Maybe rash isn't the right word, but it is perhaps the right image. Very frequently in the last couple of weeks, I find myself saying that I will keep people who are near and dear to my heart in my prayers because of medical issues. I am honored and blessed to know them all, and to bear them up in prayer is a joyful burden. It is a burden to see pain and sickness, but these dear people teach me so much in their suffering - about joy, about dignity, about generosity, about self sacrifice, about faith, and about perseverance. Though in most of these lives, their suffering is a private matter, for two in particular, their suffering is a very public matter indeed. It is for this reason alone that I feel that I can share my reflections in this forum. I do so with the utmost respect and humility; I am so utterly touched and humbled by them, and by the obvious light of Christ in them.
There are two elder priests in our community. One is relieved of administrative duties due to ongoing illness, but remains active in ministry and as an advisor to the current pastor. The other is nearing his 93rd birthday, and while officially 'retired', he appears to have misunderstood the meaning of the word. They are very different men, and they are very different priests. Somehow, though, the reality of Mass is more visible when they are struggling physically. At Mass we bear witness to a re-presentation of the sacrifice of Calvary, and enter into that mystery. Eternity breaches time, and we are brought into the Holy of Holies. The priest celebrates the sacrifice in persona Christi - in the person of Christ. To me, a suffering Christ - a slain lamb - is made infinitely more visible in his suffering servant. A loving Christ, who wholly sacrificed himself, is made infinitely more visible in these dear men, who sacrifice themselves, against worldly wisdom, to bring Christ to us in the Eucharist. What blissful agony in their eyes as they raise Him up! Ecce agnus dei, qui tollis peccata mundi! And as their words implore us to behold the Lamb of God, their lives demonstrate Him most eloquently.
It is the same for so many others I am blessed to know. They clearly demonstrate the image of St. Paul. He was given "a thorn in [his] flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment [him]." There are debates about what Paul's "thorn" may have been. A particular sinful habit, a physical ailment...I've even heard it suggested that it was an actual demon. I don't care. Far less important than the literal nature of Paul's "thorn" is the purpose it served. Whether physical, behavioral, or spiritual, St. Paul's "thorn" was an instrument of humility. It helped him keep perspective, reminding him that God's grace was sufficient for him, and that God's strength was made perfect in his (Paul's) weakness. The Vulgate reads "infirmitate" - infirmity. I pray God's healing in the lives of those I love, but I have come to recognize that sometimes, the answer is "no." Sometimes, His purpose demands that we be broken or weak so that He can be visible in us. It is difficult to grasp what eternal meaning lies in temporal suffering, but I believe in my very core that this is true: His Grace is Sufficient. And sometimes, the most impaired bodies house the most unencumbered souls.