The Lord “said to me…
‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in your weakness.’
I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. Therefore, I am content with weaknesses… for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong.” – 2Cor 12:9-10
It’s four o’clock in the morning and I feel prompted to write something. Let’s see where this goes!
In the past several years, I’ve had an ongoing question ruminating within the silence of my heart. How much of myself should I reveal and how much is meant to be between God and me? I fear this morning that perhaps I have held more back than I should. Yet on the other hand, the last thing I want to be guilty of is “spiritual exhibitionism.” It’s a dilemma. If I don’t witness to the powerful work of God in my life then I’m being selfish and ungrateful for His gifts. If I do witness there are many risks involved. One risk is that I may communicate ineffectively and come across as a show off. So please be lenient with me. It’s better to try and fail than not to try at all.
Before we go any further, I need to make very clear that there is nothing dramatic about my journey. No ecstatic visions or visitations from angelic beings. Nothing like that. However, something very real is going on in my life that I never expected or dreamed would happen. I does not feel like something I am doing, but rather something that is happening to me. Yet at the same time, I know that it would not happen to me if I were not to consent to it and then actively ask for it. It is a burning in my heart that arises from time spent with God. Grace. I don’t know how it all works, but I do know it is happening. I don’t believe it is some special gift to me. I believe it’s available to all who seek Him with a sincere heart.
The only way to explain this is first to share a prayer that I find myself constantly repeating. This prayer came to me one day a long time ago while praying in front of the Blessed Sacrament during Eucharistic Adoration:
Source of warmth and deep desire
Burning ever, higher, higher
Your love, O Lord, is like a fire.
Hold me in Thy warm embrace
‘Till the day I see Your face
I cannot live without Your grace.
My heart is NOT all it can be
Lead it, Lord, to victory.
Conquer (my) pride when my heart strays
With Love Divine set it ablaze
A joyful countenance to raise.
Lord, make my heart like unto Thine
Turn this water into wine!
(Last two lines – 3X)
The image I often get during Eucharistic Adoration is that of me walking into the chapel with a heart that looks and feels like it just came out of the freezer. It’s frozen solid. I often have to sit there in adoration a very long time to thaw it. Sometimes I even fall asleep and wake up and it’s not ready yet. I ask the Lord to take my heart into both of His hands and cover it until the warmth of His hands begins to soften the freeze. I stay in the chapel – if possible – until my heart is fully thawed.
But then what often happens is that once it becomes fully functioning again, I want to use the power of my rejuvenated heart to sit there and thank, praise and adore Jesus. It takes such a long time for my heart to thaw that once I do, I feel like I need to seize the moment to “abide in The Vine.” (See Jn 15)
What I just described is the foundation of my prayer life. I spend about 25% of my prayer time praying for specific intentions. Probably another 25% in praise, thanksgiving and adoration. The rest of the time – about 50% of the total – I spend praying for my own conversion, the warming of my cold dark heart. What I have found is that praying for myself actually enhances my other types of prayer.
So what does all this have to do with weakness?
First, let me say that what I’m about to share is NOT intended to elicit pity or compassion. I’m NOT looking for words or gestures of support. I wish to make a point and the only way I know to do that is to use my personal experience. Please do not look at me, look at what I am saying.
If I am to be honest, right now I am living a life of extraordinary (for me) weakness. My voice is so bad I don’t answer the phone anymore. I can also feel it getting harder to breathe. This should all be cleared up for a little while with surgery #14 on Monday, but that’s been a long time coming. My auto-immune disease makes my body hurt. The beginning of it feels like the day after a very intense workout when you haven’t worked out in years. Aches. That flows into a pain that makes my ankles, wrists, and some other joints feel like they’ve been beaten with a baseball bat. They are tender and sore to the touch. It also gives me chronic fatigue that occasionally comes on so with such urgency that I must stop everything and nap immediately. This has led to me sleeping in my car, under my desk and on a park bench. It also brings on a feeling of malaise that flows into a temptation to sadness and depression if ever I let my guard down. Along with this feeling comes a mental fog. I already struggle with a mental fog due to too much chemotherapy in one lifetime, but it gets worse when the auto-immune disease attacks. This is perhaps the greatest struggle.
To treat the worst outbreaks of this disorder, I have to go on high doses of a steroid called prednisone. My particular protocol requires me to take it for 20 days minimum. This drug is both a blessing and curse. 150 minutes after I take it, all the pain begins to leave. Within 24 hours I feel tremendous energy which eventually morphs into agitation. It makes me indescribably hungry. It is hard not to devour every piece of food I see. It also shuts off that mechanism that tells me that I’m full. I literally feel a drive to eat even to the point of puking. At the same time, it makes me retain water so I get bloated. Then the additional calories are sent to three specific places: my belly, the back of my neck and my face. Whenever I am on it, people always tell me how much I’m beginning to look like my dad. Dad has been on prednisone for 30 years. Most people don’t even remember what he looks like when he is NOT on it. Even when I greatly reduce my caloric intake, I develop this oddly disproportionate pouch in my stomach area. The only way to get rid of it is to get off prednisone and then lose weight. My problem is that I can’t seem to get off of it for more than 7 to 10 days at a time. On Wednesday I weighed in at the hospital at my all-time highest weight. This, despite the fact that I am now eating more fruits and vegetables than at any time in my life and I’m walking 10,000 steps per day. (I’ve eaten more broccoli in the past 8 months than the rest of my life combined.) The feeling of being this fat and bloated is depressing.
My mental fog is difficult to explain. It’s like extreme fatigue of the brain. It makes you feel stunned and unable to process thoughts very clearly or quickly. Trying my best to measure its impact on my life without exaggerating, I’d say it makes most tasks take 2 to 3 times longer than they previously took. It also gives me symptoms similar to attention deficit disorder.
One challenge is short-term memory loss. I’ve been tested and my cognitive ability in this area is in the 8th percentile of the population. My doctor confirmed that given my academic and work background, my belief that I formerly was in the 80th to 90th percentile is not unreasonable. I used to read 12-18 books per year. I know this because I keep a list of the books I read. I haven’t added to this list in 8 years. Someday I will write a post about intellectual joy, a concept that is unappreciated or even unfamiliar for many people. But the loss of intellectual joy for this former philosophy professor is one of the greatest sufferings. It’s like living life under perpetually overcast skies. I long for a sunny day when I can truly contemplate truth once again.
Short term memory loss also means that every day I forget a hundred little things. For example, the other morning I was emptying the dishwasher and then sat down at the table. Margy asked me if I was saving the upper half for later or if I had just forgotten. Truth is, I had forgotten that I was emptying the dishwasher at all. A month ago I spent half a day searching the house for expense report receipts that I had been holding in my hands that morning. I found them right where I had left them… six hours earlier.
I once forgot Margy’s name for a full five minutes. It’s not that I didn’t know her, I just couldn’t access the brain file where her name is kept. Think about that for a moment. We’ve been married for 21 years.
I can work on a project for a full day and get it 90% complete, then never complete it because I forget that I was even working on it in the first place. In my electronic files, I have found documents and presentations that I had created and when I discovered them it was like reading someone else’s work because I had no memory of them. (Fortunately, the someone else happens to think and write exactly like I do. Haha!) But this leads to extreme inefficiencies and daily frustrations. I inadvertantly duplicate a lot of work. Or I do some work, forget that I did it, and then find it later when it is no longer helpful. What a waste.
Usually when I go to a meeting or take a phone call I’ll take notes to cope with this condition. The problem is that sometimes the next day I can’t remember what my notes mean. For a while I was unable to add numbers in my head so now I often practice adding numbers while I am taking my daily walks. Another embarrassing result of this short-term memory loss is that I can rarely understand movies anymore because the story is rarely told in a linear way. Any sort of flashback or complication or requirement to hold something in mind while another part of the story is told threatens to lose me completely. I basically need a guide to sit next to me and answer questions if I am to fully understand it.
The bottom line is that my life feels like I am waist deep in a bog of mud while I am trying to run. I just can’t move at anywhere near the pace I formerly moved. I’m slow. It is hard to describe how profoundly frustrating this is for me. I’m a guy who desperately wants to change the world and mentally I can’t even walk across the yard.
And yet, I know that this is all good for me. I speak the truth when I say that I am profoundly grateful for this suffering because of what it has yielded spiritually. It has brought me much closer to accepting all the gifts that God wishes to give me. Without all this, I wouldn’t turn to God like I now do, wouldn’t appreciate His love even to the limited extent that I now do. This alone would make the suffering worth it, yet there is another benefit that doesn’t seem logical. Somehow, I’m not only able to stay employed, but in many ways my work is bearing more fruit than ever. How can a person work with these handicaps and actually produce more? It makes no sense, and yet it’s happening. It’s almost like doors are just magically opening before me. I stand in awe of what is happening. If anything good happens with me in 2018, let it be known that God, not I, is responsible. You heard it here first, folks.
Finally and perhaps most importantly, I have connected in love with Margy and each one of my children in a more profound way. That’s all I’ll say right now, but it’s one of the biggest blessings of my life.
I am convinced that these blessings all flow from the suffering. The suffering makes me turn to Jesus in a more desperate way. It makes me call upon the Holy Spirit not occasionally, but constantly. It makes me thank and praise our Heavenly Father with much more joy. Yes, I am truly grateful for the suffering!
Yesterday was the feast of the conversion of St. Paul so it is fitting to begin and to end with his words.
We even boast of our afflictions, knowing that affliction produces endurance, and endurance, proven character, and proven character, hope, and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. – Rom 5:3-5
AVE CRUX SPES UNICA!
Hail the cross, our only hope!