Tag: sickness

Spirituality

Spiritual Junk Food

We are seven days away from an election that has dominated the national consciousness for over a year. An election mired in sexual assault allegations, email security, racism and xenophobia, and even some violence. Not only that, but last week water protectors in North Dakota were violently removed from sacred land facing destruction by the Dakota Access Pipeline. We have continued to witness police brutality against African Americans, the steady stream of Syrian refugees fleeing their homes, and the assault on Mosul. This is just a handful of the messages and stories we are consuming daily, and if I’m being honest, I’m starting to get spiritual gut-rot.

Honestly, it is exhausting to be an informed and concerned citizen. The constant stream of negativity that comes across our Twitter feeds or cable news is simply too much for one person to bear. It feels like we’re being continually pushed down before we’re even able to stand back up. The temptation is to say screw it, walk away, and shut out the world. I have some video games that haven’t been played in ages, maybe I could spend my time trying to kill dragons instead. Sometimes it seems that this tactic might be more productive than trying to engage a world that feels so damn broken.

But, for those of us trying to follow Jesus, this temptation is one that we need to resist. We cannot simply exit the world emotionally without also turning our back on Christ. In July at St. John’s Abbey, our Oblate Retreat was led by Sister Christian Morris. Sister Morris asked us to consider where we could see Christ dying in our midst. This struck me as a very powerful lens through which to see the world, and the seemingly hopeless litany of tragedy and evil that often comes with it. Sister Morris played a video for us that strung together images of Syria, Black Lives Matter protests, gun violence, and other tragic narratives that we have encountered over the last year. As the video ended she reminded us, however, that the story doesn’t end with the cross, but with the empty tomb, asking us to stand in hope of resurrection. It reminded me of Tony Campolo’s famous sermon “It may be Friday now, but Sundays coming…”

Now that’s all well and good, and I do think that this is the challenge and the duty of the Christian; to proclaim resurrection to a world that proclaims death, but sometimes that duty feels just too damn difficult. While the grace of God can swallow whole the horror of this world, sometimes as people, we just get tired. And often we find that our spiritual health works an awful lot like our bodily health. When you get tired and run down, your spiritual immune system weakens, and all that toxic sludge starts to eat away at you. You begin to believe in the hopelessness, even calling it realism. Apathy starts to take the place of empathy, and before you know it, you’ve retreated from the world completely. Often we don’t even realize this has happened until we’re already bogged down in it.

Joan Chittister says it perfectly in her book Wisdom Distilled From the Daily:

“…without prayer, the energy for the rest of life runs down. The fuel runs out. We become our own worst enemies: we call ourselves too tired and too busy to pray when, in reality, we are too tired and too busy not to pray. Eventually the burdens of the day wear us down and we no longer remember why we decided to do what we’re doing…And if I cannot remember why I decided to do this, I cannot figure out how I can go on with it. I am tired and the vision just gets dimmer and dimmer”. **

I think this is where Benedictine spirituality has a lot of wisdom. For Benedict, the monastery is governed by the rhythm of the Work of God, the Liturgy of the Hours. This constant and daily prayer and recitation, along with the monk’s daily tasks, grounds the community in the present moment. It reminds the individual that there is something greater than the fear and negativity one might encounter, and it reminds the community that only together can we challenge the prevailing narrative. This is what Benedict is saying in his introduction, “First of all, every time you begin a good work, you must pray to (God) most earnestly to bring it to perfection” *. By centering ourselves first in the spiritual well-being of our own person, and then in the community, we can begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel, or rather, the light within the darkness of the tunnel. As Chittister said, it reminds us why we are doing what it is we are doing.

I have found this to be true from my own experience. When I begin to feel weakened by the stress of my own life, and overwhelmed by the negativity and tragedy of the world, the first thing that I often neglect is my spiritual practice and the small daily tasks that need to be completed. This often snowballs, and before I know it I’ve binge watched some show on Netflix, the dishes are stacking up, laundry is out of control, and the thought of a time of silence makes me shudder. I completely disengage from the world and from myself. I ignore the news in favor of entertainment, and I neglect silence in favor of distraction. This is spiritual junk food, and as I said before, gut-rot is imminent. I know what it is that I need. I know that I need some good old, organic, free range, spiritual discipline. I need to ground myself in the rhythms of prayer, and the discipline of my daily tasks. This is the practice that plants me firmly in the moment, and rejects the temptation to try and predict the future based solely on the crushing negativity of the world around me. I think this is what hope looks like; a lived life in the face of a world that says life isn’t worth living. As stupid as it might sound, every time I light my candle for prayer, or finish cleaning the dishes, or take the dog for a walk, I feel just a little bit more hopeful. It reminds me that life is good, and re-energizes me to proclaim resurrection in the face of death. Spiritual burnout is inevitable if we are not grounded in the present, in the daily.

For myself, I am rededicating myself to the discipline of daily work and prayer. I intend to spend this week tidying up, domestically and spiritually. I will proclaim resurrection first in my own heart, so that from a place of fullness I can proclaim it to the world. There is so much happening in our world that requires our attention, and the work of our hands. Let’s not neglect our own spiritual, mental, and physical health. Let us act out of a place of wholeness, grounded in the present moment. No more spiritual junk food. It just makes you sick.

 

*Benedict, and Timothy Fry. RB 1980: The Rule of St. Benedict in English.

**Joan Chittister “Wisdom Distilled from the Daily” (Seriously, this is one of the greatest resources our their concerning Benedictine Spirituality)

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Caring for the Sick, Including Ourselves

I woke up this morning to a congested head, a headache, and the chills. I don’t often get sick, but when I do I always feel compelled to just push through it. I don’t have time to get sick. There is simply way too much to accomplish in twenty-four hours, and I am not about to neglect those duties. Of course, I often pay the price for this later, but I never seem to learn well enough to do it differently the next time around.

So, this morning, I forced myself out of bed for Lauds. I could barely keep my head up, but I was determined to start my day the way I wanted to start my day, illness be damned. I made it to the Benedictus before I couldn’t keep my head up any longer. I popped a couple Dayquil and crawled back into bed. As I drifted off into sick sleep, I thought about what being sick in the monastery looks like. What would Benedict have to say about my inability to make it through prayer?

Luckily, Benedict is very explicit in the Rule. Chapter 36 is entitled “The Sick Brothers”, and in it Benedict lays out the care for brothers who are ill, and the overarching theme of this chapter is radical compassion as spiritual practice. Benedict says, “Care for the sick must rank above and before all else, so that they may truly be served as Christ” *. For Benedict, caring for the sick is not only our duty as Christians, but is an opportunity to serve another as we would serve Christ. This compassion for the sick even supersedes some of Benedict’s most rigorous rules. The sick are given their own room, they receive a personal attendant, and they even get to eat meat. It’s as if Benedict throws the book out the window in order to serve the sick brother or sister.

This is where I confess my own shortcomings when it comes to caring for the sick in my own life. As I said before, when I get sick I feel like I cannot take time to recover, I need to power through it and just hope it goes away eventually. This lie I tell myself filters into the way I treat those around me who are sick. My wife often receives the brunt of it. When she feels sick (as she is right now), I find that my first thought is, “Well, get over it”. Not compassionate in the least. It’s hard for me to understand why someone would let sickness stop them from doing the things they need to do. I mean, I certainly wouldn’t. This judgmental and unreasonable response to another person’s need is completely antithetical to the nature of Benedictine spirituality, and of decentness itself. But, if I refuse to care enough about myself to consider my health and recovery, how can I ever expect to care for someone else who needs my care and compassion?

I suspect that I am not alone in feeling like I simply do not have time to get sick. So much of this feeling is wrapped up in my fear of being perceived as weak. As an American man it has been programmed into my mind that sickness equals weakness, and the worst thing an American man can be is weak. So we push through it, neglecting our own self-care at our peril. A survey by the American Academy of Family Physicians found that 36 percent of men only went to the doctor when they were really sick, and psychologists who looked at this survey speculated that societal and cultural sensibilities about what is “manly” may also play a role. “According to one study by researchers at Rutgers, for example, men who strongly endorsed old-school notions of masculinity – the ideal man being a strong, silent type who doesn’t complain about pain – were only half as likely as other men to seek preventive health care” **. Even if we don’t fully endorse this image of what a man is, we’ve picked up enough messages over the course of our lives that remind us to be tough, and to push through the pain. Unfortunately, this masculine myth may help to explain why women tend to outlive men. We’d rather appear tough and capable than take care of our own health needs.

Part of becoming whole selves is the requirement that we care for our own well-being. This is something that is often rejected in our culture of efficiency and productivity. We apply these values even to our health and our relationships. We avoid the necessary maintenance of our bodies and minds so that we will not be perceived as lazy, or unproductive. It’s bad enough that we do it to ourselves, but this poor treatment of our own needs often is transmitted to those around us. This is exactly why I struggle to be compassionate when my wife becomes ill; I’m buying into the myth that sickness equals weakness, and weakness gets in the way of my productivity.

I wonder if this mindset plays a role in the battle for Paid Sick Leave in congress. Many people in this country have to decide between missing work and losing out on a paycheck, or recovering from an illness. It seems like common sense that people should be able to recover and not be put in economic danger, but our cultural value system rejects this notion. Time is money, and time off shouldn’t be rewarded. A New York Times article published last week discussed the Obama Administration’s rule that all federal contract workers will be required to provide paid sick leave to their employees. This piece-meal effort to enforce paid sick leave nationwide is in response to congresses refusal to pass the Healthy Families Act. The article states that “…more than 35 percent of private-sector workers do not have access to paid sick leave” ***. That is a huge number of people who may not be able to recover from an illness, or be able to care for a sick family member, without jeopardizing their economic position. This is not an experience that I know personally, but I cannot imagine the fear that illness might represent to those who cannot afford to recover. I hope that our leaders will do the right thing and mandate paid sick leave nationwide.

To care for the sick is to see a person as worthy of love and compassion. It is to recognize the Beloved in them. Benedict’s admonition to serve the sick as we would serve Christ, reminds us that the love of God in Jesus is to be found in the hands and feet of our brothers and sisters, and our willingness to care for their needs as we would care for our own. This means that we must learn to recognize the Beloved in us, so that we can also learn to care for our own needs. If we cannot see our own worthiness, we will never be able to see it fully in someone else. When we can see our brothers and sisters in this light, we will find that we are willing to throw whatever rules impede our compassion, straight out the window. So, rather than continue to play into the myth of sickness equals weakness, I’m going to get up, take a few more Dayquil, and go get my wife and I some soup. Just like Benedict would do.

*Benedict, and Timothy Fry. RB 1980: The Rule of St. Benedict in English.

**http://www.everydayhealth.com/mens-health/men-and-doctors-understanding-the-disconnect.aspx

***http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/30/business/economy/paid-sick-leave-government-contractors.html