Praying With Illness… An Unexpected Journey

Celtic_Cross_Wallpaper_by_dreadpira - resized“You have got to be kidding me!”  This was the first though when several years ago a friend suggested that I might consider praying with my illness.  She didn’t mean praying to get rid of it, or to be miraculously healed… She meant, actually using my illness, my body that I felt was betraying me.  I had a hard time understanding how this trusted friend could suggest such a thing.  She of all people knew the painful journey I had been traveling!  Even she had personal experience with living with chronic disease, so how could she suggest praying with illness?

What I came to realize is that up until this conversation, I had been limiting my prayers to  praying “about” my illness.  My friend’s seemingly absurd suggestion of praying “with” my illness was an invitation to deepen and expand my prayer life, as well as see my illness and my body from a new perspective.  My friend introduced me to a wonderful book, Broken Body, Healing Spirit: Lectio Divina and Living with Illness, by Mary C. Earle; Morehouse Publishing 2003.  I had practiced Lectio Divina for year, and had even led retreats and small groups using this prayer discipline.  I knew that Lectio Divina (Holy/Sacred Reading) could be used not only with Scripture, but with any text.  I had even known some who used this prayer with art work, but I had never considered the possibility of using my body, much less my illness as the sacred text.

One of the gifts that I received through expanding this prayer form to my body was a change of perspective.  I stopped seeing my body as the enemy, and I stopped seeing my identity as being defined by my illness.  Not that praying about one’s illness is inappropriate or somehow wrong, but I had become consumed by the “about” and wanting it to go away – even though I knew that chronic disease was just that… chronic, and  in my case, there was not just one disease process at work, but several – and this was before what I call “the crash of 2009” when my several different disease processes collided into one another, leaving me completely debilitated and ultimately leading to being disabled.  I realized that my friend’s invitation was to discover a new way of living within my body, and to listen to what it and what God might be saying through it.  It was also a reminder that all of our bodies are sacred.

In addition to beginning to practice Lectio Divina in  a new way, Ii found that practicing another prayer form went hand in hand.  The Jesuit prayer of Examen is a way of reviewing one’s day, one’s week, year, life – listening for the places of consolation and desolation, those things that are life-giving or life-draining.  I found myself returning to a delightful little book, Sleeping with Bread: Holding What Gives You Life, by Dennis, Sheila Fabricant, and Matthew Linn; Paulist Press, 1995.  Again, this was an invitation to pray with my illness in a new way, to listen deeper, and to be open to the surprises that might be discovered.

One thing that I have learned over the years, is that when it comes to prayer, it is not about the “end result,” rather about the process and being open to the experiences the path of prayer brings.  It is not about doing it right, but being intentional in our doing.  Both Lectio Divina and The Examen are invitations to experience at a deeper level.  The circumstances of one’s lief may not change, but the perspective does; thus allowing us to embrace life and live it more fully.