever remedies you use, they will succeed only as far as He permits. When pains come from God, only He can ultimately cure them. He often sends sickness to the body to cure diseases of the soul. Comfort yourself with the Sovereign Physician of both soul and body.” (pgs. 95-96)
In thinking more on this paragraph (for some reason I was straightening my hair after I read this letter) I realized that this has been my experience. I’ve noticed a pattern where I get sick after times of busyness, such as I’ve written about here many times. I’m usually burning the candle at both ends, trying to do too much, not taking care of my body, less aware of God’s Presence, and feeling stressed out or worried. Then, BOOM! I have symptoms of sickness and I initially try to reason things out. Then, I realize I’m powerless. And it’s like God is saying to me, if you’re not going to slow down and take care of yourself, then I’m going to help you. It seems that sickness has a humbling effect. It reminds me that I’m not as strong as I thought I was. It can be comforting to remember that God is in control of everything, and that He is the one who heals me.
Sometimes the healing doesn’t seem to come fast enough. Brother Lawrence addresses this at the beginning of his letter. “I do not pray that you may be delivered from your pains; but I pray earnestly that God gives you strength and patience to bear them as long as He pleases. Comfort yourself with Him who holds you fastened to the cross. He will loose you when He thinks fit. Happy are those who suffer with Him. Accustom yourself to suffer in that manner and seek from Him the strength to endure as much, and as long, as He judges necessary for you.”
How I would love to receive a letter from a friend, encouraging me in this way. This is obviously something that I struggle with, especially when I fall back into my long-practiced habit of self-reliance rather than to completely surrender to God’s will. I need to pray for the grace to trust God in all things. As St. Ignatius states in his First Principle and Foundation: “…we should not prefer health to sickness, riches to poverty, honor to dishonor, a long life to a short one, and likewise in all other matters.” It seems this attitude would bring much peace in this time when people are angry and afraid of even the possibility of being exposed to sickness. Brother Lawrence advises, “Be satisfied with the condition in which God places you.” I think St. Paul would agree.
Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus. 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
This sounds like a prescription for unruffled peace.