There is something about sickness that slows you down, the sleepless nights and the multiple days of recovery time that give you opportunity to think … while breathing in steam from the shower or sitting bundled before a fire staring into the fireplace … for better days ahead.
I recently returned from two weeks in California – first attending the annual meeting of The American Academy of Religion. I had lunch with an editor who works with my current publisher, Wipf and Stock, and then the same day, met with two other colleagues – wonderful meetings all. However, apparently I caught some kind of “bug” perhaps on the plane flying out, which developed into a rather serious bronchial infection. So I pushed through the meeting anyway, rising to the occasion – which also apparently took its toll. Then I spent another few days over Thanksgiving in La Jolla, at a wonderful seaside resort with my youngest son and his family – again all wonderful, except that I had this serious cough that just would not go away. So I came home with it, and am just now – a week later – beginning to mend from whatever virus has laid me low these three weeks!

I go into all of this because there is something about sickness that slows you down, the sleepless nights and the multiple days of recovery time that give you opportunity to think … while breathing in steam from the shower or sitting bundled before a fire staring into the fireplace … for better days ahead. And hoping for any words of wisdom that might help make sense of setbacks, physical or otherwise impinging on one’s ongoing vitality, now depleted with illness.

One of my morning “wisdom” readings this week is the recent issue of Weavings, devoted to the spiritual legacy of Thomas Merton, Trappist monk and inspiration to legions of folks during the latter part of the 20th century and to this day. One of the pieces, written by Johnny Sears, is titled “Merton and the Spirituality of Restlessness.” Not to spend time here on Merton’s biography (all you have to do is go on the Internet and read about this incredible contemplative who bridged Christianity and Buddhism as well as other world religions), Merton was a restless soul toward the end of his life, always looking for the perfect place that might nourish his longing for God. Merton writes: “Paradoxically, I have found peace because I have always been dissatisfied. My moments of depression and despair turn out to be renewals, new beginnings. If I were once to settle down and be satisfied with the surface of life, with its divisions and its cliches, it would be time to call in the undertaker [emphasis added].”

The writer of this piece comments on Merton’s restlessness, but also points out that while restlessness and dissatisfaction with where one is resting –literally and figuratively – is or can be fruitful in searching for new beginnings, it’s not sufficient. One also has to be grounded in some kind of community, some “container or crucible that can hold us as we struggle through the process of transformation.” Otherwise, we can wander aimlessly, dissipating by self-indulgence into frivolity instead of growth. The author concludes with a quote from Parker Palmer, a contemporary spiritual writer, who said, “when we are willing to let go of life as we want it to be and allow the larger reality to live in and through us instead, then in our dying we come alive.”

My forced slowing down has made me realize that acute sickness certainly gives us a slice of life that we didn’t bargain for, generating a dissatisfaction–to say the least–with our current circumstance. But the “container” that has held me is the love and concern of friends near and far, and the hope that sustains me from the faith that is in me. In one of Teilhard de Chardin’s letters he wrote to his cousin he says “what really matters is to fall in with the movements [God] imposes on us, whatever they may be.” And so one can find meaning even so – as Merton did, even in times of depression and dissatisfaction, even in sickness, health, or otherwise, turning those times into renewals in the end. So this is my gift to you–wisdom from convalescence as I make my way up and out of this malaise. And a wish for peace to all in this season of waiting to celebrate again the Incarnation in our lives.