Sanctification Through Sickness
If you have a few children under the age of ten, I’m willing to bet my current predicament will resonate with you. When “hand washing” means running fingertips under water; “keep your hands out of your mouth…and your nose…and your pants” are phrases repeated more often than you care to admit; and “keep your hands to yourself” applies only to fighting and not to smothering your siblings with snotty love; it’s no wonder our homes become petri dishes of every winter germ. Those adorable drippy noses want nothing more than to spread their treasures around and around and around, and this winter has proven especially rough.
For my family, it all started with lice. My daughter’s head had been itching awhile and I finally looked closely enough to spot the creepy critters. And so, the shampooing, nit picking, hot water laundry regimen began. This was while I was eight months pregnant. Then, totally unsympathetic to my aching back and burning varicose veins, my due date came and went. Just after Thanksgiving, we were all hit with a 24-hour stomach bug. Two days after that, I gave birth to my fifth baby. This was the bright light; the endorphins, oxytocin, and accomplishment of birthing a human always make me feel like I could fly for a few days. But the day we returned from the hospital with our newborn, the two-year-old puked all over the playroom, and thus began the “plague.” Throughout December, the children had diarrhea, coughs, ear infections, vomiting, fevers, you-name-it. The newborn baby was admitted to the hospital over Christmas with RSV because he needed oxygen to breathe and eat. My daughter’s GI issues continued for three weeks and we’re still crossing our fingers that it’s really gone for good.
It has been a brutal few months. We’ve reached a new level of exhaustion, worry, and paranoia of public places. I hate seeing them sick. I hate worrying that this time the sickness is more serious. I pray for their full healing and am already longing for spring.
If I look with the eyes of faith, there is a grace here. And God forbid I let a postpartum, stressed-out brain allow His hidden lessons to pass me by! Right in the midst of this mess, He is reaching out to me. He is teaching me some lessons that I’d like to call “Sanctification In Sickness.” (Because who doesn’t like a good alliteration?)
The word longsuffering kept popping into my head when another child would get sick…again. (Thank you to the Holy Spirit, or my guardian angel, or St. Zelie, or whatever holy being placed this word on my heart!) If you’re like me and haven’t heard this word since Confirmation prep, here’s a refresher: longsuffering is the patient endurance during trial. It’s a Fruit of the Spirit that allows one to accept trials without thinking “poor me” or “what did I do to deserve this?!” but instead say with St. Therese, “It is true I suffer a great deal – but do I suffer well? That is the question.” The person who is longsuffering is striving to suffer well.
Initially, I thought that lice would be the big struggle for the year. After hours of combing through my daughter’s hair, the lice were gone, I thought I had learned what God wanted to show me, and I was ready to move on. Basically praying, “Thanks, God, I learned that lesson, now let’s wrap it up and get on with life.” But the hits kept coming.
I’d love it if trials could have a clear beginning and end and we could wrap up God’s lesson with tidy bows then get on with life, but that’s simply not how it works. That’s why meditating on the word longsuffering is so important. The very name implies that most trials don’t have a quick fix. We aren’t called to carry our cross until we’ve had enough, we’re called to carry our cross for as long as God wills it. And we can be sure that when one cross has been lifted from our shoulders, another is waiting to be picked up. The length of our trials is not for us to decide, but we must decide to endure our trials whatever the length.
Responding to the moment
Alone with my baby hooked up to all sorts of wires in a hospital room was not where I intended to spend Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. But I’ve never been more convinced that I was exactly where I was supposed to be. Because during that time, I was the only one who could provide my nursing baby with what he needed, so I knew it must be right where God wanted me.
As a mother of “many” children, I worry that I won’t be able to give each child enough individual, undivided attention. But this Christmas, I was able to focus all my time and attention on my newest child and soak up that quiet time with him. When worry about the other children or wasted time came to my mind, I banished those thoughts and simply responded to the demand of the moment. This brought such peace.
There is something so moving, so pitiful about a sick child. When helping a vomiting child in the middle of the night or bringing peppermint tea to a one who can’t get off the couch, all other plans for that moment go out the window, and there’s nowhere better to be. A parent caring for a sick child or a priest responding to a spiritual crisis innately knows this and it allows them to respond wholly to the task at hand.
Perhaps this is the key to selfless love in both sickness and health – responding docilely to the demand of the moment. Worry about what “should” be done can be forgotten when focusing on the task at hand, whether that task is feeding a baby, or having an in-depth conversation with a spouse, or visiting an elderly grandparent, or writing a thesis, or praying a Holy Hour, or whatever moment God places before us. This attention to the call of the moment allows us to forget ourselves and be fully present to whatever God wants for us then and there.
Accepting the generous love of God
Having a “big” family, I get tempted to worry that we should be able to hold our own without the help of others. I fear we have an obligation to combat the cultural notion that having many children is “irresponsible” by being totally responsible for ourselves. As if asking for help is somehow a sign that we’re doing it wrong. But the lesson that God has resoundingly taught me throughout the “plague” is that His generosity is made manifest in the generosity of others. That instead of responding “we’re okay” when someone offers to help, He wants me to take a humble pill and accept that help.
Despite the draining difficulties of the past few months, I can honestly say that we have been COVERED in God’s grace through the prayers and support given to us by so many. A whole seminary was interceding for me as I gave birth to my son. Meals have been provided for us every other day since he was born. A parishioner we had not previously met gave us a generous check for Christmas simply because he is grateful for our work and witness in the parish. My mom has done more laundry and Clorox’ed more surfaces in my house than I can count. Former youth group members have visited to play with the kids and cheer them up. A friend brought me Christmas dinner in the hospital. A priest friend brought me Christmas Holy Communion. When I realized Mike wouldn’t get Christmas dinner, I texted three people asking whether they could bring him food – thinking I’d just confirm with the first person who responded – instead, three people showed up on Christmas evening with plates for Mike.
That’s how God loves us through adversity. He doesn’t just make sure we get by, He gives an abundance. When we accept his generosity, embodied in the generosity of others, we find that it is overflowing. If you’re like me, you might be tempted to feel embarrassed or inadequate accepting help, but I’m learning that those feelings aren’t from God and should be dismissed. This takes humility, and with it, our response becomes gratitude and amazement for all He provides. And I am finding that accepting the generosity of others only serves to open my heart to generosity in return.
I won’t pretend that I enjoyed the last few months, or that I weathered them with perfect grace. I would rather have had a healthy Christmas season and not seen my children suffer. But I am so grateful that God used this time to reveal a few kernels of truth to me. I pray that I can internalize them and allow them to sanctify me. For all other parents out there struggling through sickness, and anyone undergoing difficulty, I pray He will do the same for you.